Gov. Phil Murphy Monday defended his attendance at rallies involving thousands of people -- while the state remains subject to his own stay-at-home executive order, limiting gatherings to 25 -- saying he "can't imagine" what it would be like to punish people for attending demonstrations for racial justice.

The state saw more than 130 rallies over the weekend, sparked by the Minneapolis death of unarmed black man George Floyd under the knee of a white officer. Murphy himself attended demonstrations in Westfield and Hillside. To date, New Jersey 101.5 is unaware of any citations issued for violations of Murphy's stay-at-home order at those demonstrations -- though in past weeks, some organizers were charged for other demonstrations, protesting the stay-at-home order itself.

"I can't imagine what it would like if we said to people 'You have to stay in, you have to ignore systemic racism.' I'm sorry," Murphy said Monday at his daily novel coronavirus update with other state officials.

The letter of Murphy's order requires just that. It continues to bar indoor gatherings, and limits those outside to 25 people. In recent weeks, Murphy has eased restrictions applying to retail, dining and recreation, but they all are subject to limited capacity requirements. Graduation ceremonies, not allowed until next month, will be subject to whatever size limits are then in place for crowds.

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Murphy was asked several times by reporters Monday about the apparent disparity, allowing and even participating in demonstrations over one issue, while urging people to avoid protests over another. Police officials have not, however, broken up any anti-shutdown demonstrations.

Attorney Jim Mermigis, representing clients who've been ticketed for protests they organized, told New Jersey 101.5 Sunday: "Gov. vernor Murphy is engaging in content-based speech restrictions, which is a restriction on the exercise of free speech based upon the subject matter of the speech."

When one reporter asked Murphy if it's "safe to say people have some leniency" when participating in demonstrations for social justice, the governor said he had nothing to add. Another reporter, New Jersey 101.5's David Matthau, told the governor "you're violating your own executive order" and asked: "Doesn't it seem hypocritical when you're asking the state to follow everything else you're saying?"

That's the same point made, albeit with more snark, by Assemblyman Jay Webber in a letter to State Police Colonel Pat Callahan Monday -- who joins Murphy at his daily coronavirus press briefings to report on compliance issues -- reporting "photographic and written evidence on social media indicates that one Philip Dunton Murphy of Middletown openly and brazenly defied Executive Order 148 by purposely, repeatedly, and wantonly associating with others in groups of greater than 25 individuals, and aiding and abetting such behavior."

"The whereabouts of Mr. Murphy are unknown to my office at this time, but I have reason to believe that he will be seated about 15 feet to your right at 2:30 p.m. today at the War Memorial in Trenton." Webber wrote. "I trust you will uphold your public duty to the fair and consistent enforcement of our laws at that time."

Murphy, prodding by Webber to Callahan aside, has not be cited for participating in the rallies.

But, the governor noted Monday, neither have most participants. He stressed it's up to local law enforcement to evaluate circumstances and issue citations for violations, but so far, only organizers of anti-shutdown protests have received summonses.

And Murphy has previously said those objecting to his orders have the right to protest — but that he wishes they'd do so from home.

Callahan also noted the matter is left to local law enforcement. The state Attorney General's office has, however, been in touch with several organizations and businesses over the past few months to advise them of plans they had for activities or openings were in violation of the executive order.

Murphy on Monday said the protests sparked nationwide by Floyd's death seem to be creating a moment that is "literally unique in our nation's history," a real chance to move ahead on issues of race.

"I think it does feel differently, this time. Please, God, it does," he said.

And he told a reporter he wouldn't say his attendance signals the issue at hand is more important that public health -- but that they're both paramount. The governor urged those attending demonstrations to wear face masks, and said everyone he saw at the two he attended did. He said attendees should get tested for the novel coronavirus, and his own test had already been scheduled.

"We cannot let what happened across New Jersey this weekend be undone by an outbreak," Murphy said.

State-collected figures in the past several weeks show a marked dropoff in hospitalizations and ventilator use related to the novel coronavirus. Rates of infection have slowed substantially as well -- factors Murphy has said will allow the state to move forward in its economic and social recovery plan.

Daily deaths related to the virus remain the second-to-third highest in the country.

READ MORE: George Floyd Protest in Toms River

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