Murphy: Indoor dining still too risky, even with COVID stats low
Remember “data determines dates?”
During the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Phil Murphy repeatedly used the mantra when discussing how different segments of the New Jersey economy would get the green light to reopen during the health emergency. Among the key factors: How quickly the virus was spreading, and how many residents were becoming seriously ill or dying.
As the metrics used to monitor the progression of the pandemic — including the infection positivity rate, hospitalizations, and the numbers of patients in ICU and on ventilators — began to drop lower, the Garden State moved from Stage 1 to Stage 2 of it's three-stage reopening plan.
Limited-capacity indoor dining had been scheduled to resume July 2, but then things abruptly changed. Murphy said just days before that target date New Jersey just wasn't ready.
As COVID cases in other states began to spike in late June, reports mounted of Jersey shore bars connected to outdoor restaurants filled to capacity with young people not wearing masks, and the governor put the indoor dining plan on hold.
Ever since then, restaurant owners have been pleading with Murphy to spell out what needs to happen in order to allow them to offer indoor dining at 25% capacity, with strict sanitary protocols in place, as originally planned for July.
During Monday’s COVID-19 update in Trenton, Murphy said new Jersey's estimated rate of transmission has once again dipped below 1.0 — meaning each infected person is spreading the virus to less than one other individual. Stats for hospitalizations, coronavirus deaths, patients in the ICU and on ventilators all continue to trend down or remain low.
But Murphy said indoor dining is simply too risky and dangerous.
“I hope we get there. We’re not there yet. We need to see these numbers consistently sustained down,” he said.
He pointed the rate of transmission had gone up to about 1.41 six days ago, "which means it was going in the wrong direction meaningfully."
Murphy showed off a video clip based on a documented case of a restaurant in South China last January, illustrating how nine indoor diners became infected by the virus from one infected diner sitting under the air conditioning system.
The video showed how the AC system pushed air in the direction of diners sitting at different tables as far as 14 feet away.
Murphy said “the common thread was all of these patrons were seated in a straight line from an air conditioner. Air flow is a constant concern.”
He then said “allowing diners to sit mask-less for an extended period of time in a restaurant where the air conditioning unit could silently spread coronavirus is a risk we cannot take.”
When Murphy was asked if he now believed the pandemic would need to end in order to allow indoor dining at restaurants to resume, he said “I don’t accept that we’re not able to get there in the absence ... of a vaccine or the end of the pandemic.”
However, he did not indicate what specific data he would need to see in order to allow limited capacity indoor dining to begin.
New Jersey currently allows outdoor dining, with social distancing and other safety precautions.
You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com.