Democratic New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy drew praise from state Republicans Wednesday after approving an increase in indoor dining capacity for local restaurants during the coronavirus pandemic, but the role science has played in shaping state guidelines remains a matter of debate.
After months of pressure, New Jersey will allow restaurants, bars, gyms, and casinos to operate at 35% of their indoor capacity beginning on Friday, so long as they adhere to health and safety protocols, and eliminate a rule requiring establishments to close by 10 p.m. ET. The decision was hailed as a victory by critics who have argued that Murphy’s guidelines were arbitrary and harmful to struggling small businesses.
While Murphy cited declining case totals and a downtick in transmission rates in New Jersey in his decision to expand indoor dining capacity, state officials provided few specifics on the data and scientific evidence that factored into the shift. When asked for further comment, the governor’s office pointed to Murphy’s remarks at Wednesday’s press conference.
“I feel confident in signing this order because of the recent trends in our hospitals and our rate of transmission,” Murphy said. “On January 13th, we reported 3,726 confirmed and suspected COVID cases in our hospitals. Today, just three weeks later, we are reporting 2,986 – a decrease of 20 percent.”
Later in the press conference, Murphy was pressed to explain why his office felt the timing was right to increase capacity, given an 11.65% statewide positivity rate as of last Saturday, ongoing COVID-19 patient deaths, and the emergence of coronavirus “variants” that could compromise the efficacy of vaccines. In response, the governor said the “factors we look at are the ones that we’ve been looking at from day one.”
“Even though numbers have gone in the right direction, some of them remain higher than we would like, but rate of transmission is below 1% and it stayed either just below or just above 1% for months,” Murphy noted.
Officials in multiple northeastern states moved to shut down indoor dining entirely as COVID-19 cases surged late last year. While restaurant industry advocates argue relevant contract tracing data suggests dining establishments aren’t a significant source of transmission, current federal guidelines identify indoor dining at restaurants as a “high risk” activity relative to other forms of dining.
In neighboring New York, a statewide contract tracing survey of 46,000 data points released in December showed restaurants and bars were responsible for just 1.43% of COVID-19 cases. By comparison, private social gatherings accounted for nearly 74% of the spread.
The recent emergence of highly transmissible COVID-19 variants in New Jersey and other states added another layer of complication. Stephanie Silvera, an epidemiologist and professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey, said Murphy’s decision was to increase indoor capacity was a “risky move,” given the pandemic’s current state and the available scientific evidence.
“I’m a bit surprised that the governor decided to increase dining capacity right now, at a time when it’s obviously difficult to keep doors and windows open for ventilation, which we know helps to minimize the risks,” Silvera said. “I’m not an economist, and I understand the need to support restaurants and the restaurant industry, but my concern, from a public health perspective, is that this could potentially allow the virus to spread more quickly.”
In his press conference, Murphy noted that New Jersey has identified just 11 known cases of the so-called “UK variant” of COVID-19 to date.
“That’s not to say they’re not going to go up. That’s not to say other variants won’t come but we watch that like a hawk,” Murphy said.
Murphy’s decision was met with praise by New Jersey Republicans. Republican State Sens. Declan O’Scanlon and Anthony Bucco were among those who pressured Murphy to loosen restaurant seating limits ahead of the Super Bowl, typically one of the most lucrative days of the year for the industry.
“I want to thank the Governor for listening to our common-sense arguments that keeping the existing indoor dining restrictions and early 10 p.m. curfew would have driven more people to house parties where they could watch the full game,” Bucco said in a statement. “The old restrictions no longer make sense when you consider the protocols that have been established and the resulting data.”
O’Scanlon also praised the decision. However, the state senator argued Murphy’s office did not go far enough to lift restrictions and referred to the 10% capacity increase as “completely outrageous.”
“Every surrounding state is at 50% at least. We’ve been behind our neighbors in lifting these draconian regulations for months,” O’Scanlon said. “And the delay hasn’t shown any indication that we are doing any better with our rate of transmission; we are simply still economically killing our restaurant and hospitality industry.”