Governor Phil Murphy toured the Elizabeth Seaport COVID-19 vaccination site on April 6, 2021. (Photo by Edwin J. Torres/Governor’s Office)
To some, Gov. Phil Murphy is a power-grabby politician whose bungled pandemic response nearly cost him re-election and who heartlessly abandoned his post for vacations in Italy and Costa Rica as thousands of New Jerseyans lie sick with the coronavirus.
To others, Murphy is a hero whose quick action in the pandemic’s early days, and vigilance since then, kept the state’s COVID-19 case rate lower than in places like New York and Florida, and helped him become the first incumbent Democrat to win re-election in 44 years.
Politics is never either-or, though, and public health crises are rarely politicized the way the coronavirus pandemic has been.
To mark the two-year anniversary Friday of New Jersey’s first reported coronavirus case, we checked in with experts and political observers around the state for their thoughts on how Murphy and his administration handled the pandemic — and whether lessons learned have left New Jersey standing strong for the next pandemic.
They had plenty of takeaways. But some agreed as COVID-19 evolves from an unprecedented emergency to an everyday, entrenched challenge, it’s unfair to lay all blame or praise on one person.
“When bad things happen, the person in charge is responsible. When good things happen, the person in charge is responsible. But that’s irrational, right? It’s completely irrational,” said Dr. Perry N. Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health. “(Murphy) was dealing with people not wearing masks, people not getting vaccinated, new variants of the virus. But he’s not controlling that stuff. Much of it is a matter of circumstance. And can you imagine in other hands, how much worse it could have been?”
Staci Berger can, as she recalled the state’s slow recovery from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
“I’m so grateful Chris Christie is not in charge of this response, because I saw that movie and it was not pretty,” said Berger, president of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. “The last two years have been incredibly trying for the residents of our state. I’m cautiously optimistic we’re turning a corner.”
Peter Chen, a senior policy analyst with the New Jersey Policy Perspective, agreed New Jersey “avoided some pretty big pitfalls” in how state leaders handled the pandemic.
“A counter-example is what happened after the Great Recession. There were lots of cutbacks in state government, across-the-board cuts during the Christie administration. And that really slowed the recovery,” Chen said. “Part of what the pandemic has shown is that we need robust state governments, in order to respond to crises — and we are going to see more and more crises. We can’t have a threadbare state government.”
If you ask Murphy, he’s proud to have led “a comprehensive, responsible, and public health-focused response,” a spokesman said.
“Despite New Jersey being among the states hit first and hardest by this pandemic at a time when little was known about this virus, our administration followed the advice of experts, scientists, and doctors in responding and adapting to this historic public health crisis,” spokesman Michael Zhadanovsky said in a statement.
The Murphy administration “built one of the country’s most successful vaccination programs, deploying grants and aid to small businesses across the state, and funding many programs for the benefit of working and middle-class New Jerseyans who were impacted,” Zhadanovsky said. “We will continue to make decisions based on the facts and not on partisan politics as the pandemic turns into an endemic and we move back towards normal.”
New Jersey was among the first states hit by the coronavirus. A physician’s assistant who lived in Fort Lee was diagnosed with the virus on March 4, 2020, three days after he developed symptoms.
Murphy declared a state of emergency five days later and by the end of the month had issued a stay-home order, ordered schools to go virtual and non-essential businesses to close, set curfews, and began regularly issuing COVID reports, restrictions, and precautions as the virus spread to all 21 counties.
Many saw that as the right approach.
“The governor recognized that there will not be an effective economic recovery if there’s no public health recovery first,” Chen said.
Even some on the other side of the political spectrum agreed.
“Initially, the governor took the right actions,” said Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth). “They were extreme actions because we did not know what we were facing, and I think he had support — certainly from me — and the Republicans initially.”
Assemblyman Hal Wirths (R-Sussex), agreed: “I believe the governor did what he believed was right in the beginning, when the science changed every single day.”
Pandemic, part 2
But as the pandemic wore on, enthusiasm for Murphy’s strategies waned.
Deaths spiked, and eventually, New Jersey shot toward the top of the list of states with the highest COVID fatality rates. Nearly 33,000 people have died of coronavirus in the Garden State since the pandemic’s start, state data shows. That’s about 370 deaths per 100,000 people — only Mississippi, Arizona, and Alabama were deadlier for people with COVID. The death rate in Florida, whose governor, Ron DeSantis, was maligned by progressives for his laissez-faire approach to the pandemic, is 330 per 100,000 people.
Nursing homes were especially hit hard, with more than 8,000 nursing home residents and staff dying. Grieving families blamed Murphy’s decision to require nursing homes to take in hospital patients for care, even if they had COVID.
“There was a complete and total failure to respond dynamically to the facts on the ground and our ever-evolving understanding of the science, and that led, unfortunately I think, to deaths in our nursing homes,” O’Scanlon said. “I don’t say that knee-jerk or with political motivations.”
The deaths sparked lawsuits, resulting in a $53 million settlement, and led Murphy to enlist federal “strike teams” to help at nursing homes during the recent spike in cases from the omicron variant of the virus.
Halkitis said it’s important to note New Jersey’s high death toll came, in part, because of things beyond any government official’s control, including the virus’ early arrival here.
“We didn’t have the time to prepare in a way that places like Montana, Colorado, or Florida might have prepared,” he said. “New Jersey is one of the most densely populated states in the country. Higher density affects transmission. In a place like New Jersey or New York City, where people are basically living right on top of each other, it’s very easy to spread disease and it’s very difficult to prevent death in a concentrated area, especially when we don’t know a virus and we don’t have treatments, which we did not have” until almost a year after the outbreak.
To date, nearly 1.9 million people in New Jersey have tested positive for coronavirus since the pandemic started, state data shows. More densely populated areas like Essex, Bergen, Middlesex, and Hudson counties were hardest hit.
Disinformation posed another challenge, with many residents resisting vaccines and masks, which contributed to the virus’ spread, Halkitis added. But people who ignored pandemic precautions had all sorts of reasons for doing so — and that holds lessons for those tasked with public health messaging, he said.
“Diseases are more than just about biomedical phenomena. They are just as much about psychological and social and physical and religious and institutional phenomena. In order to eradicate disease, understanding human behavior is going be critical,” he said. “That’s not something public health entities have done traditionally.”
As case counts waxed and waned, Murphy kept up with near-weekly coronavirus press briefings (which end this week). He also clung to the emergency powers he’d declared at the pandemic’s outset, despite mounting GOP objections.
“If I had one complaint, it was just that he was a one-man band,” Wirths said. “He just did it the way he and his health commissioner thought and had very little regard for democracy or for the legislators, quite frankly, on both sides of the aisle.”
Murphy’s schools strategy sparked further outrage. Virtual schooling and other academic interruptions caused learning losses that left many students a full grade or worse behind. The pandemic also exposed and worsened longstanding inequities in public education, with students of color and those in low-income neighborhoods struggling more.
Murphy mandated masks in school, driving some irritated parents to protest the order as traumatizing and tyrannical. The mandate will end Monday.
“There can be no question that Governor Murphy’s policies regarding schools have done more harm than good to our student population,” said Frank Capone, Middletown’s school board president. “The least at-risk population was subjected to life-altering and stringent procedures. Two years of school closures, mask mandates, lockdowns, restrictions, isolation, and discriminatory policies have consequences.”
Districts have just started to assess the damage, as normalcy returns, Capone said.
At the same time, a whole movement sprang up with the opposite agenda. Parents formed groups like New Jersey Parents for Virtual Choice to lobby for continued remote learning.
Polls as recent as January found most parents support continued masking in schools. The New Jersey School Boards Association last August applauded Murphy for standing firm against mask foes and requiring masking in schools, as districts went into the fall season.
Some districts have decided to continue encouraging or requiring masks in school, despite Murphy lifting his mandate.
Business closures had a devastating effect on New Jersey’s economy.
As aggressive as the Murphy administration was in responding to the health crisis, one observer feels it didn’t move fast enough to contain the economic crisis.
“We applaud the governor for what he did on the medical crisis. We think the economic crisis could have been handled with a higher priority,” said Thomas A. Bracken, president and CEO of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. “The economic crisis was very slow to have attention paid to it, and the state lingered in the economic crisis for a long time without much assistance.”
Federal authorities acted faster and helped bail out the business community through initiatives like the Paycheck Protection Program, which enabled businesses to pay workers through the worst of the pandemic, Bracken said.
Nearly a year after the pandemic started, Murphy signed the New Jersey Economic Recovery Act into law, a sweeping strategy that included millions in funding for small and micro businesses, the redevelopment of environmentally contaminated properties, a food desert relief program, and job creation tax credits.
Bracken applauded such measures but cautioned: “We still have a long way to go. We have been asking for many, many months for more money in the business community to get them up and running faster because, at the end of the day, we need to have a vibrant economy, and we don’t have one yet.”
New Jersey got billions of relief dollars from the feds, but much of it has yet to be distributed, he noted.
“That needs to be deployed to give more assistance for child care, give more assistance to find a solution to the job opening crisis we have, give more assistance to the capital needs of businesses. That money could be used for that, and it’s not,” he said. “The strength of our economy is going to dictate the strength of the state when recovering in all kinds of ways.”
The December unemployment rate stood at 5.1%, ranked No. 40 in the nation.
The economic crisis threatened a housing crisis, with many on the margins unable to pay rent, mortgages, utilities, and more. Affordable housing advocates worried a torrent of evictions would lead to hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans having to pack up and leave their homes.
That crisis was largely averted, said Berger, who graded Murphy’s response to the housing challenges the pandemic created as “an A++.”
Murphy ordered protections for homeowners and tenants that were among the strongest in the nation, and often exceeded federal protections. A moratorium put in place in March 2020 barred landlords from kicking tenants out of their homes (but allowed eviction notices to be filed). Filings sharply dropped from the number of evictions in previous years.
And a chunk of those cases are expected to be dismissed after Murphy signed a law throwing out cases of low- and middle-income residents who missed rent starting in March 2020, as long as they self-certify to their income and that they applied for rental assistance.
Murphy also took a chance on “big ideas,” Berger said, like allowing tenants to use their security deposit to pay rent in the early days of the pandemic and banning utility shutoffs.
A robust rental emergency assistance program that helped hundreds of thousands of people pay off over $250 million in arrearages helped keep people in their homes without worries.
“The main thing we’ve heard is that people weren’t feeling like the rug was being pulled out from under them. His administration put people in the center of solutions, even from the early days,” she said.
She compared the “once-in-a-lifetime disaster” of the COVID-19 pandemic to Hurricane Sandy and how foreclosures were handled under then-Gov. Chris Christie.
“People were treated like criminals for doing nothing wrong but living in their homes during a hurricane,” Berger said. “This was significantly more empathetic — a difference in responsiveness, transparency, sympathy, and care for people at risk of becoming homeless and helping them secure housing.”
The undocumented community
Itzel Hernandez thinks back to when her mom and dad, both undocumented immigrants, lost their jobs in March 2020. The biggest blessing was no one getting sick, she said, because they have no health insurance.
But while other residents were receiving unemployment benefits and stimulus checks to offset the financial impact of COVID, Hernandez’s mom, dad, and the state’s estimated 460,000 undocumented immigrants were excluded from those funds, even those who pay taxes.
It took 18 months of organized rallies, campouts in front of the Statehouse, and a 24-day hunger strike for the Murphy administration to offer undocumented immigrants pandemic relief. Last October, New Jersey launched a $40 million fund for excluded workers. It closed Monday.
“It was a fight, and they took way too long to look our way to see the hurt our community has and continues to have. Forty million was never anywhere near enough. It’s crumbs,” said Hernandez, an organizer with the American Friends Service Committee and a Red Bank resident protected under DACA.
She commended the governor for expanding the fund in its last week, but said that added another layer of confusion when information was hard to come by. More education, more outreach, and more time to allow people to apply would have been a game-changer, she said.
“I think back to the beginning of the pandemic and getting calls from people struggling to secure food, secure housing … some of those folks still haven’t gotten relief, either because they were hesitant or because the money hasn’t come through. It does feel like we’re being forgotten in this recovery,” she said.
As calls mount for the world to return to a sense of normalcy, Chen hopes Murphy and other state leaders embrace some pandemic policies permanently, especially when it comes to helping the state’s most struggling residents.
“The services and supports that were provided during COVID were necessary to start addressing problems that were just unveiled by the pandemic. They weren’t new problems. Poverty is not a new problem. People who are on the verge of being evicted from their homes is not a new problem,” Chen said.
He added: “These are serious societal problems that need societal answers. There’s a real concern of backsliding, of leaving behind the exact same communities that were left behind during the pandemic and who were harmed most as a result of continuous decades of long disinvestment. As people return to business as usual, will they return to neglecting and ignoring these communities?”
He pointed to transformative programs put in place during the Great Depression that became permanent, like Social Security and rural electrification. Pandemic programs that protected marginalized communities similarly could be continued, he added.
“It’s like someone decides it’s not raining anymore, because they’re under an umbrella. But you don’t fold up your umbrella until it’s actually stopped raining,” Chen said. “In this case, it might be raining for a while — not just with COVID, but with these kinds of broader systemic issues like racial inequities and inequities in low- and moderate-income communities.”
An earlier version of the story misstated New Jersey’s unemployment rate in December as 6.3%.
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