In Brief

Murphy’s new mask recommendation unlikely to impact gubernatorial race

By: - July 29, 2021 7:10 am
A pair of masks for sale in a pharmacy

Gov. Phil Murphy is recommending, not but requiring, everyone to wear face masks in some indoor settings. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.)

New masking recommendations issued by Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration are unlikely to have much of an impact on his re-election race, but worsening conditions could necessitate measures with greater political cost.

Murphy and Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli on Wednesday urged residents to don masks in crowded indoor spaces or ones where individuals may not be fully vaccinated.

The governor’s handling of the pandemic is widely expected to be a defining issue in this year’s gubernatorial election, but Wednesday’s movement isn’t likely to have an outsized impact on the contest, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

“His base is on board with this, and in fact they might want him to go a little further depending on where the cases go, and that’s the big question — what direction do the cases go?” he said. “Do we hit a plateau fairly soon or do they keep going up and up?”

Most of the opposition to the new recommendations would likely come from a vocal minority who are already unlikely to back Murphy for a second term, Murray said.

But the rising case counts could hamper the governor if they extend into the fall and push school children back to virtual classrooms. Murphy has said all schools will be open for in-person instruction come September, but he warned that could change if the pandemic worsens.

Democrats have worried privately about that change for months, fearing the harm another year of remote schooling poses to academic achievement, hiring and their electoral prospects.

Still, those concerns are not universal. Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden), whose district is safely Democratic, last week said the state should consider reinstating its mask mandate.

“With COVID-19 cases on the rise among unvaccinated residents, requiring masks in schools would be the most prudent way to protect our children and educators during the upcoming school year,” she said Friday. “If there is no meaningful decrease in infections over the next few weeks, New Jersey must be prepared to reinstate masking requirements in our schools.”

Childcare is gaining strength as an issue across party and ideological lines. Groups like the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, not previously a major advocate for childcare, have embraced it as a means of reinvigorating New Jersey’s economy.

The average number of new cases in the Garden state has more than doubled over the past two weeks, according to data maintained by The New York Times, reaching infection numbers not seen since the tail end of the last surge in early May.

The rate of transmission sits at 1.51, the highest since the early months of the pandemic. Still, New Jersey’s vaccination rates are among the best in the nation, and its case counts remain far below highs reached during surges over the past year and a half.

“Our numbers are a fraction of those in many other states, most of which have significantly lower vaccination rates,” Murphy and Persichilli said in a joint statement. “Should our numbers reach those levels, we reserve the right to take more drastic action, including a statewide mask mandate.”

The “strong recommendation” issued by the governor and health commissioner follows new guidance the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued Tuesday that called on individuals, including those who have completed their vaccine regiment, to mask in some indoor settings.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.