N.J. to reopen nonessential stores for curbside pickup, allow construction as coronavirus outbreak slows

The Best Buy in Bridgewater is open for contactless service, where shoppers can walk up to the door and workers will get the product or you can drive up and the product will be put in your car.Ed Murray | NJ Advance Media for

New Jersey will allow nonessential retail businesses to reopen for curbside pickup and nonessential construction to resume, starting Monday morning, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to show signs of slowing in the state, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Wednesday.

The executive order marks the second major move Murphy has made to ease the near-lockdown restrictions he installed over the last two months to combat the virus. He lifted closures on state and county parks, as well as golf courses, late last month.

The decision comes as the state’s economy sputters because of the pandemic, with widespread unemployment and untold revenue losses.

The changes will take effect 6 a.m. Monday.

Murphy’s order also clarifies that drive-in and drive-through events — including drive-in movies and religious services — are permitted in the state, as long as people stay in their cars. That takes effect immediately.

And the governor said he may take more steps in the coming days, including permitting elective surgeries to resume and giving guidance to beaches as Memorial Day nears.

Murphy said these steps are possible because New Jersey, one of the nation’s coronavirus hotspots, has seen its number of new cases, deaths, and hospitalizations drop after weeks of strict social distancing.

“The data we are seeing gives us confidence that we can begin the careful and responsible restart of our economy — to get people back to work, and to begin to set the stage for the steps to come,” he said during his daily coronavirus briefing in Trenton.

MORE: Drive-in movies, religious services in cars permitted under N.J. coronavirus lockdown rules, Murphy says

The move comes a day after officials detailed plans for ramping up testing and contact tracing in New Jersey, which Murphy said is critical to have in place as the state reopens.

Murphy also said curbside service is a logical first step because it allows stores and customers to maintain social distancing as the state continues to deal with deaths, cases, and hospitalizations.

“We are not out of the woods yet,” he said. “When compared to other states, we see that New Jersey still bears a significant burden from COVID-19. So keeping up with social distancing is essential as we move forward.”

At construction sites, workers must wear face coverings, nonessential visitors will be barred, work hours will be staggered, break times will be limited, and proper sanitation is required.

At nonessential retail stores, customers must place curbside orders in advance and won’t be allowed inside.

Dining in at restaurants is still banned, though takeout and delivery is permitted.

Murphy thanked residents for following lockdown so far but stressed gatherings are still banned across the state and people should “still stay at home as much as possible.”

The governor has yet to give a definitive timeline for easing restrictions further, and some lawmakers and business leaders have pushed him to move quicker as the economy suffers.

Murphy said the state is “moving slowly and deliberately” because “any misstep risks further outbreaks.”

“It’s as basic as this: When public health tells us it is safe to remove a restriction, we’ll remove it,” he said. “There is no light switch we can flip. We can only slowly raise the dimmer.”

Nonessential businesses have been closed in New Jersey since March 21, when Murphy ordered residents to stay home. He then ordered nonessential construction to stop April 8.

Eateries have been allowed to offer pickup and delivery service, and essential businesses — such as supermarkets and home improvement stores — have been allowed to stay open with social-distancing restrictions.

Some Republicans praised Murphy, a Democrat, for Wednesday’s steps but said businesses should be allowed to welcome customers inside with similar safety protocols.

“We are at such a critical time where many businesses are seriously in jeopardy of not even being able to reopen, and more delay will certainly be the death knell to so many,” state Sen. Steven Oroho, R-Sussex said.

But asked about those calls, Murphy stressed “we’re still in a stay-at-home mode.”

“This is a step in a positive direction,” the governor said. “I think it’s a responsible one. We just don’t want people congregating.”

CORONAVIRUS RESOURCES: Live map tracker | Newsletter | Homepage

Also Wednesday, the state Senate announced it will hold a remote public hearing Monday at 11 a.m. to get input from healthcare professionals about how to safely reopen the economy.

“Hearing from the medical community first will provide the roadmap for the safe re-opening for other crucial business sectors,” said state Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen.

As of Wednesday, New Jersey — a densely populated state of 9 million people— has reported at least 9,702 total deaths attributed to COVID-19, with at least 140,743 total positive tests, since the outbreak started March 4. Only New York has more cases and deaths among U.S. states.

Officials Wednesday reported 197 new deaths and 1,028 new cases.

But Murphy said positive cases have dropped nearly 90% and COVID-19 deaths have decreased more than one-third from their peak.

New Jersey’s 71 hospitals reported 4,226 patients with confirmed or suspected cases of the coronavirus as of Tuesday night. That’s down 48% from the peak in hospitalizations on April 14 and marks a month of steady declines.

Still, Murphy notes that New Jersey is still dealing with larger ratios of new deaths, cases, and hospitalizations compared to three neighboring states (Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania) and the nation’s two most populated states (California and Texas).

A Rutgers-Eagleton Poll released Tuesday morning found 66% of New Jersey adults believe the state is lifting restrictions at the right pace, while 19% feel it’s happening too quickly and 16% say it’s moving too slowly.

More than 1 million Garden State residents have filed for unemployment since mid-March and many have been waiting for weeks to get paid and struggled to get through the state’s busy phone and online systems.

In addition, New Jersey’s government is missing massive amounts of tax revenue, and Murphy has warned the state faces a “fiscal disaster” within weeks that could lead to historic public-worker layoffs if the federal government doesn’t approve more direct financial aid.

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