New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Tuesday lifted restrictions for outdoor protests and religious events, days after violating his own social distancing guidelines by attending two protests inspired by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
The governor also announced during his daily briefing in Trenton that he is lifting his March 21 stay-at-home order, a largely symbolic move as the state has gradually loosened restrictions since the number of Covid-19 cases peaked in New Jersey in April.
Limits on outdoor gatherings that are not protests or religious services will likely be increased to 250 by June 22, Murphy said, and to 500 by July 3 — just in time for outdoor graduation ceremonies, which can begin July 6. Outdoor recreational businesses, except for amusement parks, water parks and arcades, will also be allowed to reopen.
“Given the growing body of evidence showing the reduced risk of transmission [of coronavirus] outdoors, we believe the appropriate rule prioritizes individuals‘ right to speak and worship freely,” Murphy said.
Effective immediately, the cap on indoor gatherings, which had been limited to 10 people, will increase to 50 people or 25 percent of a venue’s capacity — whichever is smaller. That’s meant mainly to apply to houses of worship, some of which have sued the Murphy administration. Attendees must continue to wear face masks and adhere to social distancing guidelines.
Restaurants and theaters will still remain closed for indoor activities.
“This is not only directed at faith, but the big emphasis here — the big thrust — is faith,” Murphy said.
“While [easing the restrictions] will allow for greater movement and greater flexibility, our number one concern will remain protecting public health,” he said.
Murphy, a progressive Democrat, has faced growing criticism — mainly from Republicans — for condoning and encouraging rallies against police brutality and racism that in some cases have drawn thousands of people to packed streets. He took it a step further by attending two protests over the weekend in Westfield and Hillside, marching shoulder-to-shoulder at the Hillside rally with activists while holding a banner.
Organizers of two much smaller rallies in April to protest Murphy’s coronavirus restrictions were issued citations, while the owner of a tennis center in Randolph said she was issues two summonses for hosting a pro-business rally in her parking lot on May 30.
Murphy said he marched over the weekend because “we have to be consistent” and that the blowback he got for attending the demonstrations did not factor into Tuesday’s announcement.
“We have to recognize this moment in time. This is unlike any moment in our history. We have to acknowledge that. We have to allow folks to get out there rightfully and peacefully,” he said.
Asked about the tennis center’s owner, Murphy said enforcement of his orders has been a local police matter and he has “no insights” into it.
Tuesday’s announcement came as part of a wider loosening of restrictions in the state with the number of cases and deaths from Covid-19 now in a steady decline.
Murphy said New Jersey has seen 375 newly diagnosed coronavirus cases in the last day and 91 more deaths. Since the first known Covid-19 case was reported on March 4, the state has seen 164,796 positive test results and 12,303 deaths.
Some states that eased coronavirus restrictions early on have seen an increase in cases. Murphy said he expects “community flare-ups” going forward, but said he’s confident the state will have the testing capacity to “surround it” and contain it.