In a break with national health authorities, Gov. Phil Murphy on Friday said New Jersey would keep its indoor mask mandate in place for fully vaccinated individuals, likely for weeks.
“I would guess in a matter of weeks we’ll get to the place where we can comfortably say ‘inside, no matter what, you’re ok,’” Murphy said during a press gaggle following a vaccination site visit in East Orange. “But I have to say, as of this moment in time, we are not there yet,”
On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday issued new guidance that said people who have completed their COVID-19 vaccine regiment could safely attend indoor and outdoor gatherings, including crowded events, without wearing a mask.
The move immediately spurred Republican calls for Murphy to loosen New Jersey’s indoor mask mandate, but the governor on Friday said his administration worried about ensuring unvaccinated individuals did not ditch their face coverings.
“If you’re in Shoprite, you’re in a hardware store, we can’t put the burden on the guy or the gal working there to try to be the arbiter of who’s vaccinated and who’s not,” he said.
Though the state continues to edge toward its goal of vaccinating 70% of New Jersey adults, vaccination rates in some of its cities and rural municipalities have lagged significantly.
Though vaccine rates in many suburbs number in the 70s and 80s, just 31% of adults in Newark, New Jersey’s most populous city, were fully inoculated against the virus Friday. In Montague Township, a wooded enclave of about 3,700 at the state’s northwestern tip, 26% of adults had completed their vaccine regiment.
Vaccination rates were similarly low in other Camden, Trenton and other cities, along with a handful of rural townships across the state.
The governor’s response prompted a new wave of Republican criticism, with some charging politics came foremost in Murphy’s mind.
“For a guy who claimed early on that he’d be guided at every step by science, Governor Murphy seems more driven by politics,” said State Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Totowa). “He is quick to crack down, but when the science tells us otherwise, he wants time to think about it.”
Others said his keeping the mask mandate would erode trust among the state’s residents.
“If the CDC says the science supports unmasking today, Governor Murphy cannot claim that maintaining these restrictions serves any legitimate purpose,” said State Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Montville). “Frankly, he’s lost all credibility on the matter.”
Yet others said the governor was letting his own feelings interfere with decision making.
“Governor Murphy’s level of comfort has nothing to do with science and it shouldn’t be used as the measure for maintaining restrictions that impact nine-million New Jerseyans,” State Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-River Vale) said. “According to the CDC, the science doesn’t support waiting weeks, it supports lifting unjustified mandates today.”
Though the governor has spoken favorably about vaccine passports, the state has not adopted any such program, though Senate lawmakers on Thursday advanced a bill that would criminalize counterfeiting vaccination record cards.
Responses to the new CDC guidance from the region’s governors have varied widely. Neighboring New York will keep its indoor mask mandate for weeks, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday, while Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont announced his state’s mask mandate would sunset on May 19.
“We’ve got the chance to drive this into the ground if we can only hold on a few more weeks, that’s where we’re at,” Murphy said.
This article was updated with comment from Pennacchio at 3:58 p.m. It was updated again at 4:11 with comment from Schepisi.