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Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Morris Plains). (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Park closures first issue to draw outcry from array of Republicans

Unclear whether voters believe Murphy overstepped, Murray says

By Nikita Biryukov, April 08 2020 3:31 pm

A growing number of Republicans are calling on Gov. Phil Murphy to reverse course on an executive order that shuttered New Jersey’s state and county parks.

“We recognize the incredibly difficult challenges you face every day as our beloved State battles the COVID-19 crisis.  We have and remain supportive of you and your administration as we go through this trying time together,” Assemblyman Jay Webber said in a letter to Murphy. “Your decision to close our state and county parks, however, is wrong for public health and our state’s residents.”

At least five Republicans with influence at the state level — Webber, Assemblyman Erik Peterson, Assemblyman Parker Space, Republican State Chairman Doug Steinhardt and GOP gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli — have come out against the order, signed Tuesday.

The criticisms, while still relatively muted by pre-pandemic standards, are the first instance of concurrent partisan backlash over Murphy’s response to the crisis.

“Even in a crisis there must be checks & balances & govt can’t operate unrestrained,” Steinhardt said on Twitter. “I encourage @GovMurphy to reconsider his park closures & appeal to the #NJ legislature to convene & act.”

Municipalities can choose to close their parks but are not required to do so under the order.

The governor said he imposed the order because people were congregating in parks without regard for social distancing and past executive actions that banned all gatherings.

Republicans may believe the park closures pose a vulnerability for the governor that other mitigation measures have not, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

“My guess is they see this as a wedge issue,” he said. “Their assumption is this might be the one thing the public says was a step too far. We just don’t know whether that’s true or not.”

Some Republicans have previously criticized portions of Murphy’s coronavirus response, but those criticisms were largely made in isolation.

“We’ve seen a couple of swipes taken for different things,” Murray said. “You have to be very careful because we don’t have any New Jersey-specific polling, but it’s obvious from the national polling that governors from across the country are getting high praise for their efforts to clam down on the spread of the disease.”

The Republicans, he said, likely feel Murphy overstepped in shutting down state parks in a way he did not with past mitigation measures that have faced fire from lone Republicans.

Last month, State Sen. Michael Testa called on the governor to add gun stores to the list of the state’s essential businesses.

Murphy, in accordance with federal guidance, later allowed gun retailers to operate by appointment only.

Then, in late March, Ciattarelli attacked Murphy over a bioethics panel the governor convened to plan for an expected shortage of ventilators, critical care beds and other medical equipment crucial to the state’s COVID-19 response.

GOP responses to the park closures have not been universal in their opposition.

“It is very unfortunate that the state and county parks had to be closed because of the lack of social distancing that has been taking place,” Monmouth County Freeholder Director Thomas Arnone said. “We cannot stress enough that social distancing is the only tool we have to fight COVID-19. We need everyone to do their part to flatten the curve by staying at least six feet away from each other and staying home when feeling sick.”

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