Parks and golf courses shuttered to slow the spread of COVID-19 will reopen with some restrictions Saturday morning, Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday.
Under the new order, residents will be able to visit some areas of state parks as long as they maintain a safe social distance.
Playgrounds, restrooms, pavilions and other facilities that could draw crowds of people will remain closed, and the parking capacity at the newly-reopened parks will be cut to 50%.
Picnics, team sports and other group activities are still prohibited, and residents are encouraged to wear face masks.
The step Murphy took Wednesday was a tenuous one. While parks will reopen this weekend, the governor explicitly refused to rule out closing them anew if park goers did not abide by public health guidelines.
“We’re going to be looking very, very closely up and down the state this weekend,” Murphy said. “I’m happy at one level that we’re able to take this step, but we will enforce this, and if we don’t like what we see — I hate to say this — I reserve the right to reverse the executive order I’m signing today.”
The governor signed an executive order that directed all state and county parks in New Jersey to close a little more than three weeks ago.
That order prompted an outcry from Republican officials who viewed shutdowns as an executive overstep. The partisan backlash marked the first instance of coordinated Republican resistance to part of Murphy’s coronavirus response.
“Although state and county parks and forests never should have been closed, it is good that the governor has corrected course to re-open them,” said Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Morris Plains), who was among the first to criticize the closures. “The open space of our parks and forests is essential to the physical, mental, and emotional health and well-being of all our residents.”
More recently, Democrats have added their voices to those calling for parks to be reopened.
On Tuesday, Senate President Steve Sweeney and four others in his chamber—two belonging to each party—urged Murphy to lift restrictions on parks, golf courses, beaches and some businesses as the number of COVID-19 cases in the state began to dwindle.
“I appreciate the Governor listening to the bi-partisan legislators and thousands of state residents,” Sweeney said Wednesday. “These are activities that offer recreational opportunities important to residents and signal a reemergence from the shutdown imposed by the COVID crisis.”
Though he penned the new order a day after Sweeney and two other Democrats, State Sens. Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark) and Paul Sarlo (D-Woodridge), voiced their support for lifting park restrictions, Murphy said their entreaties didn’t factor into the Wednesday order.
“Many of you have come my way. Your interventions to me did not matter one little bit, so with all due respect to the all the pressure out there, we couldn’t, frankly, care,” Murphy said. “We made this call based on data, science, fact.”
While state parks will reopen on Saturday, counties will decide when to reopen their facilities.
There’s no word on when the state’s beaches will accept visitors, though Murphy said that timeline may depend on whether park goers pay heed to public health guidelines.
“If folks do what we’re asking them to do, that will have a huge impact on our ability to take other what I call baby steps,” he said.