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Governor outlines 6-step plan aimed at restarting economy

TRENTON — New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy unveiled a six-point plan Monday to begin reopening the state’s economy even as the coronavirus outbreak persists.

The first-term Democratic governor projected optimism but cautioned the state is not ready to end its stay-at-home order or quit the weekslong social distancing guidelines that have hobbled the economy.

“We will move as quickly as we can, but as safely as we must,” Murphy said.

Murphy also announced Monday at a news conference that the positive cases reached 111,000, with the death toll climbing by 106 people to 6,044.

The six-part plan consists of four steps that must be completed first, the governor said:

• Sustaining downward trends in new COVID-19 cases and other metrics.

• Expanding testing capacity.

• Boosting contact tracing.

• Ensuring safe places for residents with the virus to isolate.

The next two steps, he said, are:

• Restarting the economy “responsibly.”

• Ensuring resiliency.

Murphy didn’t provide a timeline, but said he is seeking trend lines to show decreases over 14 days. He cautioned against using just one day or a “snapshot” in time as a basis for reopening.

The state is also working toward doubling its testing capacity by the end of May, Murphy said.

New Jersey will “merge” its response with the neighboring states, Murphy said. That means sharing information and making decisions based on public health officials’ advice, according to the governor.

Later Monday, Murphy announced he was easing restrictions on some businesses. Pet grooming, day care and boarding services and businesses that sell items necessary for religious services will now be considered essential.

Also, car dealerships can allow customers who have bought a vehicle online to do a test drive before delivery or at the time of pickup, providing social distancing guidelines are followed and the dealership sanitizes the vehicle if the customer doesn’t buy it.

Personal care service providers, such as hair or nail stylists, are prohibited from providing services in their homes or others’ unless they share a family or close personal relationship, according to Monday’s announcement.

In other coronavirus-related developments:

ATLANTIC COUNTY POSITIVES SPIKE

Atlantic County reported its highest one-day total of new COVID-19 cases with the confirmation of 108 positives Monday. The county also reported an additional death, that of an 87-year old Linwood man with pre-existing conditions, according to a statement from the county.

This brings the county’s reported totals to 775 confirmed cases, 30 deaths and 127 residents cleared as recovered.

The spike in daily cases is attributed to the fact that the state is working with Cooper University Hospital to provide testing at 16 long-term care facilities in South Jersey, according to the county.

Monday’s new positives were found among 45 males, ages 7 months to 96, and 63 females, ages 22 to 98.

Sixty-six new cases were found in Hammonton, five each were found in Absecon, Atlantic City, Egg Harbor Township and Pleasantville. Galloway Township and Linwood had four new positives, while Hamilton Township had three. Buena Vista Township, Northfield and Weymouth Township each had two new cases and Brigantine, Buena, Margate, Mullica Township and Somers Point had one each.

DRIVE-THRU TESTING CONTINUES

Atlantic County will continue to provide drive-thru COVID-19 testing on Tuesday and Thursday, by appointment only, for symptomatic county residents with a doctor’s prescription. The testing will be conducted behind the Hamilton Mall in Mays Landing, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

CAPE MAY NUMBERS

The Cape May County Health Department reported two deaths Monday from COVID-19. The county said it now has a total of 302 cases and 20 deaths from the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

“We extend our deepest condolences to the loved ones of these residents,” said Cape May County Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton. “While we have expected more cases, these deaths are another reminder that protection of our community is critical.”

BLUE ANGELS FLYOVER

The Navy Blue Angels and the Air Force Thunderbirds will conduct a series of flyovers of cities starting Tuesday in honor of the nation’s health care workers and first responders. The Pentagon is calling it a show of national solidarity in the face of the pandemic.

The two flight demonstration teams will fly over areas of the country hardest hit by COVID-19, as both joint and individual team flights until mid-May. The first flights will be Tuesday over New York City, Philadelphia and the New Jersey cities of Newark and Trenton.

BY THE NUMBERS

In addition to the new cases and rising death toll, Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli and Murphy said there were 314 newly hospitalized patients, with 480 people discharged from hospitals. There are a total of about 6,400 people in the hospital, Murphy said.

The number of people in intensive care has fallen 9% to about 1,800 compared with last week. The number of people on ventilators also sank, by 18% since last week to 1,300.

The state’s four field hospitals, which treat people for noncoronavirus sicknesses, currently have 75 patients, and have treated 346 people overall, Persichilli said.


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Conservation officers donate illegally caught fish to Atlantic City Rescue Mission

Eric Tran and Johnny Nguyen set out in the dark morning hours of March 30 and reeled in 66 striped bass in the waters off Atlantic City.

That night, the city’s homeless feasted on the fish with diced potatoes and mixed vegetables.

The meal got rave reviews, said the Atlantic City Rescue Mission’s Partnership Development Officer Bob Franklin.

“Our CEO who was there said the only thing left were the scales,” Franklin said. “They were extremely delicious and our clients enjoyed it a great deal.”

But charity was not what Tran and Nguyen had in mind when they left the dock that night.

State Division of Fish and Wildlife conservation officers intercepted their boat and confiscated the catch before dusk, officials said.

Tran, 31, and Nguyen, 38, both of Atlantic City, had pulled in undersized fish and went over the catch limit — by a lot.

At the time, the limit for that particular species, in place to reduce overfishing, was one fish between 28 and 43 inches and one over 43 inches.

On April 1, the bag limit switched to one fish between 28 and 38 inches.

Most fishermen take the conservation of striped bass very seriously, said Capt. Jason Snellbaker.

“It’s a prized fish. … They’re beautiful fish, just the way they look,” Snellbaker said. “They’re called striped bass because they have the stripes down the side. These fish get to be 40 and 50 inches.”

Results of a recent stock assessment determined overfishing was taking place, Snellbaker said.

New limits were put in place to curb overfishing and subsequent population decline.

Lt. Chris Petruccelli, Detective Ryan Harp and Officer Cody Meyer were on routine patrol March 30, when they noticed the anglers moving quickly between popular fishing areas in the fog without navigation lights. They met the vessel at a dock and seized their catch after an investigation, Snellbaker said.

The fish were then transported to the Atlantic City Rescue Mission.

Donating fish is relatively common, Snellbaker said, if a load is large or if the fish are well taken care of before being confiscated.

One fish isn’t worth the trip, he said, and fish caught and left to sit out in the steaming heat of midsummer might not be fit for consumption.

“As somebody who’s been doing this for 20 years, … when a fish starts to go bad, it has a distinct smell,” Snellbaker said. “I would never give someone a fish that was not on ice or if it wasn’t at least a cool night.”

Though donations are not rare, this particular catch was dropped off at the Rescue Mission at an opportune time.

Cash donations have stayed stable, Franklin said, but need has increased dramatically. They have gone from feeding about 300 people a day to more than 500 a day since the pandemic began and casinos shut their doors.

The officers brought 62 of the confiscated fish to the shelter, Franklin said. Most were about 25 inches, which would make them roughly seven pounds.

Those fish fed more than 1,000 people, Franklin said.

“The type of donation that the conservation officers made was huge,” he said. “Anything that can help us offset costs at this time and help us to feed the folks and help us with the funds to keep the lights on (is) critically important.”

Tran and Nguyen were charged with having undersized fish and going over the limit for striped fish. Those charges carry a fine of $100 per fish.

They also were charged with unsafe operation of a vessel, operating a power vessel without valid registration and failing to have appropriate vessel safety gear. Their gear was seized as evidence and officers are seeking forfeiture.

They were also hit with charges related to the pandemic, including breaking the law during the governor’s stay-at-home order and failure to follow social distancing, Snellbaker said.

“Two guys in a boat … go and violate the law like this,” Snellbaker said, “and now my officers, in order to process them, have to risk exposure to these guys.”

There is a misconception among some fishermen that conservation officers aren’t on high alert during the pandemic, he said.

“I just want to … let people know that we’re still out there,” Snellbaker said.


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Local leaders working on Jersey Shore reopening plan

Local leaders want Gov. Phil Murphy to take a regional approach to reopening the Jersey Shore soon, in recognition of both the smaller number of cases in South Jersey and the special needs of seasonal businesses here.

At his news conference Monday, Murphy outlined a six-step plan to slowly reopen the entire state, and hinted that it may be possible to have some businesses reopen by Memorial Day — but there are no guarantees.

Atlantic County Freeholder Chairman Frank Formica said county officials in Atlantic and Cape May counties are working together on a regional reopening plan to get shore businesses open sooner. They hope the governor will support it.

“We are trying to bipartisanly put together a plan for opening that makes it clear that South Jersey — especially the Cape Atlantic — is completely different and has to be under completely different criteria than the rest of the state,” Formica said.

The plan will keep in mind safety concerns, he said, but quick action is needed. Formica said he’s spoken to food and beverage distributors who tell him that half of their customers won’t be able to reopen if they don’t do it soon.

“I’m 68 years old — I’m at risk,” Formica said, “but if we don’t have a reasonable plan to reopen the economy, the quality of life will be unrecognizable.”

Longport Mayor Nick Russo said he feels the state is not focusing enough on cases and deaths in nursing home and assisted living facilities, where about 40% of the state’s deaths and about half of the deaths in Atlantic and Cape May counties are occurring.

“I’m frustrated because I have no control of what’s happening in these nursing homes,” Russo said. “The public is being unfairly punished for statistics that we have no control over.”

Russo said the state needs to focus more on controlling the spread at those facilities, and allowing other aspects of life to reopen.

Longport usually has a Memorial Day Parade, which will not happen this year, Russo said.

But the beach will be ready to reopen on time.

At 75 feet to 100 feet wide, he said the beach is big enough for family groups to practice social distancing from other groups.

“I personally want to see us open as a state — do what’s prudent but open as soon as possible,” Russo said. “We already have a high gas tax, the highest property taxes, our sales tax is up with other states. How do we make up the taxes lost? I have no idea. That’s what I wanted to hear the governor talking about.”

The governor could immediately address unfairness in the business closing rules that has harmed smaller retailers, Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said.

Stores that sell even small amounts of groceries have been allowed to stay open, while those that don’t sell food or pharmaceuticals have been forced to close.

“If you had a card shop, you could not open. But you can buy cards at CVS or in the Acme,” Levinson said. “If you are selling furniture like La-Z-Boy or Raymour & Flanigan, you can’t sell. But (people) can buy furniture at Walmart.”

Levinson said he gets dozens of calls a day from business owners complaining about unfairness.

The rules have greatly benefited large national chains like Sam’s Club, Walmart and Target, he said, and disadvantaged small boutiques.

“If you limited them (to a small number of people in the store at a time) and get them open immediately, you don’t need a task force to do this,” Levinson said. “People are going to go into bankruptcy and may never reopen.”

He also believes counties should be able to decide whether or not to open their parks.

“The state allowed the Boardwalk in Atlantic City to be open, but I have a 1,700-acre park in Estell Manor they made me close,” Levinson said. “People could go hiking, birding, riding bikes. There is great room for separation.”

Sea Isle City Mayor Leonard Desiderio said there will be a Memorial Day — it just may have to happen later than usual.

“Whenever we have Memorial Day, if it’s delayed two weeks, one week, that will be our Memorial Day — when we kick off the summer,” Desiderio said. “I think that in a couple of weeks we will have a better understanding of where we are going.”

While he is naturally optimistic, he said there’s a great deal of uneasiness in the shore’s business community, because the COVID-19 pandemic and health crisis is like nothing that has ever happened before.

“When there are storms, we know how to react. If there is damage, we know what we have to do after the storm passes,” he said. “This is something we don’t know anything about. It changes almost on a daily basis.”

Whenever opening happens, the summer will be like no other, Desiderio said, with social distancing changing the way people visit the beach, restaurants and other public places.

GALLERY: Murphy discusses the state's reopening plan