Gov. Philip D. Murphy on Monday sketched out benchmarks New Jersey will have to reach before the coronavirus lockdown can be lifted, even as he warned of a financial “Armageddon” that could leave the state unable to pay its teachers, firefighters and police officers.
The stay-at-home order will remain fully in place until further notice, but the governor said he expected the timeline for reopening to be measured in weeks, not months.
He also said that schools might reopen before the end of June. “There is a chance that we could get back in school,” he said in an interview Monday morning on CNBC.
Hours later, at a media briefing, Mr. Murphy laid out four broad metrics that will be used to determine when and how businesses can begin to reopen.
He said the approach required success on several fronts: a 14-day decline in new coronavirus cases and hospitalization rates; expanded testing; a robust ability to trace people who have had contact with those infected with the virus; and an increased availability of places, such as hotels, where the sick can remain in isolation, free of charge.
“A plan that is needlessly rushed,” he said, “will needlessly fail.”
When pressed on the timing of a phased-in reopening, he was noncommittal, but suggested it could come by Memorial Day, the unofficial start to summer at the Jersey Shore.
“I want to see the shore humming throughout the summer,” he said.
Still, social distancing is likely to be the norm for months to come, including on beaches, he said.
He said a commission whose members would be announced on Tuesday will be responsible for guiding decision-making. The reopening, he cautioned, would not necessarily mirror the slow wave of shutdowns that began in mid-March.
“Don’t expect a LIFO strategy — last in, first out,” he said.
Mr. Murphy, a Democrat, gave few specifics about what sectors of the economy might be first to reopen, but he said his “bias” was toward making decisions that applied statewide, not region by region.
New Jersey has had the second highest number of cases of the coronavirus in the country, behind only New York. As of Monday, at least 6,044 people had died with Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, and more than 111,000 people had tested positive.
Without a larger infusion of federal money, New Jersey’s finances remain bleak, Mr. Murphy said, leaving the state potentially unable to pay public sector workers.
“That’s the sort of Armageddon that we’re looking at,” he said on CNBC.
By last week, a staggering 858,000 residents had filed for unemployment benefits, up from 84,000 for the same time period last year. Many others were still having trouble filing; the system remained bogged down by antiquated technology and extraordinarily high usage.
If schools were to reopen, the governor said there would most likely be rules in place to limit large assemblies and require students and teachers to wear masks.
He said he expected that many decisions would be made in concert with neighboring states, but would not be done in lock-step.
“I don’t think you’ll see us taking in each case identical steps, but I think you’ll see our steps harmonized,” Mr. Murphy said on CNBC.
The governor’s announcement came a day after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo offered a similarly broad blueprint for lifting New York’s lockdown after May 15, when his order shutting down the state is set to expire. Mr. Cuomo said “low-risk” businesses like construction and manufacturing might begin to reopen in parts of the state that were less affected by the virus.
The head of New Jersey’s Republican Party, Douglas J. Steinhardt, criticized the lack of specifics in Mr. Murphy’s announcement, as well as the absence of any mention of the tough choices that may lie ahead, including the need to furlough state workers and cut the budget.
“He offered nothing new,” Mr. Steinhardt said. “It’s the same stuff he’s been talking about: Appoint a commission and go to the federal government and beg for money.”
He also questioned Mr. Murphy’s decision to allow Representative Tom Malinowski, a Democrat running for re-election in a swing district, to speak at the briefing rather than the director of the Department of Labor, which has been besieged by unemployment claims.
“He turned what was supposed to be an information session into a political pitch,” Mr. Steinhardt said.
Federal guidelines released by the White House 10 days ago advised states that they could move into limited reopening after meeting certain criteria, including two weeks of sustained downward trends in documented cases of Covid-19.
In New Jersey, where only residents with fevers and persistent coughs have been able to get tested, that threshold remains a hurdle. The rate of those who have tested positive for the virus has been hovering at about 43 percent, well above the 10 percent recommended by the World Health Organization before quarantine restrictions should be eased.
Mr. Murphy has said that he expected the state’s testing ability to expand greatly in the coming weeks as Rutgers University’s newly approved saliva test becomes more broadly available. The test does not require a nasal swab, making it easier and less dangerous for health care workers to administer.
On Monday, he said he expected the state to be able to double its testing capacity by the end of next month.
In Georgia, close-contact retail businesses like barbers and tattoo parlors were allowed to open on Friday. Areas where large numbers of people congregate, such as movie theaters, were expected to accept customers on Monday, though mayors of large cities like Atlanta and Augusta have resisted Gov. Brian Kemp’s call for reopening.
Michael Egenton, the chief lobbyist for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, said the group was eager to see the state begin to reopen. “Every day a business is closed hurts their bottom line,” he said.
But Mr. Egenton added, “We want to make sure we don’t see a huge spike happen, or another wave, because we pushed too fast, too hard.”