The governor of New Jersey said Monday he won’t allow indoor dining to resume as planned this week, citing states that saw coronavirus cases explode after restaurants and bars reopened.
Phil Murphy, a Democrat, said he is concerned about the viability of the industry but he’s even more concerned about “reigniting a wave and then devastating both those establishments as well as our economy.”
He said the virus spreads more easily indoors, and he can’t afford to let irresponsible patrons kick off another cycle of infection and death in his hard-hit state.
“This is for the greater good, everybody,” he said at a daily news conference.
Mr. Murphy is the latest governor to beat a retreat on reopening plans as cases surge across the Sun Belt and the pandemic shifts from major urbanized areas like New York City and New Jersey to mid-sized cities and rural towns across the country.
At least a dozen states are pausing reopening plans or reimposing restrictions, especially ahead of the July 4 holiday.
Officials in Texas, Florida and California have closed bars again and popular beaches in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach will be closed for the Independence Day weekend.
Leaders say they’re sick of seeing news stories and photographs of people ignoring orders to wear masks and failing to stay a safe distance from others.
“If people are not going to be responsible and protect themselves and others from this pandemic, then the government is forced to step in and restore common sense to save lives,” said Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who ordered the public beaches in his county shut down from July 3 to July 7.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said business owners and officials are studying whether New York City can reopen indoor dining safely as planned on July 6, citing stutter-steps in other states. He said they’ll make a decision by Wednesday.
“We’re not going backwards, we’re going forwards,” the Democrat said. “A lot of these other states have had to go backwards. They started to reopen and they had to stop.”
The crush of coronavirus cases hitting Sun Belt states hasn’t resulted in the widespread death that marked the early weeks of the U.S. outbreak, as cases proliferate among young people and the country develops new treatments.
But that could change, government officials and health experts warn, if the young-and-infected interact with grandparents or other vulnerable groups and Americans don’t tighten up their behavior.
“They bring it home to family, friends, neighbors, whoever — Aunt Suzy who has diabetes — and they will get very sick,” said William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University.
The state-by-state clampdown comes as the coronavirus reached a new benchmark on Sunday, topping 500,000 deaths and 10 million infections globally. The U.S. accounts for about a quarter of the total infections and deaths.
The overall death rate from COVID-19 is steadily declining, as young people account for more than half of new infections in southern hotspots. But deaths are “lagging indicator” that shows up a few weeks after new cases are reported, so it’s not clear if good trends will hold or things will worsen.
“I think we have to wait and see because the spread among the young is bound to have some spread among more vulnerable people, and when that happens — and that may take five weeks — we’ll have an increase in deaths again,” Dr. Schaffner said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican whose state of Florida reported over 9,000 cases on Saturday alone, said society must be “laser-focused” on preventing the virus from spreading to those 65 and older.
“This spike should not in and of itself result in a subsequent death rate spike, unless the younger people driving the spike end up infecting people over 65 who represent close to 80% of the deaths,” he said in a series of Monday tweets.
The White House is emphasizing how far the U.S. has come since the depths of the pandemic in March and April, when the virus ripped through places like New York and New Jersey and posed a unique threat to nursing homes.
“We’re encouraged to see that fatalities are coming down,” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said. “What that signals to us is that we’re catching people in the communities.”
She acknowledged regional flare-ups but said the country has identified an array of promising treatments, such as the antiviral drug remdesivir, the steroid dexamethasone and convalescent plasma with antibodies from survivors.
“They are working. Remdesivir, in particular, reduces hospital time by a third,” she said. “These things make us uniquely equipped to handle the increase in cases that we’ve seen.”
The U.S. secured half a million treatment courses of remdesivir in a deal with its maker, Gilead Sciences, that will ensure a supply for American hospitals through September, Health Secretary Alex Azar said Monday.
Governors remain skittish, though. Leaders in Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Texas and Washington have announced they are halting their reopening plans, according to CNN and state websites.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Saturday announced a pause on moving to the fourth phase of reopening in eight counties due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19.
“Phase 4 would mean a return to normal activity and we can’t do that now due to the continued rise in cases across the state,” Mr. Inslee said over the weekend. “We all want to get back to doing all the things we love in Washington during the summer, and fully open our economy, but we aren’t there yet.”
In Idaho, Gov. Brad Little said the state will stay in the final stage of its reopening plan for at least another two weeks since it did not meet the epidemiological and health care criteria to move forward.
Also, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards on Thursday extended the state’s phase two of reopening for another 28 days as new COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations trend upward.
In Maine, Gov. Janet Mills moved last week to postpone reopening indoor bar service since it poses a higher risk of COVID-19 transmission than outdoor service.
The Allegheny County Health Department, which includes Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, will ban on-premise alcohol consumption and order people to wear masks in restaurants, even when seated, except when eating or drinking. The order takes effect Tuesday.
Although officials have hit the pause-button on opening plans or renewed restrictions, they haven’t returned to the sweeping lockdowns that upended the economy and caused millions of Americans to lose their jobs.
That doesn’t mean Americans can get complacent, according to Dr. Schaffner.
“I don’t think there is probably a county in the United States that has not been directly or indirectly affected by COVID. So this virus is now everywhere. It has not gone on a summer vacation,” he said. “And I think we need to — in our personal behaviors now — do our best short of a lockdown to curtail the spread of this virus. This is a marathon, not a sprint.”