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NJ officials continue working to limit coronavirus spread, reopen businesses

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State officials continued to enact measures this week to aid New Jersey's recovery from the ongoing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. As of today, there have been 152,719 positive cases and 10,985 deaths statewide, according to the New Jersey COVID-19 Information Hub.

On Saturday, Gov. Phil Murphy (D-N.J.) announced chartered boat services, including fishing and watercraft rentals, can resume starting Sunday. He said proper social distancing and sanitation measures must be followed, including a switch to virtual payment methods to reduce person-to-person contact. Passenger and customer logs must also be preserved so officials can conduct contact tracing if needed.

He also said the federal government approved $1.4 billion in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding for NJ Transit. Murphy said NJ Transit will likely need additional funding to make up for the loss in fares and said he will continue working with the federal government to secure additional funding.

The New Jersey Department of Human Services also received $2.8 million in federal funding for the purpose of expanding mental health services such as counseling, he said. Individuals facing mental health challenges can contact the New Jersey MentalHealthCares helpline.

At a press conference on Monday, Murphy announced the signing of an executive order permitting certain outdoor businesses to reopen, including batting cages, golf ranges, shooting and archery ranges, horseback riding, private tennis clubs and community gardens.

Murphy said the state is continuing to focus on reopening businesses while still maintaining social distancing policies.

"We took all of these steps because the data that we have been seeing over the past weeks has signaled that it is becoming safer for us to dip our toes back into the water," he said.

He said the reopening process has been broken into three stages based on the risks associated with reopening. The state is currently in the midst of the first stage, which has focused largely on limited outdoor activities along with curbside retail and resumed elective surgeries. If the data regarding new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, number of tests, contact tracing abilities and public compliance continues to improve, the state can move toward the second and third stages.

The second stage will include expanded retail, outdoor dining, reduced-capacity indoor dining, limited personal care services and the reopening of museums and libraries. The third stage expands dining services and personal care services and allows for limited entertainment, bars and critical in-office work.

The Daily Targum previously reported elective surgical and other invasive procedures were scheduled to resume on May 26. Murphy said at his Tuesday press conference that the Department of Health released official guidance detailing how these procedures can resume safely, Murphy said. The guidance includes how procedures should be prioritized, sanitation standards and how to maintain social distancing.

Murphy also issued an administrative order Tuesday authorizing in-person sales of cars, motorcycles and bicycles.

To help expand testing services, all licensed pharmacists in New Jersey have been authorized by the Division of Consumer Affairs to administer COVID-19 tests, he said. The tests can be given without a prescription and without the requirement that pharmacists must enter an explicit collaborative practice agreement with a physician.

Murphy said there are approximately 18,000 pharmacists in the state and approximately 2,200 pharmacy locations.

"These pharmacies are run by professionals who have a deep well of trust and a strong connection with their broader communities," he said. "These are the places where customers and residents may feel most comfortable to receive a COVID-19 test, in a place they trust from a pharmacist they know."

Murphy said on Tuesday CVS Pharmacy will offer self-swab COVID-19 tests at a minimum of 50 locations statewide by the end of the month. At his press conference on Wednesday, Murphy also announced seven Walmart locations around New Jersey would also be providing self-swab tests by appointment only in partnership with Quest Diagnostics.

The tests will be at drive-up locations outside Walmarts in Garfield, North Bergen, Kearny, Flemington, Burlington, Howell and Mount Laurel. Testing will run from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. on March 26, March 27 and March 29. Beginning in June, testing will be held Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, he said.

State officials also announced New Jerseyans enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will be able to use their benefits for online grocery shopping through Amazon, Walmart, ShopRite and The Fresh Grocer beginning next week to help comply with the stay-at-home order, according to a press release.

At his press conference yesterday, Murphy said federal assistance for the state's veterans homes has been extended through the end of June. The Department of Veterans Affairs will also send 40 additional clinical staff members to New Jersey to help the state's long-term care facilities outside of the veterans homes.

Murphy also said officials are seeking input from business owners and leaders of nonprofit organizations through a statewide survey about the reopening process.

"We know that the impact of COVID-19 has been varied across industry sectors, and while these sectors are represented in the panels we've brought together, nothing beats the input of those living this reality," he said.

Today, Murphy signed an executive order lifting the limit on outdoor gatherings from 10 people to 25 people and allowing for recreational campgrounds to reopen immediately as long as social distancing is practiced. Indoor gatherings are still limited to 10 people.

"If you were looking forward to gathering with your neighbors for a Memorial Day cookout, you may do so, so long as social distancing and personal responsibility remain the order of the day," he said.

Murphy said this executive order is the result of effective social distancing, which he said is represented by two weeks of decreased numbers of patients hospitalized, patients in intensive care units and patients on ventilators statewide. The number of new patients admitted to hospitals has decreased 10 out of the past 14 days.

New Jersey public colleges and universities are also set to receive a total of $68.8 million in CARES Act funding to help address fees incurred during the pandemic, Murphy said. The Targum previously reported Rutgers received $54 million from the CARES Act with $27 million allocated for student aid.

Murphy also addressed financial challenges imposed by COVID-19. Current projections show the state could lose approximately $10 billion from now through June 30, 2021.

State Treasurer Elizabeth Maher Muoio said state officials developed guidelines for budget cuts for the remainder of this fiscal year, which now ends in September, giving them time to have a better understanding of what federal funding will be made available and how the state revenue situation has changed.

Murphy called on federal officials to allocate additional aid for states in order to maintain essential personnel such as police officers, firefighters, healthcare workers and educators among others.

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