Bid to push Murphy to reverse NJ parks closure fails in Assembly
Democrats in the state Assembly brushed back a bid by a Republican colleague to force a vote on a resolution urging Gov. Phil Murphy to reverse his order closing state and county parks due to crowds during the coronavirus pandemic.
Assemblyman Jay Webber, R-Morris, created an online petition opposing the parks’ closures last week, and he said more than 10,000 state residents have signed it.
“The governor is making thousands of decisions a day. We want to support him. But he’s entitled to make a mistake. And on Executive Order No. 118, I think he’s made a mistake. And I’m encouraging him to take a mulligan on that mistake,” Webber said.
Webber tried to make his resolution, AR151, the ‘order of the day’ during Monday’s Assembly voting session, which was conducted remotely. Democrats voted 52-27 to table his motion, which if it had succeeded would have forced it onto the board list for a vote.
Webber said he’s not seeking for the parks to be open without restriction. He said there can be “reasonable limits” such as closing bathrooms and picnic shelters and maintaining social distancing.
“Maybe we ban non-New Jerseyans from using our parks until the crisis is over. Maybe we limit the use of some of our parks. Maybe we ask people to wear masks when they’re going to our state parks,” said Webber “But to ban them altogether seems to me to be an overly broad solution that will make the public health of New Jersey worse. It will not improve the situation.”
Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe said temporarily closing the parks and forests was “a very difficult, but necessary, decision” that noted that the DEP had encouraged public use of the parks for as long as possible.
“Unfortunately, as weather warmed in recent weeks, just as the COVID-19 outbreak was surging, the crowds at our parks became too large for our State Park Police to continue ensuring the social distancing that is so critical in our fight to prevent further spread of the virus,” McCabe said.
McCabe that on the weekend of April 4 and 5, just before Murphy signed the order closing the parks April 7, “state park visitation was at unusually high levels, with large numbers of visitors coming from out of state.”
McCabe said park police issued hundreds of verbal warnings to practice social distancing, dispersed more than 160 gatherings of multiple people, broke up fights over parking spaces in overcrowded lots and even evicted attendees at a wedding.
“This was creating unsafe conditions, for visitors as well as park personnel, in too many places and very likely would have worsened over the holiday weekend,” McCabe said.
Some national parks have closed entirely, and some have closed partially. But Webber said state parks and forests remain open neighboring New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Connecticut.
“And I would submit that the governors of those states don’t care any less for their residents than Gov. Murphy does care for the people of New Jersey,” Webber said. “They just recognize the critical importance of exercise and fresh air to their citizenry.”
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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.