Supermarkets and home improvement stores can remain open during the sweeping restrictions that have shut down most New Jersey businesses and barred gatherings during the novel coronavirus outbreak.

You may have noticed, however, some supermarkets are still getting very crowded at certain times.

Some smaller stores are limiting the number of people inside and offering hand sanitizer and cart disinfectant wipe-downs as customers are allowed to enter. Many don't seem to have put any limits in place at all, but are instead promoting social distancing where practical inside their stores.

During his daily COVID-19 update Monday afternoon in Trenton, Gov. Phil Murphy said there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem, so everybody needs to pay attention.

He avoided any prescriptive limits on how many customers could be in a given store, of a given size.

He said he’s advising all essential businesses that are allowed to stay open “to be excessive in their wiping down with the right quality cloth the surfaces around them, exercising extreme hand hygiene.”

“We expect nothing less than not just good hygiene, but social distancing going on inside those locations," Murphy said. "Just because they’re open does not mean it’s a free for all.”

The signal of flexibility for essential businesses — more advice than explicit instructions and limits — comes as Murphy and Attorney General Gurbir Grewal also threatened that businesses operating in defiance of an order to shut down would face criminal penalties. They said the same would happen to those having private gatherings.

The governor had previously limited all gatherings, in essential businesses or at events, to 50 people. An updated order over the weekend directed people not to gather at all.

Murphy said he knows everyone is still trying to adjust to social distancing rules, but it’s crucial to understand “the behavior is mandated, it has to be — that’s everything from probably restricting the amount of people who are physically in the place, and importantly, how far they are from each other.”

He stressed each supermarket must pay attention to the new reality we are now facing.

“They’ve got to aggressively manage the number of people in the building and the amount of distance in particular people have from each other in the building," Murphy said.

The governor said good practices must be in place at essential businesses because “if we extend our enforcement capabilities to every corner of the state, there will still be some corners that we can’t get to.”

Stefanie Shuman, the external communications manager for Stop & Shop in New Jersey, said whenever possible every other register lane is opening to maintain distancing between customers at checkout, signage is being erected to remind shoppers to stay 6 feet apart and sneeze into their elbows, and tape is being put on the floors at each register to help shoppers stay 6 feet apart.

Additionally, she said, plexiglass guards are being installed at the registers inside stores to help prevent germs from being spread between customers and cashiers.

State epidemiologist Dr. Tina Tan said as the number of COVID-19 cases keeps rising it’s important “that there’s also an outbreak of common sense as far as what grocery stores and others might need to implement.”

She said having specific social distance protocols for businesses can help to stop the outbreak of the disease, but “we have to make sure there is also an outbreak of common sense about how to implement that.”

You can contact reporter David Matthau at

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