Movie theaters and malls in hard-hit Bergen County are planning to close amid the new coronavirus outbreak as officials remind parents that school closures are not a time for children to socialize.

More 350 public school districts have canceled classes at least for a few days or moved their learning online for at least a week.

Gov. Phil Murphy said on Friday it's a matter of "when, and not an if" New Jersey will order all public schools closed. Officials in Bergen, Burlington and Hunterdon counties have already shut all their public schools. The Archdiocese of Newark and the Diocese of Trenton also have closed their Catholic schools.

The purpose of the closures is to encourage social distancing and slow the spread of COVID-19 among students and staff who spend their days in close quarters.

"Social distancing can be very effective but you have to do it properly," said Ocean County Health Coordinator Dan Regyne. "It's not playtime. It doesn't mean that while I'm off from school for two weeks it's like a snow day where you're getting together with friends to go sledding. The weather is nicer but we don't need people going out into the community and going to the mall and bowling alleys and the movie theaters."

Bergen County Executive James Tedesco on Friday ordered public theaters with fixed seating, including movie theaters, to close until further notice and the county zoo will also close until further notice.

The American Dream mega mall in the Meadowlands said it would close through the end of March starting Monday, including its amusement-park attractions. The opening of the mall's 400 retailers and the DreamWorks Water Park have been postponed.

The Liberty Science Center in Jersey City also announced plans to close until the end of March.

The AMC and Regal movie theater chains will cut the maximum capacity in its theaters by 50% to encourage social distancing and would increase cleaning of its facilities, according to a report by Variety.

It's OK for kids to go outside for exercise and fresh air as long as they stay the recommended 6 feet apart from each other, according to Mount Olive schools Superintendent Robert Zywicki.

"It defeats the purpose of us closing schools if parents are going to get together and have play dates with eight kids in a basement playing PlayStation. Or you're going to a movie theater. That undermines the whole point of closing the school," Zywicki said.

"It's a shutdown, meaning that we're limiting contact and gatherings in large areas," Toms River school superintendent David Healy told New Jersey 101.5. The district will be closed from March 16 to 27.

"The operation of the school district will be taking place daily, the administration of all the schools will take place and students will be receiving instruction so that we can preserve the continuity of instruction for the next few weeks," Healy said.

Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com or via Twitter @DanAlexanderNJ

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