Newark reinstates indoor mask mandate — could rest of NJ be next?
NEWARK — New Jersey's most populous city announced Monday that masks must once again be worn in all public indoor spaces until further notice, with the Delta and Omicron variants of COVID-19 driving a Christmas season surge.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka's executive order went into effect immediately. It requires city residents and visitors to be masked in public buildings, also mandating that bar patrons remain seated and only remove their masks when actively eating or drinking.
Newark's number of positive cases has risen in recent weeks, mirroring a statewide trend. Baraka reported Monday that the city's test positivity rate stood at 11.89% based on a three-day rolling average.
Earlier Monday, New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said the statewide positivity rate was 12.11% as of Dec. 16. The "northern" region of the state, which includes Newark, was measured at 13.04%.
Baraka said more measures could be ordered if the city's positivity rate reaches 15% or higher for more than three consecutive testing periods.
"We are still in the midst of a pandemic and need to take whatever steps are necessary to safeguard and best ensure the health, safety, and welfare of our residents," the mayor said in a statement.
Perth Amboy, which is not as large but has a similar population density to Newark, recently boasted an 88% vaccination rate among its residents, which appears to cover at least one shot given to those 12 and over according to the state's dashboard.
Using those parameters, Newark clocks in at 83%, but has fully vaccinated just 58% of its residents, though has cleared the 70% benchmark for age 12 and up.
Baraka said vaccinations have made a difference in the recent surge. In his Facebook Live announcement, he said the city recorded 4,956 COVID cases over a three-month period from Sept. 17 through last Friday, Dec. 17. Of those, 1,251 — just over 25% — were breakthrough cases.
He also urged school staff and students to be tested before they return to school after the holiday break.
Gov. Phil Murphy lifted a statewide indoor mask mandate as the summer of 2021 began, but as the Delta variant spread in midsummer, the governor followed the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in recommending masks again be worn indoors in public, in areas the CDC defined as having "substantial" or "high" COVID transmission.
Yet Murphy has never formally reissued a mask mandate, and such a move was not discussed during his final press briefing of the year on Monday.
Currently, all 21 New Jersey counties are classified as having high transmission, according to the CDC.
Masks have continually been required in New Jersey school, healthcare, and child care settings, as well as in airports and aboard NJ Transit trains and buses.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.