TRENTON — Gov. Phil Murphy on Wednesday signed an executive order that will limit child daycare centers to only children of essential workers.

Until now, Murphy has declined to close daycare centers as he has done with schools and retail businesses because the service is needed to make sure that front-line and emergency workers in hospitals, police departments and the private sector have a place to keep their children while they report to work or duty.

The new order on Wednesday comes as the state’s death total climbed by 18 to reach 62 and the number of positive cases increased by 736 to hit 4,402, with health officials anticipating far more victims that could overwhelm the state's hospitals.

“We are taking this step for this reason: We need all of our front-line workers on the job helping us to get through this emergency,” Murphy said during his daily news briefing. “A lack of child care cannot be a barrier for them or our response. While these workers commit themselves to our New Jersey family we will commit to protecting their families.”

New Jersey also is taking steps to address the reality that many day care centers may not have enough workers or wish to stay open at all.

Areas of the state lacking adequate child care services may see county offices of emergency management identifying public school buildings to reopen in order to provide the emergency service for children up through grade 8, Murphy said.

Daycare centers that wish to remain open will have until Friday, March 27, to certify that will serve only children of essential workers. Those who cannot certify that will have to close by next Wednesday, April 1.

Centers that stay open will have to abide by new health and safety guidelines that will be released by the departments of Health and Children & Families.

Essential workers would include healthcare workers, emergency first responders, social service and other essential government workers as well as retail employees.

Murphy said Tuesday that schools will remain closed indefinitely and the federal Department of Education approved the state’s request to cancel standardized testing this year.

A “stay at home” order remains in effect with all but essential businesses ordered to either close or to allow employees to work from home.

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