NJ: Throw a big party, cops will charge you — 934 new COVID-19 cases
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and Attorney General Gurbir Grewal Monday promised a law enforcement crackdown not only on businesses that violate a sweeping state order to close, but on private gatherings that could hasten spread of the novel coronavirus.
The announcement during the governor's daily coronations press conference Monday came as Murphy and Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli announced 934 new confirmed cases in New Jersey, taking the state's total up to 2,844.
It wasn't clear how many of those were from the state's first mass drive-through testing center, opened in Bergen County Friday. Both it and a second center at the PNC Bank Arts Center shut down after just a half-hour Monday, hitting their daily capacity. They expect to test about 2,500 individuals at each center each week, with on-the-spot screening.
Those are in addition to tests done through state and private labs, typically by appointment after a screening by a health care provider. State officials have said they're grappling both with limited manpower and limited protective equipment for healthcare workers, and are pleading with federal authorities to secure more.
It's unclear how many negative tests have been performed, because only some private labs have shared that data with the state. Under an order issued Monday from the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, they'll begin providing daily data and results to state officials.
The officials also said they've counted seven more deaths from the novel coronavirus, bringing the state's confirmed total to 27. Of those, two were in Bergen County — by far, the area that has seen the state's highest concentration of cases. Another one each were in Warren, Somerset, Union, Passaic and Essex counties. Persichilli said there were five men and two women among the newly confirmed deaths, ages 57 to 91. Two had known pre-existing health conditions, and one was associated with a long-term care facility.
Respiratory infections from coronavirus are considered most dangerous for seniors and people with pre-existing conditions or compromised immune systems, but public health authorities are tracking what appear to be higher rates of serious complications among young people in the United States and Europe than previously expected. About 15 to 20 percent of all cases result in hospitalization.
Crackdown on gatherings, price gouging, hate
"There is a special place in Hell for the people who take advantage of this crisis," Murphy said, after Grewal promised criminal charges not only on those who gather in defiance of a state order, but shops involved in price-gouging and individuals or groups who commit hate crimes during the crisis.
Under an order issued over the weekend, Murphy barred most businesses from operating at all, making exceptions for businesses deemed "essential" — including supermarkets, pharmacies, physical and mental healthcare, delivery of goods and construction. Liquor stores can open, day care is still operating and convenience stores can still operate. Malls, salons and gun shops are closed. Restaurants can do take-out and delivery only.
Businesses were ordered to have all their employees work from home, if possible. Public gatherings of any kind are prohibited under the order.
"Violating these orders is a criminal offense in this state, and there are a range of charges available to us to ensure compliance," Grewal said. Those could range from disorderly persons charges to indictable offenses, he said.
But he warned it's not only businesses being watched. Police will go after private parties as well, he said.
“If you and your friends decide to throw a party in your home and you invite 20 of your closest friends, law enforcement officers will have to break that party up and there will be criminal consequences," Murphy said.
He said police chiefs have been told the time for warnings is over.
"If you’re a retail store of an entertainment center and you stay open or if you’re a bar and you keep serving patrons in your establishment, consider this as your final warning," Grewal said.
Lakewood police last week said they'd broken up 17 gatherings, including some weddings, in their community.
"The time for warnings is over," Grewal said Monday
The governor said the restrictions means all planned Easter and Passover get-togethers will have to be put on hold.
“I don’t want to be the Grinch, I don’t know what the equivalent of the Grinch is for Easter or Passover, but we’re going to have to enforce the social distancing stuff that we’re talking about," he said. “We are at war, and you win wars like World War II not because you panic but because you’re aggressive, you’re smart, you’re proactive, you’ve got courage. That’s what we need right now.”
To date, the state Department of Community Affairs has received more than 1,400 complaints of price-gouging, involving more than 900 businesses, he said. While 350 inspections to date have found most were the result of increased prices by manufacturers and vendors, state or local authorities have issued 160 cease and desist orders as well as 350 subpoenas, he said. Among the items for which prices have most typically been jacked up: Masks, sanitizer, food and bottled water.
"I will guarantee you, absolutely guarantee you, that additional fraud cases are going to come," Grewal said.
Complaints can be filed online at njconsumeraffairs.gov.
Grewal also promised a continued crackdown on bias incidents, saying there had only been a "handful" of such reports in New Jersey to date, but "that's a handful too many in this state."
Still, the warnings came as both Murphy and Grewal asked people to apply common sense, and conceded police don't have the manpower to check on every private gathering or even every store that may be in violation. At a reporter's prompting, Murphy declined to lay out hard-and-fast rules for how many people could be in a supermarket or other allowed business, acknowledging restrictions should be different on a large facility than a small one.
"We don't have unlimited resources on good days, and we certainly don't have unlimited resources today," Grewal said.
The restrictions — like similar ones across many states — are likely to open up New Jersey to legal challenges over time. At another reporter's prompting, Grewal acknowledged a lawsuit related to the closure of gun shops. He said the restriction is in line with those from other states.
"None of those contain an exemption for firearms stores ... nor does the federal guidance from (the U.S. Department of_ Homeland Security contain that exemption when it comes to essential and nonessential facilities," Grewal said.
Murphy also reiterated a point Persichilli has made in interviews over the last few days — that the state's restrictions on gatherings and business activity may not reduce New Jersey's total coronavirus infections at all, but only spread them out so that the healthcare system can keep up. He said he's secured support from President Donald Trump for four regional pop-up hospitals to help accommodate an expected rush of cases that, without enough facilities, personnel or protective equipment, could compromise care for both coronavirus and other patients.
"We are clearly going to need these field hospitals," Murphy said.
— With additional reporting by David Matthau
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