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June 22-28:

Calm Amid the Surge

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-COV-2) is the technical term for the novel coronavirus that causes Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), the disease that has shaken the world. This virus went on a rampage this week, but not here.

In Cape May County, the virus made its first confirmed appearance as Gov. Phil Murphy was closing down the state. No one will ever be certain that the timing of those events made the difference, but the virus gave the county a glancing blow. Now, young adults are starting to be too casual about protections and cases could grow as a result.

The county reported 745 cases, as of June 27, but three out of every four individuals infected recovered sufficiently to be moved off quarantine. One grim reality is that the disease cost the county 63 known deaths and this week, the state attributed four additional county deaths to presumed COVID-19 complications. The threat is not over, but the gradual reopening of many county businesses over the last several weeks has not produced a spike in new cases.

That is certainly not the case nationwide, where the last month saw over three quarters of a million new cases outside of the onetime epicenter of the outbreak - New Jersey and New York. Cases in the other 48 states surged 66% in the last month. In that month, those states recorded more confirmed cases than the cumulative total of all cases in Russia or India. 

Gov. Murphy imposed a largely voluntary quarantine on individuals traveling from nine state hot spots into New Jersey, while simultaneously issuing guidance for the reopening of the state’s 577 public school districts. Murphy also praised the state’s network of testing sites, saying that New Jersey has the most widely available infrastructure for testing and contact tracing in the nation.

Reopenings Gain Momentum

The lurking presence of the virus caused cancellation of some shore traditions. The Wildwood Crest Beach Patrol canceled competitions that have been held for the last 37 years. Many county towns announced they will not hold Independence Day firework displays and concerts.

Yet, business reopenings moved forward meeting with some success. Restaurants are making outdoor dining work, even as they prepare for Murphy’s announced start of capacity limited indoor service July 2. This week, water parks and amusement piers will be allowed to reopen, as will indoor boardwalk arcades.

Initially, Murphy announced indoor dining, at 25% capacity, could resume July 2; however, those plans were postponed indefinitely June 29.  

Crowds are returning to the ocean, eager to break free of the constraints of the past three months and seeking to do so at the shore with its memories of past summers. In Sea Isle City, one unusual indicator of the tourist activity is the sale of beach tags, recently down 40% from comparable 2019 numbers and now almost even with the previous year.

Municipalities tried to do their part in helping the reopenings succeed, with one way being the relaxation of prohibitions against public consumption of alcohol. With restaurants and bars in operation, some communities looked at tightening that easing of the open container rules.

Police Reform

New Jersey is putting itself at the forefront of efforts to reduce bias in policing and to prevent the inappropriate use of force by police officers.

A recent virtual town hall on 21st century policing, featuring Middle Township Police Chief Christopher Leusner and County Prosecutor Jeffrey Sutherland, was followed by Sutherland’s community discussion on policing in Whitesboro. State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal initiated a statewide program of “listening sessions” to get public comment on police use of force policies.

Grewal also announced that the Police Training Commission voted unanimously to support two reform initiatives involving police licensure and changes to police training to “increase the delivery of safe, effective police services to the public.”

A number of local officials, while expressing support for the police reform goals that have been at the heart of weeks of national protest and demonstrations, pointed to existing efforts in parts of the county to engage in community-based policing.

Financial Problems Loom

State and municipal leaders have good reason to be concerned about the remainder of this budget year and the next year, as well. Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve, said that it may take years to recover from the COVID-19 induced recession the nation has entered.

In Trenton, competing plans lay out different scenarios which lead to the same result, significant new borrowing by the state and, most likely, by many municipalities. 

The state is contemplating $5 billion in new bonds to replace revenue lost during the three month lockdown of the economy. Additional loans totaling as much as $9 billion are also authorized in one of the bills recently passed by the state Assembly. A competing approach would allow municipalities to take on their own debt, and do their own revenue-replacement borrowing in the bond markets, in order to take advantage of the fact that many municipalities have better credit ratings than the state.

Either way, debt service may be increasing at state, county and municipal levels in future budgets and new debt will be secured by taxing authority. There is no guarantee taxes will rise, but it certainly must be a concern of state residents.

A webinar held by the New Jersey League of Municipalities featured four state mayors who reported significant losses in municipal revenues. All agreed the problem was too great to be solved through property tax increases alone. As the towns turn to the state, and the state turns to Washington, the only thing clear is the problem will probably be even worse next year.

The budget bill that recently came out of committee in the state Senate balanced a $7.7 billion three month budget by pushing many of the largest expenses – pension payments, aid to schools, aid to municipalities and the like – to Oct. 1, the day after this elongated 2020 budget year mercifully ends Sept. 30. That means that those expenses must be part of the leger that balances 2021.

One of the first of Murphy’s efforts to deal with the potential of large-scale state employee layoffs was one that substituted furloughs and pay freezes for actual layoffs. It was part of an announced deal between the state and the Communication Workers of America, which is drawing fire from Republicans who claim it avoids needed cuts in state expenses.

And…

While all this was happening, unemployment continued to rise, admittedly with the pace of the increase slowing. Murphy announced that the number of individuals who filed claims hit $1.3 million and the total payout of benefits to-date is $8.2 billion. For some, this is a disincentive to work, making the recovery harder. For others, it is the safety lifeline that has made survival possible.

Another impediment for the back-to-work effort is child care, now permitted but with requirements many providers find difficult to meet.

Sea level rise is still with us, the same existential threat it was before the pandemic. Even in the face of COVID-19 uncertainty, island communities are moving ahead on resiliency projects.

ED. NOTE: The Wrap is a new feature from the Herald editorial team that offers our take on the news of the week. Let us know what you think by emailing editor@cmcherald.com.