Closing NJ Parks Amid Coronavirus Wasn't A Whim: Gov. Murphy

TRENTON, NJ — Despite two days of outcry from residents after ordering all state and county parks to close in the ongoing outbreak of the new coronavirus, Gov. Phil Murphy said the closures were a thought-out decision — and they will stay in place.

“We didn’t just wake up on a whim and decide to close state and county parks,” Murphy said Thursday during his daily news conference. “We did this because of congregations” in the parks.

“This isn’t a life sentence,” he said. “This is not going to last forever.”

New Jersey’s Republican Assembly members have launched a petition urging Murphy to rescind the order he issued Tuesday, saying the restrictions will result in too many people in smaller spaces. But the chorus of complaints has come from all over the state.

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The closures took effect on Wednesday, and have been met with a lot of anger.

“So now I can’t even bike anywhere??!” one resident said in a post on Murphy’s public Facebook page. “God knows that biking on roads in this god-forsaken state is riskier to my health than this stupid virus. Park trails were one of my few safe options.”

Aaron Morrill, a Jersey City business owner, wrote in an op-ed in the Jersey City Times that the closure was misguided. “Restless families and exercisers seeking a break from work will spill over onto the streets — be it on the pedestrian plaza on Newark Avenue, on the Hudson River Waterfront Walkway and along Westside Avenue,” Morrill wrote. “This is a recipe for congestion.”

“We’ve hit a saturation point where residents have almost every single ounce of movement and activity unilaterally restricted,” said 13th District Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth), as he and Monmouth Assembly members Serena DiMaso and Gerry Scharfenberger called on Murphy to rescind it. “We have faith in our residents to keep to the recommendations as well as social distancing guidelines.”

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Murphy addressed the backlash Thursday.

“People have asked, ‘have you thought about the cost benefit of folks being out in the street instead of a park,’ and the answer is we have,” he said.

The decision resulted because so many people had gathered in parks statewide last weekend, and weren’t observing social distancing.

“The evidence from state park police and other observations up and down the state was unequivocally an enormous amount of gathering, in close proximity, of individuals at state parks and county parks,” Murphy said. In addition, there was “an uncomfortably high number of out of state license plates.”

He said having to have park police or state police or even local authorities forced to go in and break up gatherings puts officers in harm’s way. Dozens of officers across the state have had to self-quarantine after being exposed to someone with the coronavirus. That includes four Howell police officers who were exposed during the arrest of a shoplifter on Monday.

In some cases, officers have had to deal with unruly crowds, including in Rumson, where police were cursed at breaking up a crowd that showed up to listen to a resident performing Pink Floyd hits on his front porch.

“We didn’t take this lightly,” Murphy said. “We did it based on the facts as we saw them.”

He acknowledged concerns raised about the safety of people who are out walking or running or biking as they try to cope with the frustrations of cabin fever from nearly three weeks of the stay-at-home order.

“We understood that is a consequence of this action,” Murphy said. “Please be careful.”

“This can’t be either-or; this had to be and-both: We had to shut these parks and we need you to be careful,” he said.

Leaving some parks open in more rural areas wasn’t an option officials felt was realistic because — as happened in Ocean County when the county and towns closed playgrounds, and then shuttered parks — people migrated from one town to another, leading to crowding and more restrictions.

“The entirety of the state of New Jersey will be on your doorstep in your park,” Murphy said.

“I’m hoping as much as anybody that we get through this as fast as possible,” he said. “We will if we flatten that curve.”

The number of positive cases of COVID-19 rose to 51,027 as of Thursday, an 8 percent increase from Wednesday, Murphy said, adding that the state is seeing a slowing in the rate of doubling of cases, a sign that social distancing measures are having an impact. There were 1,700 deaths statewide from the virus as of Thursday. Read more: NJ Coronavirus Updates: Here’s What You Need To Know

“I’m hoping as much as anybody that we get through this as fast as possible,” he said. “We will if we flatten that curve.”

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