TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Defending New Jersey's outlier to maintain an indoor mask mandate to fight COVID-19, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday also announced the state's schools will be open full-time and in person come the new school year.
The August executive order allowing schools to offer remote and hybrid learning will expire at the end of the current school year, Murphy said, setting up the return of full-time learning in person.
“We are facing a much different world from one year ago,” he said.
The first-term governor, who is seeking reelection this year, also addressed his decision on Friday to continue to require face masks to be worn indoors, despite a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention decision last week allowing fully vaccinated people to largely give up masks inside.
Most residents are still unvaccinated, he said, and since vaccine status is not being checked when people enter supermarkets or hardware stores, for example, it's impossible to tell who has been vaccinated.
"It is unfair to put the burden on business owners and frontline employees to police every patron,” he said.
Putting “more time on the clock" by keeping the mandate longer will allow more residents to get vaccinated, the governor said.
So far, about 44% of New Jersey's population is fully vaccinated, according to the CDC, compared with about 37% of the population nationally.
The CDC said last week that vaccinated people can largely ditch masks in indoor settings.
Neighboring Delaware, New York and Pennsylvania are following the CDC guidance.
Murphy has been under political pressure, particularly from Republicans hoping to defeat him in November's election, to repeal the mask mandate.
He dismissed the criticism, though, and said the decision focused on avoiding more deaths from COVID-19.
Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli pointed to daily deaths still in the double digits and the daily infection rate hovering above lows seen last summer as rationales for continuing the mask mandate.
"I just don’t want to get burned," Murphy said. “If we can save one more life by leaving more time on the clock, it will have been worth it.”
Murphy said that the indoor mask mandate would likely be removed in the “not-so-distant future.”
New Jersey’s coronavirus infections have been falling as vaccinations climb. Nearly 3.9 million residents have been fully vaccinated, with a goal Murphy set of 4.7 million by June 30.
On schools returning, Murphy had said earlier he expected they would be back full-time in person in the fall, but made the decision official on Monday.
Marie Blistan, the head of the state's biggest teacher's union, and an ally of the governor's, said Monday in a statement that teachers will continue to follow scientific and medical guidance to keep students and staff safe and healthy.
Murphy also said that a travel advisory that required quarantining when coming into the state from other states has been lifted as of Monday, though he had said previously that the state didn't have the constitutional authority to enforce the advisory on out-of-state visitors.