TRENTON, NJ - Coronavirus restrictions in place since mid-March continue to be peeled back amid Phase 2 of the state's economic recovery plan, and the state's efforts to combat the disease are proving so successful that New Jersey is one of four states in line to contain it, Governor Phil Murphy announced yesterday.

On a day when personal care services, such as barber shops and hair salons, non-contact organized sports and outdoor pools could re-open their doors to the public, Murphy said restaurants and catering halls could begin to provide indoor dining with certain restrictions and casinos in Atlantic City could reopen their gaming floors at on Thursday, July 2, just in time for the Independence Day holiday weekend. 

Murphy also said the state's horseracing tracks would reopen on July 2  and that these are among "multiple reopening announcements we intend to make this week as we finalize our dates."

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In addition, the governor said effective immediately limits on outdoor gatherings can increase from 100 to 250 persons. There continue to be no limits on outdoor political activities and religious gatherings. Indoor gatherings can increase to 25 percent of the room's capacity or not to exceed 100 persons, up from 50 persons previously.

Restaurants across the state were able to begin service outdoors on June 15. When indoor dining resumes, restaurants must limit the number of patrons to 25 percent of the room's capacity initially, Murphy said, hinting that he is considering relaxing that number in the near future. 

Murphy also said that he intends to make more announcements in the coming days to allow additional relaxations on indoor activities.

Casinos will also have to abide by a 25 percent capacity limit and that complete guidance for reopening will almost certainly include patrons and staff wearing face coverings, practicing social distancing and being screened for fever before entering the gaming rooms. Murphy warned casino operators will strictly enforce these measures. 

"If visitors refuse to comply they will be escorted out.  We won't tolerate any knuckleheads." he said, using one of his regular idioms to describe people who don't follow health and safety guidance.

"We are able to take these steps to begin these late stage announcements because we have stayed true to our overarching principles. First, that public health creates economic health and, second, data determines dates for our restart," Murphy said, noting that the metrics being used to determine when to relax restrictions all continue to trend in the right directions and that they have guided health officials in determining when to announce new dates for re-openings.

The data points to which Murphy refers include the number of new hospitalizations due to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, the number of patients currently being hospitalized for the disease, the number of patients in intensive care units or critical care units, and the number of patients currently on ventilators. 

In addition, state health officials closely track the rate of positive test results and the rate at which an infected person transmits the disease to others. In all cases, numbers and rates are down significantly since their height in early April that Murphy and his administration have further levels of comfort in these recent relaxations.

"Because of the tough choices we made to implement social distancing measures, our requirement to wear face coverings in retail businesses and our strong recommendation to wear them outdoors and around others, we have put our spot positivity (rate) and Rt (rate of transmission) in places wear we can move forward," Murphy said, acknowledging the "enormous amount of frustration" that residents have endured in abiding by these measures. 

The Governor said he was reminded last week by Rutgers University football coach Greg Schiano "that it is the pain of discipline is better where the alternative is the pain of regret."

In cautioning the public to continue to abide by his public health guidance, Murphy also recounted that he watched many videos on social media over the weekend in which he saw bars, beaches and boardwalks at which it appeared that "folks had let their hair down a little too much." 

"We can't do that," he said. "We're taking these steps based on extraordinarily positive data, but we don't want to look like the other states" that are now experiencing a resurgence of new cases following the relaxation of their economic and health restrictions.

Citing a data from a group called "COVID Act Now," a consortium of health care and policy leaders from across the nation including researchers from Stanford University and Georgetown University, the Governor displayed a map of the United States that showed that New Jersey is only one of four states which it considers on track to contain the virus.  New York, Massachusetts and Michigan are the other three states.  "This proves the measures we put in place were the right ones.  Please don't let your hair down too much.  Stay true to this," he added.

Today's announcements complement previous announcements to re-open New Jersey's shuttered economy. 

Last week, in addition to outdoor dining, non-essential retail businesses began letting customers back inside to shop with capacity limits. Next week, shopping malls are scheduled to open their doors to the public again.  Following the July 4th holiday on July 6 summer camps, in-person summer schools can begin holding programs and schools can beging holding outdoor graduation ceremonies.   

All these activities are part of Stage 2 of the state's economic recovery plan. No dates have been set yet for fitness centers, gyms, movie theaters libraries and museums to re-open.

Dates have also not yet been announced to move to Stage 3 at which time bars, among other businesses, will be allowed to reopen. The governor has said that he believes the timeline to move into Stage 3 could be in a matter of weeks, not months. 

In reporting the numbers from the previous night, Murphy said there were 359 new positive cases bringing the state's total to 169,415.  He also reported 27 new deaths bringing the statewide total to 12,895.