BRIDGEWATER, NJ - Bridgewater Township officials are doing their best to make headway against the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and Mayor Matthew Moench and several health officials held a call-in phone session Tuesday night to answer questions from the public, ranging from how to protect oneself from the virus to paying property taxes in this unexpected environment.

Accompanying Moench on the hour-long call, which was moderated by deputy township administrator Wells Winegar, were Christine Madrid, director of health and human services; Kevin Sumner, health officer; Lisa Gulla, disease investigator; Tiffany Neal, health educator; and Bridgewater Police Sgt. Jamie Edwards, township Office of Emergency Management coordinator.

“Thank you to all the residents for joining us this evening,” said Moench.

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He thanked the public for cooperating with COVID-19 directives and guidelines, and for also watching out for their neighbors during this time.

“We know how hard it’s been, and that some days have been better than others,” he said. “We recognize how tough this has been on everybody, and at the end of the day we will come through as a community, and as a state, stronger than when we started.”

He said that there have been a lot of questions from the public since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and he felt the conference call was a good opportunity to reach out to individuals who might not be as technologically savvy.

The first question asked dealt with protective masks, and how residents can make sure to wear something in compliance with state recommendations when masks themselves seem to be in short supply, even homemade versions. Sumner replied that the types of masks recommended for use by medical healthcare providers, such as the N95 model, differ from those intended for the general public.

“They’re items that are the most difficult to get access to,” said Sumner.

He also said the township can provide a link on the municipal website to the Center for Disease Control website.

Moench asked how effective cloth masks are, and Sumner said that such masks serve more to “keep germs to ourselves” so as not to spread the coronavirus.

Neal added that the CDC does not recommend using masks for children who are under the age of 2, as it could cause them to have difficulty breathing.

Another question spoke of “mixed signals,” of residents being asked to stay at home so as not to spread the virus, but then they still need to get out to obtain groceries.

“Non-essential traffic is discouraged,” said Edwards.

He said that while no state curfew has been established, Gov. Phil Murphy is encouraging individuals to stay at home, to increase social distancing and prevent COVID-19 transmission.

Another member of the public asked why Bridgewater’s death rate from the coronavirus so far is almost 10 percent, even though Somerset County‘s infection rate seems to be reasonably lower than places such as New York City.

Gulla said that Bridgewater’s seemingly high number is a snapshot of the community, likely affected by the fact that the township is home to several long-term health care facilities. COVID-19 deaths of those individuals with long-term health issues impact the numbers, including individuals who have remained in hospice care.

Sumner added that the county has started to collect demographic data of individuals diagnosed with COVID-19, although the township is hesitant to put out such information at present.

“It’s relatively early in the course of this illness,” he said.

Moench explained that there is a lot of curiosity about COVID-19 data. He said it is hard to discern trends with such small sample sizes, such as age breakdowns.

Health officials are also loathe to distribute such data, so as not to instill panic or even false confidence.

“We do recognize that some towns are giving out information,” said Moench.

He added that Bridgewater might follow suit, although the current rationale is that data continues to exist in a kind of vacuum, and that sometimes there aren’t readily-available answers. Gulla said staff is being added to accumulate data, while Sumner said there are also privacy issues regarding the release of information.

“Everyone should continue to follow the guidelines,” Moench said.

Those guidelines include remaining at least 6 feet apart from others when out, regardless of one’s age, sex or other characteristics.  He said that people who are especially vulnerable include the elderly and those with health conditions.

One resident inquired about COVID-19 testing sites, that there don’t seem to be any specific to Somerset County, and that Somerset residents have been turned away from places such as Morris and Union counties. Moench said a site will be opening up this week at Raritan Valley Community College, for residents of both Somerset and Hunterdon counties.

Madrid added that the facility at RVCC will be open on April 16 and April 17, and April 20, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and will require both an appointment and a prescription for an individual to be admitted. More information is available on the county website, and it is hoped that local testing will be expanded in the future.

Another resident asked about property tax relief, with so many businesses having been shuttered by the coronavirus, and thus providing no income to their workers. Moench said the state has not changed the May 1 timeline for when property taxes are due, and that, by statute, towns are not able to change it.

The mayor also said that, in working on the municipal budget for this year, the township is looking at a revenue decrease of about $1.8 million due to the effects of COVID-19, including the loss of some $900,000 in hotel revenue.

“If no one’s traveling, we don’t get revenue,” said Moench.

The municipality has also been affected by the ongoing closure of the Bridgewater Commons Mall because of the coronavirus.

“The town doesn’t collect money unless the mall collects money,” said Moench.

He added that the township is trying to adjust for the loss of municipal revenue, and has sent a letter to the state asking to hopefully spread costs out over a five-year period to lessen the impact, and to keep any tax increase as low as possible.

It was asked how the township is coordinating its COVID-19 efforts with the state and other levels of government. Moench said he communicates daily with county officials, including the freeholder director, while also speaking weekly with other townships.

He added that he is in close communication with the superintendent of schools for the Bridgewater-Raritan school district.

Sumner said he coordinates with other health officers, including weekly calls with county and state officials, regarding best practices for dealing with COVID-19.

“It helps to make sure we coordinate as much as possible,” he said.

Edwards said that each municipality has its own OEM department, that there have been calls twice a week with county OEMs since the COVID-19 pandemic has begun and that there is coordination with state and local officials on multiple levels.

“The focus is on making sure long-term care facilities have access to PPE (Personal Protective Equipment),” said Edwards.

Officials were asked about individuals still being able to utilize some Bridgewater parks in spite of COVID-19. Moench said a decision has been made not to lock down the parks completely, as the township has disagreed with the state’s “blanket prohibition” on parks, so long as appropriate social distancing is employed. Basketball courts and other such equipment where people could congregate have been closed off, and individuals who are seen gathering in the parks are being told to break up their groups.

“As long as we can use them, they will stay open for now,” said Moench of the parks.

He added that the notion of keeping them open can be revisited if need be. Madrid asked residents to contact the township if there are any issues with the parks, which are monitored, and that police can be summoned if necessary.

Asked if it is the mayor’s call on when to re-open local businesses, Moench said that following state guidelines is first and foremost, which supersedes local directives on which businesses can be open or not.

“We have no choice but to follow its lead,” said Moench.

He said information will continue to be put out, even after businesses eventually re-open, and guidelines such as utilizing masks or social distancing are relaxed.

“We need to start getting businesses open to some degree,” said Moench, “and do it in a safe manner.”

Asked if the municipal tax office is open, Moench said it is not, but that residents can pay their taxes online, with normal credit card fees waived. There is also a drop box available at town hall, plus a mail-in option.

Regarding the sterilization of masks, and the expected lifespan of the coronavirus on various surfaces, Sumner admitted that the virus is still fairly new.

“It lasts longer (on surfaces) than originally thought,” he said, although most tests are being carried out in a pristine laboratory environment. “It’s pretty easily killed by washing.”

That includes washing cloth masks, as well as hands, but not surgical or health provider masks. Neal said individuals should wash their hands before putting on their masks, and then again before and after removing their masks and discarding them.

Groceries can also be wiped down, according to Sumner.

Concerning helping local businesses, Moench asked those food-service businesses that are allowing carry-out services to inform the township, so it can let others know via social media.

As for other non-essential businesses, he said there is “not much we can do,” although the township can look at possibly extending or waiving fees. Winegar added that a questionnaire for small businesses is available on the town website.

A resident asked about the township’s protocol if a grocery or supermarket has someone test positive for COVID-19, and how that information would be conveyed to the public. Gulla said that generally, if an employee tests positive, a notification is sent out by via township system, and general managers of the company involved are advised of the positive report.

“Our businesses have been really terrific, to protect employees and the public,” said Gulla. “They’re really on the ball.”

Some supermarkets are using physical shields to protect both workers and customers, along with social distancing measures. Those individuals who have potentially been exposed to the virus are being advised to quarantine themselves in their homes for a continuous 14-day period, monitoring their temperatures and other vitals.

Moench said it is still a tricky situation.

“It can’t really be made public,” he said of information regarding infected individuals. “Follow the guidelines and wash your hands. The more we follow, the more we’re protected, but it’s a very challenging problem.”

One resident asked what should be done if someone in their household becomes infected with the coronavirus. They were told that if the person’s symptoms are mild to moderate, then no hospital visit is required, unless the individual is having difficulty breathing.

A physician can also be contacted to make sure of a diagnosis, while some household medications could possibly help with fever and other such symptoms.

If an individual is determined to be infected with COVID-19, that person should be isolated in his or her own room for two weeks, with access to a bathroom that only they should use, if possible. Facial coverings should also be employed, along with the wiping down of commonly-used surfaces such as doorknobs, railings and remote controls to protect others in the home.

“It certainly can be done,” said a town official.

As for keeping track of vulnerable populations, Sumner said the township receives case reports, and they try to determine who infected individuals might have come into contact with. He added that long-term and assisted living facilities tend to be more vulnerable, while Edwards said that work is being done on a daily basis to take care of those populations.

“It’s a challenge to know the extent throughout the towns,” said Sumner.

Moench ended the call by thanking all the officials who had contributed to it.

“Our health team has done an amazing job,” he said.

He also thanked the council members, and members of the public “for their interests in the health of the community,” and added that the town will get back to its residents who still have questions.

“Take care, stay healthy and God bless,” Moench said.