HUNTERDON, COUNTY, NJ - During the May 5 Board of Chosen Freeholders meeting, J. Matthew Holt, the longest-tenured freeholder having served since 2007, commented that he wants to see a proposal from Gov. Phil Murphy revised substantially in order to allow closed businesses to reopen sooner following precautions, but “to get this state’s economy moving again.”
“Gov. Murphy calls the plan ‘Restoring Economic Health Through Public Health,’ but the plan is quite frustrating, as it sets up roadblocks and a number of unattainable goals as currently proposed,” he said. “The state should not be looking to create roadblocks right now, it should be looking to clear them. For COVID-19 testing, about 7,000 tests are being done per day statewide and Gov. Murphy is looking to triple that to somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 tests per day, by the end of May."
More than 600 individuals have been tested at Raritan Valley Community College in a short span of its operation, and related contact tracing has continued as a result of tests with positive outcomes. Holt said that 150 tests per day in a three-hour period are currently being done at the RVCC testing site, which has been open three weekdays a week over the last few weeks.
Right now, there would not be enough staff to make the 400 per day total of testing over an eight-hour day.
“In the plan, it states that there must be reduced cases over 14 consecutive days, but that may not be achievable when you look at its goals No. 2 and No. 3,” he said. “With expanding testing, you would become out-of-sync if you put some logic to this. When you increase and expand testing, you will increase the number of positive cases reported whether or not there’s actually an increase in the COVID-19 spread. Increased testing means an increase in numbers. That means that we may not be able to hit 14 straight days of decreasing numbers until some time late this summer or early this fall. New Jersey cannot wait for that. It is also highly doubtful the state can manage 20,000 tests per day."
Under this proposed scenario, the state would be closed for a long time to come, Holt said.
His message to Murphy at the beginning of May is to “trim your sales.” He criticized how Murphy has not set up any testing site managed by the state, as other than county sites including the joint Hunterdon/Somerset site at RVCC, the federal government (through FEMA) set up two New Jersey sites at PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel and Bergen Community College in Paramus.
“Hunterdon County health staff and volunteers have done an amazing job,” he said. “It is yeoman’s work in terms of contact tracing already done with the over 600 COVID-19 cases countywide that led to tracing over 4,000 other contacts that had to be made with individuals in the county telling them to self-quarantine and instructing them on how to do so.”
“With the governor’s rules, exponentially we’d project about seven times the number of contact tracing for each COVID-19,” he added. “The question is who will provide the staff and funding to do contact tracing? We added staff and have wonderful volunteers from our Medical Reserve Corps. But this comes at a pace that just can’t last, especially if we move up to three times the number of tests taking place.”
Holt added that the board’s decision to introduce the 2020 county budget of $89.3 million on April 21 (with a public hearing scheduled for its May 19 meeting) that keeps the tax rate flat a third year “is certainly part of our response to the hardships that are being felt everywhere in business circles and certainly in economic sectors.”
During public comments, Frenchtown resident and borough councilwoman Caroline Scutt spoke about the economic recovery concepts and statements.
“I completely agree that we need to move forward, but we need to be cautious as we do move forward,” she said. “Good public health is good economic health. While many people were outside over the first weekend of May, social distancing and wearing masks where appropriate, down by the Delaware River towns we may have cases where people aren’t being considerate of others. I do worry that a few selfish folks could drive another declaration with parks having to be closed again, which I really don’t want to see.”
She thanked Marc Saluk, the county’s economic development director, and the freeholder board for work leading to the May 5 confirmation of a $9,616.50 county grant to Frenchtown Borough for the electronic codification of the corough’s zoning rules and regulations and placement on the municipal website.
“Much of our economic development work had paused due to COVID-19, and we very much appreciate the grant funding,” she said.
In his report, Freeholder Zach Rich said he understands the concerns Scutt raised, and he joins Holt in calling for Murphy to establish “a more sensible plan out of Trenton, providing a framework for how people will get back to work.”
“People are proving they will abide by the rules, and it is imperative that we see as much of an economy as possible, as soon as we can,” he said. “We in the public need to be smart about protecting our health and the state needs to be smart about bringing New Jerseyans back to work. I appreciate all the work being done by our county team and I will continue to support those efforts.”
Freeholder John Lanza, the board’s liaison to Hunterdon County Parks, said there’s no reason to believe that there would be another closure announced for county and state parks, as Murphy warned about it before the modification was announced last week. The freeholders learned of the executive order Murphy put into effect closing state and county parks at 8 p.m. on April 7, just hours prior to their meeting that evening and with barely any notice.
Both Lanza and Freeholder Director Shaun C. Van Doren disagreed with that decision for a statewide mandate, contesting that the governor decided this and not the county-level officials.
“Residents are abiding by social distancing rules,” Lanza said. “As we expected, visitors to county parks acted exactly the way we anticipated when we fought the closure of the parks a month ago. Our residents, as we expected, residents and visitors abided by public health guidelines while enjoying the great weekend weather at our parks and trails.
“Now that Gov. Murphy has announced that schools won’t reopen until the fall, now more than ever our parents, schoolchildren and families will need an outlet to get out of their homes to visit our parks and trails,” he added. “If past performance is any indication of what our future results will be, the governor would have no justification to close these parks again. Our people acted like the adults we expected they would be.”
He also thanked County Sheriff Fred Brown and his department, including local police and park rangers, for ensuring that parks visitors were safe and abiding by social distancing rules from May 1 through 3. Roving patrols took place, and the OEM helped ensure safety as five static posts were established at Deer Path Park, the Columbia Trails, Landsdown Trail, Mountain Farm and Hoffman Park.
Holt noted that in public settings, people are clearly willing to adhere to reasonable standards in order to protect themselves and the greater public’s health.
Van Doren said he was thankful Murphy returned control over county parks to the county freeholder board.
Raritan Township resident Barbara Sachau commented that the economy should reopen soon and potential should be considered for Hunterdon County’s high school students (although the announcement by Gov. Murphy in early May will not permit such).
“Mentally, children may be very negatively impacted by not having teaching help,” she said. “The prohibitive effects put in by the governor don’t correspond to data and our lower rate of infections. When you examine data, there are clearly some counties that can, could and should be opened,” she added.
Freeholder Director Van Doren suggested that Sachau and other residents call Gov. Murphy and let his office know exactly how they feel about economic planning. He provided the 609-292-6000 phone line for residents.
“Gov. Murphy needs to hear from the public,” Van Doren said. "Our hands are tied, and we must take our direction from the governor’s office and the State Office of Emergency Management and all the executive orders coming down,” Van Doren said.