HUNTERDON COUNTY, NJ - The Hunterdon County Board of Chosen Freeholders was pleased to see some progress on “grab-n-go” curbside deliveries now being allowed for New Jersey businesses, but Gov. Phil Murphy’s policies and comments on the COVID-19 pandemic impacts on parts of the state, including Hunterdon, came under more scrutiny during the board’s May 19 meeting via teleconference.
Freeholder deputy director Sue Soloway noted that in last week’s letter addressed to Murphy, she and freeholder director Shaun Van Doren pointed out how restaurants have been successfully implementing curbside pickups with adapting their operations to protect public health, including implementing distancing and the use of PPE.
“As our state and nation’s economic recovery struggles continue, we were pleased to see the governor heed the advice of the director and I sent him along with that of many other governmental bodies and businesses to open up the opportunity for businesses to do curbside pickups,” she commented Tuesday.
Van Doren noted that “our small businesses needed to be allowed to open for at least curbside pickup, and the further decision to allow construction companies – many of which are also small businesses – to begin work was also welcome.
"All these businesses need a chance to get back on their feet as workers need their jobs,” Van Doren added.
He announced that among New Jersey’s Skylands areas, the freeholder boards of Sussex, Warren and Hunterdon counties joined together to present Murphy with a new plan on “what is needed to help the economy in our region.” The joint COVID-19 testing site by Somerset and Hunterdon counties organized at Raritan Valley Community College had tested over 1,000 individuals since opening, only up to three days a week with limited hours, for the first time on April 16.
“Last week, as we announced this regional effort, the public understands that all precautions must be taken when visiting a business," Van Doren said. "Businesses need the chance to develop the tools that will help to protect customers’ health and their own employees’ health, and to be able to give their customers the confidence that local businesses are safe to once again visit. To ensure that confidence and further healthy economy, the state needs to do more than talk about providing resources for increases to COVID-19 testing and contact tracing. They need to do it. To date, not one single state-run testing site was set up anywhere in New Jersey. The counties have been left to address testing on their own."
He added that the Hunterdon County Health Department has worked with the contact tracing team to get in touch with over 4,000 people. Van Doren said he would like to see a recent request to the State Office of Emergency Management (OEM) from Hunterdon’s OEM for 5,000 more COVID-19 testing kits, in addition to the 5,000 that were requested in mid-March amid initial mass closures and governmental actions, be fulfilled.
“The federal government has said New Jersey is in line to receive hundreds of thousands of test kits, but Hunterdon County has yet to see one test kit from the state," he said. "It’s no state-run testing sites or test kits from the state. But Gov. Murphy’s own reopening plans call for more testing and more contact-tracing. It’s time for the state to walk the walk as we have had enough of the talk."
Soloway said that America’s economic survival depends on its small businesses, as they are the backbone of the country. She says the message was clear that this same chance should be extended to local businesses.
“Now with Executive Order 142, our small local shops can do the same, and we welcome this change," Soloway said. "However, I do not feel this is enough. We need to have a clear, definitive timeline set sooner rather than later for when small businesses can open. It amazes me that we can have liquor stores remain open, but not Main Street stores like jewelry or gift shops. Enough time has gone by and the curve has been flattening. Gov. Murphy said that until a proven vaccine is widely available, we cannot firmly enter the new normal, when life will once again return to all our workplaces, downtowns and Main Streets."
Another point of contention was with Murphy stating that New Jersey would not be opening up region-by-region.
Freeholder John Lanza contested a comment Murphy made with reference to Hunterdon County, about counties that have not experienced a significant drop off in COVID-19 cases. He boldly said the governor’s staff did not provide him with the most accurate, detailed information.
“I can’t let this one pass," he said. "In this county, all of a sudden the state started to do its job in counting the COVID-19 cases among people in area nursing home facilities and correctional facilities, which are both under the State of New Jersey’s purview and each have a disproportionate number of cases because these people are in confined settings. Roughly one-third (32.5 percent) of Hunterdon County COVID-19 cases are from long-term care facilities or correctional institutions, including at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women along Rt. 513 in Clinton."
"It’s 71 days into the State of Emergency and the state government, whose job it is to administer to the state correctional facilities and regulate long-term care facilities, are just finally getting around to doing testing at these high-density positive case areas,” he added.
Lanza noted that 62 percent of Hunterdon County’s COVID-19 fatalities have occurred in long-term care or correctional facilities. The county numbers have nothing to do with institutions regulated by the state, Lanza said, and he added he hopes the governor and media can be accurate going forward.
“There is nothing that Hunterdon County is not doing, and I want to commend our Health Department, Office of Emergency Management and everyone else working around the clock during this crisis, as they are all doing a tremendous job," he said. "Perhaps we have the opposite of what the governor said. Hunterdon County does not need to ‘bear down’ but the state needs to."
Soloway added that Hunterdon County has among the lowest rates of infection in the state.
“Recently, I had been advised that we recorded 43 new cases, 37 of which are associated with either a correctional facility or a state long-term (care) facility," she said. "Hunterdon County’s public health nurses have done contact tracing since the beginning of this pandemic and it shows. Our county residents have proven their strength and resilience by sheltering at home. It is about time to give them the opportunities to decide for themselves on what risks they are willing to take."
County administrator Kevin Davis concurred during the meeting and offered some statistics.
“County health officer Karen DeMarco reported a total positive COVID-19 case count of 855 in Hunterdon County, with 278 of them in long-term care facilities or the state-run correctional facilities, under the jurisdiction of the governor," he said. "If you subtract those, we have 577 positive cases out of a population of 125,000 countywide. Gov. Murphy’s hometown of Middletown, New Jersey (Monmouth County), has a total 619 COVID-19 positive among a population of 66,000. I think maybe he should bear down in Middletown a little more and worry about his own hometown."
During public comments, Raritan Township resident Barbara Sachau said the alterations in public life over the last two months have had many detrimental effects on people statewide. She urged the freeholders to talk with Murphy about “increasing the steps he is taking, which seem to go in slow-motion.”