HUNTERDON COUNTY, NJ - Amid heavier impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, Hunterdon County officials considered what can and might be done as initial ways of reopening parts of the county.

County Health Officer Karen DeMarco said there have been 20 confirmed deaths due to COVID-19 in Hunterdon County, with a total of 436 confirmed cases of the virus as of April 21 – up from 353 reported just two days prior.

“These numbers include only confirmed cases within Hunterdon’s borders, they do not include those who are suspected to have been sickened or who have sadly passed away from COVID-19,” she said. “It is important to remember that reported numbers are only among those who have been tested. Impacts on Hunterdon County are much greater than just those numbers. March 2020 calls to our 911 dispatch center related to respiratory illness nearly double the number recorded for March 2019. We continue to see increased calls for medical assistance, up from just last month. April 2020’s calls for EMS for respiratory ailments are nearly triple the amount from April 2019.”

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Freeholder Director Shaun C. Van Doren said the county freeholders express their sincere condolences to family members of the deceased. Concerns persist over the pandemic and its wide range of impacts on the county.

“The crisis is real,” he said. “Coronavirus can be a killer and everyone should heed requirements to stay at home unless it’s absolutely necessary to venture out. Mayors and other local officials coordinate calls with our county Office of Economic Development and update us on the frontlines. Economic development is also staying abreast of all state and local grant and stimulus loan programs relevant to the business community, and as often as possible, business are connected to resources that can provide assistance. While there is a great concern in the area of public health, we have an equal concern over economic recovery.”

County freeholders were given a three-phase plan, “Opening Up America Again,” coordinated by the White House and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), based on the advice of public health experts from across the government.

Deputy Freeholder Director Susan Soloway explained the outline as “well put together, as data from the local level will be verified.”

“The freeholder board, along with state and county governments across the nation, received official communication from the White House providing the President’s plan to open the country up, get businesses open and get people back to work appropriately and safely,” she said. “Reopenings would take place at a pace that is correct for different regions of the country, giving each state and local area discretion on how and when to move forward. This plan sets new benchmarks on new COVID-19 cases, testing and hospital resources for states to meet in order to proceed in each of the three phases.”

“Rigorous contact tracing of cases, which Hunterdon County’s Health Department has actively engaged in since the first COVID-19 case appeared, is vital,” she added. “The plan is based on current data and readiness. It calls for mitigating the risks of resurgence of the virus, protecting the most vulnerable, and it is implementable on a statewide or county-by-county basis based on local determination."

Soloway added that good hygiene practices and social distancing are key elements, as are state and local guidances on wearing face coverings in public. Copies of President Trump’s Reopening Plan are available on the Hunterdon County Office of Emergency Management and health department webpages.

“We are all eager to get back to work and to restart the economy and bring things back to as close to normal as possible,” Soloway said. “However, a reopening would not happen overnight. Much of the work and benchmarks for reopenings will fall on county and local health departments like ours, and our hospitals. That means accounting for health recovery will appropriately take place at the level of government most involved in health and emergency response.”

Functions of county staff and offices are ongoing, but most county services are not in line to resume in May. County administrator Kevin Davis announced that the Senior Center, in Flemington, will remain closed past the initially-planned reopening date of May 4, per direction of Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order.

Davis said the senior center will remain closed until the county gets clearance from the state.

Bulk waste drop offs at the county transfer station, which regularly occurs on Saturdays, have been temporarily suspended. A concern is any exchange between residents pulling up in their cars and on-site workers (for payment or paperwork).  

“The soonest we can expect that operation to get back on line would be the first Saturday in May,” Davis said. “That too would depend on the executive orders of Gov. Murphy.”

In addition, Hunterdon County’s libraries and all county parks remain closed per Murphy’s executive order.

“That will not change either until he changes the executive order,” Davis said.

In his April 21 update to the board, freeholder John Lanza commented for the second meeting in a row on Murphy’s executive order to close all state and county parks, which was announced hours prior to the board’s meeting April 7. This week, Lanza took note of another elected official, Democratic Passaic County Freeholder T.J. Best, who echoed sentiments he and Van Doren had when they stated opposition to Murphy’s decision two weeks ago.

“Earth Day is upon us this week, and this is a time when we can reflect on the beauty that is all around us, which nature and our creator has given us,” Lanza said. “Unfortunately, residents won’t be able to appreciate those things in state or county parks as they remain closed by governor’s orders. Director Van Doren correctly asked Gov. Murphy to revisit that choice and to give counties discretion to open their own parks, provided they are following social distancing guidelines. It was often parlayed in the media that this position we took was partisan, parochial or petty, but it’s none of those things.”

He added that Best was quoted as saying, “we need the parks to open as we don’t need people standing on tight corners.” Lanza noted the different, suburban and rural configuration of the majority of Hunterdon County with some adequate space for people to walk outside of their homes.

He said people in parts of the state may walk outside and not be able to socially distance from their own neighbors.

Lanza commented that he empathizes with anyone with children who need to take the family outside at times for fresh air.

“There is not only a physical aspect in being able to get out while properly socially distancing, it’s good for physical health, but mentally when hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans are finding themselves filing for unemployment and some are unable to get in touch to get unemployment checks, when people are constantly facing anxiety of whether or not their business will make it through the pandemic, where people are ruminating over the fact that their elderly parents could get sick and they won’t be able to say goodbye, keeping our residents cooped up in their homes probably is not the best thing in the world,” he said. "Parks allow people to look at something else other than the inside of four walls, and open parks would benefit everybody in the times we are facing right now. It could give people at least a chance to relieve some pent up anxiety.”