HACKENSACK, N.J. -- As cases of novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) in Bergen County continue to climb -- the most recent tally of which has reached 61 -- County Executive James Tedesco is calling for tighter measures that will help corral large crowds to safeguard additional people from exposure to the potentially deadly virus that has claimed more than 7,100 lives worldwide and nearly 100 nationwide. 

Per a new executive order, which will go into effect on Saturday, March 21, at 8 a.m., Tedesco is calling for the closure of malls, shopping centers, offices, construction and business activity of any nature “until further notice.” Restaurants within malls may remain open, but only for the sale of take-out and delivery.

The new order also prohibits the practice of worldly employment and businesses by any person or entity within the county until further notice.

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As of 8 a.m. today, all county offices and buildings will be closed to the public.

"This is not a government shutdown, but rather a step to help protect the residents our employees by limiting any potential exposure to COVID 19," said Tedesco. 

All health clubs, gyms, dance class facilities, yoga class facilities and all other similar 
recreational facilities will also be closed until further notice. 

Tedesco made the announcement during a press conference at Two Bergen County Plaza in Hackensack Monday evening calling for an initial effective date beginning today at 11 p.m., but postponed the date “to provide additional clarity and to be in conjunction with state government.”

Tedesco said he made these difficult decisions, which he understands will impact individuals’ livelihoods, with “God-given intuition,” adding that the health and safety of the families in Bergen County is his number one priority.

“I do not say this simply as a first-responder, but as a father and a grandfather,” said Tedesco who formerly served as mayor of Paramus and a longtime firefighter. “I’m someone who cares about people and has devoted my life to serving my community and this county. I seem to have an intuition and a knack for working well in these crisis stations. I also seem to have a knack to be able to predict things are going to happen. I don’t know why God chose to give me that intuition, but I’m going to use it, because I know that it’s going to help save lives.” 

He added that while he empathizes with the people who will be temporarily out of work, he said “extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.” 

“I understand that closing businesses will affect sources of income, just as I understood that closing schools affected childcare,” said Tedesco of his order last Thursday night to shutter all 75 school districts until further notice. 

“I have not taken any of these decisions lightly. I have worked to ensure the support of the county is behind each residence, and we will continue to work to ensure that every residence’s necessities are met. These are difficult times and I can’t promise that the coming days will be easier. We are going to have to make many sacrifices. The steps I’m going to take should slow the spread of COVID-19, and hopefully limit the overall impact on our lives. We may not be able to quantify the number of the lives we save, but even if I save one, it was the right thing to do.”

Under the new Executive Order 2020-1B, the following are permitted: 

  • The preparation and sale of drugs, meals and prepared food and the take-out sale of alcoholic beverages, newspapers, pet food and sanitary pet products, gasoline and food products;
  • Auto repair shops will be allowed to remain open only if part of a gasoline station; 
  • Health care facilities shall remain open with the exception of dental care facilities, which shall until further notice with the exception of emergency conditions; 
  • Entities or individuals licensed to provide professional legal services, to participate in Superior Court trials or other ancillary court proceedings or emergent matters or transactions;
  • Banks or banking institutions; 
  • Funeral Parlors. 

Stores selling alcoholic beverages may remain open, but shall comply with guidelines applicable to restaurants and CDC “social distancing.”

Also under the new order, all utility roadwork is also suspended until further notice, unless an emergency arises. Operation centers for public utilities are permitted to remain open. 

Supermarkets will continue operation between the hours of 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Food establishments shall be restricted to the sale of food and health care products, and shall prohibit the purchase of any other items. For instance, membership-only warehouse club chain BJs are only permitted to sell essential items like food but not large screen televisions. 

In addition, supermarkets are being asked to limit the number of patrons to 50 customers at a time to promote social distancing. Smaller stores are also being asked to impose a customer limit. Municipalities will be responsible for enforcement.   

Tedesco said this 50-person rule has worked in Teaneck, which has the most presumptive-positive infections in the county with a tally of at least 18, and implemented such to contain the spread of the virus.  

On the subject of social distancing, parks under the executive order, will remain open for passive recreation, however, organized activity that brings groups of people of more than four is prohibited (with the exception of families.) A curfew is also being imposed within the County between the hours of 8 p.m. and 7 a.m. for all public outdoor activities. 

Golf courses may remain open for walkers of the course only. All other facilities such as clubhouses, restaurants, and health facilities will be closed until further notice.

While Tedesco said Monday he has already been threatened with lawsuits after news of his new executive order leaked Monday afternoon, he remains steadfast in his decision which he claims is about “social conscience” over dollars and cents. 

“If anyone wants to challenge my decisions, that is their right,” said Tedesco in an emotional statement Monday night. “But remember, I’m doing this to protect the workers, the visitors and the residents of Bergen County.”

When a reporter asked if he had the “legal authority” to close down the malls, he said he had the “moral authority” to.

“This is about people understanding how they should help their neighbor, and if you want to put money over somebody’s life, then shame on you,” he said.

Tedesco said his executive order is backed by CEOs of all area hospitals within Bergen County, the Bergen County Sheriff’s and Prosecutor’s offices, and the Office of Emergency Management, among other county officials.

During a press conference on March 1 at Hackensack University Medical Center, physicians announced the development of an in-house, molecular-based faster test for COVID-19, which they applied for emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. The test would produce results within hours as opposed to waiting to days for results back from the CDC headquarters in Atlanta.

Physicians say the best protection against contracting the virus is frequent hand washing for 20 seconds with antibacterial soap, refraining from touching your nose, eyes and mouth, and keeping 6 feet away from someone exhibiting signs of a sickness through coughing and sneezing. Respiratory droplets can land in the mouth or nose of an uninfected person who can inhale them into their lungs.

To date, health officials say 80% of cases are mild with 5% to be life-threatening if the infected person has underlying health conditions such as lung disease. The virus can take from 2-3 weeks to clear from the body before patients can resume their normal lives, health officials said.      

Tedesco said a health official from Holy Name Hospital said they informed him that while stopping the virus is intangible, slowing it down is, and that preparation is necessary for the next three to four months. 

“I’m asking you to help me slow this down so it’s not three to four months, maybe it’s shorter,” he said. “But I need all your help.” 

Tedesco said he hopes the Attorney General will agree to his order, and hopes law enforcement officials will persuade the businesses to stay closed and “do the right thing.”
 
Tedesco added that Paramus Mayor Richard LaBarbiera spoke with mall owners in the borough, most of whom “knew it was coming,” and most of them “will support this,” he said.

When a reporter asked about people out of work who survive “paycheck to paycheck,” Tedesco mentioned a financial arm of the county that could provide assistance. But, in the current moment, saving lives is his top priority. 

“Right now, my focus isn’t on that side, it’s on the side of saving people’s lives,” he said. “I can deal with the financial piece at the end. I don’t want them to deal with having to bury one of their workers or having them not be able to breathe for the rest of their lives.”

So far, the virus, which presents symptoms similar to a cold or flu, has claimed one the life of 69-year-old John Brennan, of Little Ferry. The second death from contraction of the virus was a 90-year-old Saddle Brook man, officials announced Tuesday.

As of March 16, the following municipalities have presumptive-positive cases: Bergenfield 1; Bogota 1; Demarest 1; Dumont 1; Edgewater 1; Englewood 6; Fair Lawn 4; Fort Lee 1; Franklin Lakes 1; Garfield 1; New Milford 1; Oakland 1; Oradell 1; Paramus 1; Ridgewood 2; Teaneck 16; and Wood-Ridge 1. The youngest of these cases was a 3-year-old, Tedesco said.

In addressing a naysayer in the audience that night who questioned how people out of work would obtain, he said there are people with the virus in critical condition in the hospital, and that while there is no vaccine against, there is “a way to get food.”

“I don’t have all the answers,” he said. “But if I don’t do something today, more people are going to die. That’s the answer now. I believe I have to take action.”

Tedesco is asking any health care professionals including physicians, physicians’ assistants, nurses, dentists and other professionals to volunteer to provide health care services to combat the COVID-19 health care emergency. Bergen Community College will be the host site of New Jersey’s first drive-through testing facility at the campus at 400 Paramus Road, with aim to commence operation by week’s end. 

Hudson Regional Hospital staff will provide drive-thru Coronavirus testing by appointment at 55 Meadowlands Parkway in Secaucus. Test results will be provided within 3-5 days.

Tedesco said he will work with administrators in Hudson, Essex and Passaic to deploy similar testing centers in their own counties. Interested retired physicians, nurses and students in nursing school can go to bcvolunteer@co.bergen.nj.us to volunteer or call 201-336-6006.

Those with questions about the provisions of the executive order 2020-1B may be presented via email to the County at EOquestions@co.bergen.nj.us, or by calling the County during normal business hours at 201-785-8500.

 For more information, call Coronavirus Call Center at 1-800-222-1222 or visit: cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/index.html