TRENTON, NJ - Gov. Phil Murphy's welcome announcement Wednesday that state and county parks would re-open May 2 negated two resolutions from Somerset County that urged the governor to revisit the April 7 executive order issued to minimize social contact and inhibit the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19).
The Somerset County Freeholders and the Hillsborough Township Committee at their meetings Tuesday night had approved their respective resolutions, unaware that Murphy was about to take action.
Though parks can re-open, some infrastructure will remain closed and will be off-limits - visitor centers, restrooms, picnic areas and playgrounds - while biking, hiking, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, running and horseback riding will be permitted.
Social distancing must be practiced and park visitors are requested to continue wearing masks, according to Murphy, who made the formal announcement at Wednesday's press briefing after releasing the news on social media platforms a few hours earlier.
“We understand that New Jerseyans want to get outside and get some fresh air as the weather warms up,” Murphy said. “However, this should not serve as an open invitation to rush back to normalcy and break the necessary social distancing measures we’ve put in place. This approach will also bring New Jersey in line with our neighboring states, which will discourage residents from needlessly crossing state lines for recreation.”
"Please enjoy the parks, but stay away from each other," Murphy said.
It was welcome news locally and throughout the state.
"The people have spoken," said Somerset County Freeholder Brian Gallagher shortly after news of Murphy's decision began to spread on social media platforms.
State Sen. Kip Bateman, R-16th, whose district includes towns in Somerset, Middlesex, Hunterdon and Mercer counties, had been critical of Murphy's decision to shut down the parks
“As the weather gets nicer, people will want to get outdoors, especially after being cooped up at home for so long,” Bateman said earlier this week, “In this time of uncertainty, we should encourage folks to go outside and explore their local park while practicing safe social distancing,. with fresh air and exercise being so important to our physical health, mental health, and overall well-being,
“There is something inherently therapeutic about taking a walk or going for a bike ride after spending all day inside. Nature and sunshine do a world of good for both our physical and mental health. We should encourage more New Jerseyans to get outside and enjoy our beautiful Garden State,” Bateman said.
Bateman received a call Wednesday morning from one of Murphy's staff.
"They gave me a heads up; I'm very pleased and I think most people are very relieved," he said. "There's so much cabin fever and so much stress. Now people can exercise their right to enjoy the state's wonderful parks and golf courses.
"We needed something positive, we really did," Bateman added. "I can't tell you how many calls and emails I got about this."
Last week the Somerset County Park Commission said it would curtail all programs and activities in the park system through the remainder of the year because of a significant loss of revenue.
Mark Caliguire, president of the Somerset County Park Commission, said the parks system had suffered $1.5 million in lost revenue from greens fees at its five golf courses.
The park commission issued a statement Wednesday afternoon:
"All county parks and golf courses will be open on Saturday, May 2, 2020. The Park Commission will abide by and endeavor to enforce any applicable Executive Orders issued by the Governor. Upon receipt of a copy of the order(s) and review of same."
The Freeholders' resolution addressed the issue of self-determination, according to Gallagher.
"We want the ability to self determine," Gallagher said. "I understand the concept of one size fits all in an emergency management situation in the shorter term but in the longer term there needs to be the ability for counties to look at things and review when, if and how we would open up, in conjunction with our health officer, Office of Emergency Management, park commission and the board of freeholders."
Gallagher also said the blanket order was rife with inconsistencies regarding social distancing and population densities.
"Jersey City just announced it was going to open its inner city parks; Jersey City has 17,600 people per square miles, and the state was okay with that. Somerset County has a density of 1,200 per square mile."
In Hillsborough, the Township Committee approved a resolution requesting the governor reconsider his decision to close state and county parks, particularly the Sourland Mountain Preserve, a 4,000-acre tract in the southwestern part of the township that features hiking trails, rock climbing and passive recreation.
For its part, the New Jersey Golf Course Owners Association had reached out to the governor to point out that golf courses in New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania have remained open.
Joel Moore, vice president of the NJGCOA and owner of the Ridge at Back Brook Golf Course in Ringoes, Hunterdon County, said his course has crafted a list of requirements and procedures for golfers that should overcome Murphy's reluctance to allow golfers to play through.
Moore was interviewed Wednesday on the "Fox & Friends" morning show, a few hours before Murphy made his announcement.
“We have been sending and communicating with [Gov. Phil Murphy] and his office. They have said that their two most critical concerns are social distancing and congregating,” he said.
The Ridge at Back Brook guidelines eliminate caddies and limit one person per golf cart.
“If an individual is coming to play golf, there will not be outside staff that will take their golf bag and put it somewhere. The individual golfer will have to deal with it themselves. In addition, we are requiring that golfers have a choice, they can either walk and carry their own bag, not utilizing a caddy or they can take a golf cart but it’s only one person per cart," he said.
Bateman and his Republican colleagues in the State Senate issued a statement that went beyond the reopening of the parks and golf courses, suggesting that many businesses are ready to resume operations:
“Over the last few weeks, we have witnessed with awe and pride an amazing transformation in the attitudes and practices of individual New Jerseyans as they adopted necessary social distancing and personal protective measures that just months ago would have been unthinkable.
“Similarly, we have watched as retailers, educators, and healthcare professionals have responded with ingenuity, dedication, and professionalism to ensure their ability to continue serving their communities.
“Given the increased understanding of reasonable personal behavior during this time, we believe the reopening of open spaces across New Jersey, including State and county parks and golf courses, is long overdue. Still, we are glad Governor Murphy has finally acknowledged what most New Jerseyans have been asking for since the parks were closed.
“Additionally, we believe it’s time for the governor to begin to trust the tens of thousands of small businesses that have plans in place and are ready to reopen safely. They’ve made detailed plans and taken steps to ensure their ability to reopen while protecting their workers and customers. There’s no reason a shop on Main Street has to remain shut when the convenience store next door is open. If they can put in place the same precautions, Governor Murphy should lift the restrictions he placed on them and let them get back to work.”
According to the New Jersey Business & Industry Association Business Recovery Survey, 70 percent of businesses said they could operate safely under social distancing guidelines recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.