TRENTON, NJ -- Gov. Phil Murphy on Friday pleaded with New Jersey residents to cooperate with the state's COVID-19 contact tracers, noting that more than half the people being reached by the tracers are refusing to cooperate.

"This is highly disturbing to say the least," Murphy said. "Our contact tracers only care about protecting public health. They care about protecting you and your family and your friends."

The governor said his administration doesn't condone underage drinking, but vowed that "this is not about a witch hunt" in search of bad behavior. "Take the damn call," he said. "Work with them. It’s another piece of personal responsibility to beat this virus."

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The percentage of individuals refusing to provide contacts has grown to 52 percent and the number of people not picking up the call is 19 percent, said state Health Commissioner Judy Persichili.

"It is essential that residents join with contact tracers to contain this disease to protect the health of your family, loved ones and friends," she said. "Contact tracers are calling because you've tested positive or may have been in contact with someone who has. Contact tracers are calling with life-saving information. They will identify themselves as working with your local health department.".

"If you are concerned it is a scam, contact your local health department. All information is confidential. They will never ask for your social security number," Persichilli added. "For each other, for us all, answer the call."

Bucco Points to 'Restaurant Apocalypse'

Meanwhile, State Sen. Anthony Bucco, who represents Roxbury and serves as its township counsel, said restaurant owners facing financial ruin are growing increasingly desperate for Murphy to lift the prohibition on indoor dining he issued by executive order in March.

“Governor Murphy’s 5-month ban on indoor dining is leading to a restaurant apocalypse in New Jersey,” said Bucco (R-25). “Tens of thousands of restaurant workers remain unemployed, and more and more of the establishments where they worked are closing their doors forever. You can understand the desperation of restaurant owners who have invested their lives and savings into their businesses only to have it all taken away with the signing of an executive order by the governor.”

Bucco, citing published reports, said 23 percent of New Jersey’s 25,000 full-service restaurants had gone out of business by the end of June. In recent public forums with the restaurant industry, 50 percent of the state’s restaurants were said to be at risk of going under, he added.

"That desperation to keep their businesses alive with no clear direction from the governor has led some small establishments to open their doors to indoor dining in defiance of the executive order," said Bucco's office in a press release.

It pointed to Lakeside Diner in Forked River. "Sheriff’s officers enforcing the Murphy administration’s order are reported to have brought a locksmith to the diner overnight to change the locks and prevent the owners from entering their business," said Bucco's statement.

“I’m not sure how the governor can defend locking business owners out of their businesses or removing their property without permission,” said Bucco. “They have constitutional rights that the Murphy administration is trampling over to enforce an executive order that should have been adjusted months ago.”

The governor previously announced that limited indoor dining could resume on July 2, but reversed his order just as dining rooms were set to reopen.

Bucco said he "worked closely with the Morris County Chamber of Commerce to develop and issue a detailed reopening plan that was sent to the governor in May to save businesses and jobs, with safe, risk-based mitigation measures."

Murphy is standing his ground on the issue despite statistics that show "the curve" of coronavirus infections has essentially been flattened in New Jersey.

The governor on Friday reported 313 new positive COVID-19 test results, pushing New Jersey's cumulative total since March 4 to 188,817. He then confirmed 13 new COVID-19 deaths, which brought the statewide total to 14,112 lives lost. (Of these 13 newly confirmed deaths, ten occurred across the previous five days.) 

Importantly, the daily positivity for tests from Aug. 17 was 1.42 percent. Additionally, the statewide rate of transmission is 1.04, slightly above the 1.0 target rate. 

"Our spot positivity is the lowest in the nation," Murphy said. 

Overnight, there were 414 patients in our hospitals (221 COVID-19 positive patients and 193 "persons under investigation," pending the return of test results). Among hospitalized patients, 61 are in ICUs and 30 ventilators in use.

"I want to thank all of you for all you are doing to keep the faith that we will defeat this virus, and for doing all the right things to see that we will," Murphy said. "Let’s not let up one bit."

Utilities update:

The public water, gas, and electric utility shutoff moratorium has been extended until Oct. 15, the governor announced. Gas and electric utilities are also offering Deferred Payment Agreements from 12 to 24 months, he said.

"We encourage you to contact your provider for details," Murphy said.