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Indoor Dining is Postponed Indefinitely


Governor Phil Murphy announced today by Twitter that indoor dining is postponed indefinitely.

Due to Covid-19 spikes in other states that have resumed indoor dining, New Jersey will not allow it to resume as originally planned this Thursday.

Murphy said he is pausing the resumption of indoor dining because of examples across the state of overcrowding, a complete disregard for social distancing and few face coverings.  The numerous scenes in newspapers and on social media like this one from Jersey City Chief Municipal Prosecutor Jake Hudnut cannot continue.

Murphy said “the carelessness of one establishment can completely undo the good work of many others.” “We will not tolerate outlier bars and restaurants – and, frankly, patrons who think the rules don’t apply to them.”

He concluded by saying that “compliance isn’t a polite suggestion, it is required.”

No other information was provided when indoor dining could resume.

For more Covid-19 information, please see our coverage here.

 

Header: Photo by Danielle Rice on Unsplash

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Guidance to Reopen Schools


Governor Phil Murphy and Department of Education Commissioner Lamont O. Repollet announced on June 26 the release of “The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for Education,” which provides guidance to reopen schools this fall.

The plan announces that, absent a change in public health data, public schools will open for in-person instruction and in some capacity at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. Individual school districts together with community stakeholders will be expected to develop plans that best fits their own district’s needs.

The guidance sets the minimum standards for returning to school and describes several health and safety standards to be prioritized in school reopening:

  1. Social distancing: Schools and districts must allow for social distancing within the classroom. This can be achieved by ensuring students are seated at least six feet apart. If schools are not able to maintain this physical distance, additional modifications should be considered. These include physical barriers between desks and turning desks to face the same direction (rather than facing each other)or having students sit on only one side of a table and spaced apart.
  2. Face coverings: School staff and visitors are required to wear face coverings unless doing so would inhibit the individual’s health or the individual is under two years of age. Students are strongly encouraged to wear face coverings and are required to do so when social distancing cannot be maintained, unless doing so would inhibit the student’s health. It is necessary to acknowledge that enforcing the use of face coverings may be impractical for young children or certain individuals with disabilities.
  3. Limited capacity: It is recommended that students and staff be seated at least six feet apart in class when practicable. When weather allows, windows should be opened to allow for greater air circulation.
  4. Cleaning/disinfecting: Procedures must be implemented by each school district for the sanitization of school buildings and school buses. Increased hand washing measures are also important for students and staff.

These provisions are informed by Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, which call for protecting staff and students who are at higher risk for severe illness, such as providing options for telework and virtual learning; providing reasonable accommodations for older adults (65 years and older) and individuals with serious underlying medical conditions; and, when possible, keeping early childhood students apart during naptime and avoiding close-group activities like reading circles.

Other provisions in the guidance include:

  1. Cafeteria directors should consider staggering meal times to allow for social distancing; discontinuing self-serve or buffet lines; having students eat meals outside or in their classrooms; and requiring staff to disinfect eating areas between groups.
  2. Recess should also be held in staggered shifts, with efforts to promote social distancing and hygiene protocols.
  3. Cohorting: Schools may wish to identify small groups of students and keep them together (cohorting) to ensure that student and staff groupings are as static as possible, thereby limiting exposure to large groups of students.
  4. School bus operators should encourage social distancing. CDC guidelines recommend seating on a school bus such that there is one student seated per row, skipping a row between each child, if possible. Barriers separating rows of bus seats may also be considered. If social distancing is not feasible, face coverings must be worn by students who are able to do so. Increased ventilation (i.e. opening windows) is also recommended in the guidelines.

As being able to reopen schools is dependent upon health data and informed by experts in the health field, districts will need to be prepared to switch to remote instruction at any time during the 2020-2021 school year should circumstances change. The guidance stresses that each school district should be working to ensure every student has a device and internet connectivity available, and it identifies funding streams available to school districts to ensure students have access to technology.

Districts should strive to share preliminary scheduling plans to reopen schools with staff, families, and students at least four weeks before the start of the school year in order to allow families to plan childcare and work arrangements.

Click here for a summary of the guidance.

Click here for the full guidance.

For more on the Jersey City School Board’s plans to reopen schools, please see Sally Deering’s coverage J.C. School Board prepares for September reopening.

 

Header: Dickinson High School, Jersey City Times file photo

 

 

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Debt

Fine Print: What to Watch for as NJ Lawmakers Examine Gov. Phil Murphy’s Emergency-Borrowing Proposal


The Murphy administration has adjusted budget plans to account for the pandemic’s impact on state revenues, but wants greatly expanded borrowing authority; will legislators agree?

This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.

Full story link – HERE.

By John Reitmeyer

Emergency-borrowing legislation that Gov. Phil Murphy wants lawmakers to enact so the state can deal with revenue losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic is scheduled to get its first committee review in the Assembly on Monday.

The emergency-borrowing proposal is also expected to be a topic of debate as Treasurer Elizabeth Maher Muoio appears before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee to discuss her department’s recent moves to rebalance spending in the wake of the pandemic.

So far, the Murphy administration has been able to make cuts and other budget adjustments to keep spending balanced through the end of September without borrowing. But Treasury officials are predicting deep revenue losses will continue for months and into next year as the pandemic continues, and they want the power to issue debt to address future shortfalls.

Here are five key issues to keep an eye on as the borrowing legislation advances in the State House:

How much borrowing?

The legislation introduced in the Assembly last week allows for $5 billion in state bonds, which would make it one of the largest debt issues in New Jersey history. The bill would also allow the state to borrow from the federal government, including on behalf of local governments. And it permits short-term borrowing, but also allows refinancing that could ultimately push the debt and interest payments out as long as 35 years.

Is this constitutional?

Murphy’s administration has argued that language in the state Constitution allows for otherwise strict limits on spending and borrowing to be relaxed during times of war or natural disaster. Language in the bill also says the borrowing is needed to “maintain and preserve the fiscal integrity of the State and its local government units.” But some lawmakers have questioned the administration’s interpretation of the Constitution’s emergency-borrowing powers, arguing the Constitution does not allow for bond proceeds of any kind to be treated as “revenue” to plug future budget holes. A recent opinion from the legal counsel for the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services also raised similar concerns. If the borrowing measure advances, it will likely end up in court as lawsuits have already been threatened.

What’s the cost for taxpayers?

It’s too soon to say for sure, but the borrowing legislation allows for the issuance of general-obligation bonds, which are backed by the “faith and credit” of the state instead of a specific revenue source or a payment promise from lawmakers. That means the state pledges to increase taxes like the sales tax and even local property taxes to ensure general-obligation bondholders are paid. But without knowing the exact amount that will be borrowed, and the expected interest costs, it’s too soon to say exactly how taxpayers will be impacted. New borrowing could also bring on another credit-rating downgrade, which would only add to the interest costs that would ultimately have to be covered by taxpayers.

How much is New Jersey already in debt?

The pace of new borrowing has slowed during Murphy’s tenure. But New Jersey has for years been ranked by many measures as one of the nation’s most indebted states, including debt per capita and debt as a share of gross-domestic product, (GDP). Treasury’s most recent official accounting of the total amount owed to bondholders was $44.4 billion, which is more than the state’s annual budget of just under $40 billion. Also on the state’s books is an unfunded public-worker pension liability that measures more than $100 billion by some estimates.

What happens next?

If the borrowing proposal clears the first legislative-committee hurdle on Monday, it could go before the full Assembly as early as Thursday. From there, its fate remains uncertain. While the measure has enjoyed strong backing from Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) and many liberal groups that make up the governor’s base, it has yet to win the backing of Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester). And since spending has been rebalanced through the end of September without any revenue from borrowing, it may take until income and corporate-business tax payments are collected and tallied up in July for the Senate to make a final decision on whether new borrowing is needed. From there, the threat of litigation could keep the borrowing proposal sidelined even longer.

 

Header: Photo by Daniel Thiele on Unsplash

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Flag Mask

Jersey City Covid-19 Updates 5/29


As emergency restrictions ease, here are the latest Jersey City Covid-19 updates.

If you feel sick and/or believe you may be infected call your healthcare provider and/or the Jersey City Covid-19 hotline at 201-547-5208 before traveling to a hospital.

Outdoor Gatherings

Outdoor gatherings have been increased to permit up to 25 people as follows:

  • The gathering must take place entirely outdoors except for restroom use;
  • Limit capacity to no more than 25 people at all times;
  • Require attendees to be six feet apart at all times, excluding immediate family members, caretakers, household members, or romantic partners;
  • Prohibit contact between attendees, and no organized or contact sports;
  • If the event is an organized gathering, the organizer should demarcate six feet of spacing in the area of the gathering to demonstrate appropriate spacing for social distancing;
  • Limit provided seating to single individuals, spaced six feet apart, and sanitized after each use;
  • Prohibit sharing of any physical items provided and require sanitization before and after each use; and
  • Require contactless pay options wherever feasible.

More information covering recreation can be found in Governor Murphy’s press release here.

Reopening of Businesses and the Economy

New Jersey’s strategic reopening plan is outlined here.

Jersey City Covid-19 Testing

Jersey City is providing free Covid-19 testing to any resident who requests it regardless of symptoms.  Testing is by appointment only.  Proof of residency is required.  Test site will be assigned when appointment is scheduled.  To schedule,  call (201) 547-5535, Mondays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

No appointment is required at the walk up test site at 465 Marin Blvd. Jersey City residents can walk up for Covid-19 testing on Mondays and Wednesdays from 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and antibody testing on Mondays and Fridays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.  Bring proof of Jersey City address.

Starting today, May 29, a second walk up Covid-19 testing site is available for all Jersey City residents with no appointment needed at the Mary McLeod Bethune Life Center, 140 Martin Luther King Drive.  Hours are 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.  Please bring proof of Jersey City address.

Jersey City Business Support

Jersey City businesses seeking reopening support including Covid-19 testing and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) can sign up using this form.

Restaurants seeking additional outdoor seating on sidewalks and parking lanes can sign up using this form.

Parking

All parking regulations have been restored and in effect.

33 school parking lots have been opened throughout each corridor of the city for residents to park their vehicles during the State of Emergency.

Click here for map of JC school parking lots.
Click here for list of JC school parking lots.

There is free, off-street parking is available at Old Colony Parking Lot, Brunswick School, and 235 Pavonia. Click the links to sign-up.

Please see our prior Jersey City Covid-19 updates.

Header: Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

 

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Governor Phil Murphy

Plan to Partially Furlough Public Employees Awaits Governor’s Signature


Proposal easily clears Legislature, but Murphy has been hard to read on plan that taps new federal benefits allowing furloughed workers to offset lost wages with unemployment claims

This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.

Full story link – HERE.

By John Reitmeyer

A plan that would pave the way for state and local governments in New Jersey to cut costs by partially furloughing public employees — without hitting the workers in their wallets — is now on the governor’s desk awaiting final action.

The bipartisan proposal, which builds on prior state law and also seeks to take advantage of enhanced unemployment benefits available during the COVID-19 pandemic, won overwhelming support in both houses of the Legislature on Thursday.

However, the fate of the bill remains uncertain as Murphy, a first-term Democrat, has not taken a firm position for or against the proposal since it was first introduced earlier this month.

Some lawmakers have raised concerns that the measure could end up sending even more workers into a state unemployment system that has been overwhelmed in recent weeks under a crush of new benefit claims.

But the pressure to enact the legislation may also have increased as revenue losses continue to pile up in municipalities, counties, school districts and the state itself during a pandemic that has raged for two months in New Jersey.

“We have to do everything we can to save tax dollars now to avoid a bigger budget crisis later, and this program will save hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex), a primary sponsor of the bill.

Furloughs, not firings

New Jersey already has a “job-sharing” law designed to reduce the need for mass layoffs during times of economic downturn by offering employers — both public and private — with incentives to only reduce employee hours, including via partial furloughs.

The legislation that’s now on Murphy’s desk would enact a number of policy changes to tailor existing law to take full advantage of enhanced federal unemployment benefits that are being provided through the end of July. Those benefits, funded by the $2 trillion federal CARES Act, are providing unemployed workers with an additional $600 a week until the July deadline.

The proposed policy changes include language that would protect seniority rights and pensions for workers whose employers choose to implement a job-sharing program. The measure would also increase, from 20% to 40%, the amount of income that can be earned by workers without crimping their unemployment benefits. It also allows for precertification of unemployment benefits for workers who are scheduled to be furloughed.

For many workers, the supersized federal benefits would allow them to collect the same or better pay even as they miss time at work — with the federal government picking up a large share of the tab. In fact, the bill’s bipartisan sponsors estimate that any worker making $89,000 or less in annual salary would be kept whole or even make out better, even as they miss up to three days of work a week.

Significant savings statewide

Meanwhile, the sponsors also estimate their proposal could ultimately save as much as $750 million spread across state, local and county governments, including school districts. That’s based on an assumption that 100,000 out of a total of 400,000 public workers in New Jersey would end up being furloughed for three days each week over a three-month period. But the bill wouldn’t force any employers to furlough workers, including the state, if they choose not to.

In addition to passing unopposed in the Legislature — the margins were 80-0 in the Assembly and 36-1 in the Senate, with no abstentions — the bill has also picked up support from both business-lobbying groups and labor in recent weeks.

“Launching a statewide job-sharing furlough program is the ultimate win-win for public and private employers whose revenues have been plunging because of the coronavirus recession, and for furloughed employees who would get more money in their pockets without any loss of health or pension benefits,” said Senate President Sweeney (D-Gloucester), another primary sponsor of the bill.

The bill’s adoption on Thursday coincided with the release of the latest unemployment data by the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development that indicated 70,000 new claims for jobless benefits were filed in New Jersey last week. That helped push the total number of new claims filed since mid-March above 1 million.

While a total of $2.7 billion in unemployment payments have gone out over the past nearly two months, the Murphy administration has continued to be barraged by complaints about backlogs and other problems that New Jersey residents have faced while trying to obtain jobless benefits.

Adding claims to overworked unemployment system

Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen) was among the lawmakers who raised concerns on Thursday about the potential for sending more workers into the unemployment system even as it continues to be strained by the pandemic. Schepisi said her own legislative staffers have been “essentially working as caseworkers for the Department of Labor” over the past few weeks.

Asked about the partial-furlough bill during a media briefing in Trenton last week, Murphy didn’t directly shoot down the idea, but he also didn’t offer any kind of endorsement. He said the pandemic has only heightened the importance of the services that many public workers provide in New Jersey.

“On furloughing, I would just say this: As a conceptual matter, it’s something that we’re open to,” Murphy said.

During a briefing on Thursday, Murphy also addressed his administration’s latest revised revenue forecasts, which were released late in the day on Wednesday. They include a projected budget shortfall for the remaining months of fiscal year 2020 that totals $2.75 billion, or roughly 7% of the original spending plan. For fiscal year 2021, the Murphy administration is lopping another nearly $3 billion in revenue from the revised estimate for fiscal 2020.

“Could the budget shortfall get worse? Yes,” Murphy said in response to a reporter’s question. “It could, in particular, if we stop complying (with social-distancing measures).”

A statement issued by Oroho and several other Republican senators later in the day urged Murphy — who has been seeking approval of emergency borrowing legislation — to consider enacting “reasonable spending restraints and creative nontax solutions first, as part of a more common-sense and pragmatic approach.”

“We fear the Governor is on a path of simply repeating his past irresponsible demands,” the statement said. “If he does, we will work with Senate Democrats to advance a different approach to solving the budget challenge.”

 

Header: Courtesy Governor Phil Murphy’s Facebook page

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Dickinson High School

Decision to Close Schools Brings Issues About Remote Learning to Fore


Graduation, special ed, summer school — and the all-too-familiar technology gap — are just a few of challenges that remain unresolved

This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.

Full story link – HERE.

By John Mooney

Gov. Phil Murphy’s announcement yesterday that schools would remain closed, relying on remote instruction for the rest of the academic year surprised nobody.

With the governor acknowledging New Jersey was the 46th state to do so — Ohio was the first on April 20 — it was more a matter of what took him so long.

But the long-anticipated announcement at Murphy’s daily press briefing laid bare the vast number of unresolved challenges and questions for schools, families and educators — not just in the next five weeks but in the months to come.

Here are a few of them:

How exactly is this going to work?

By most accounts, restarting schools at this point would have been a humongous logistical feat, requiring as much effort as continuing with remote instruction.

“The hurdles — logistical, educational and practical — to allow students and faculty to return even for a short while could not be overcome,” Murphy said in explaining his decision.

But that doesn’t mean anything is easy about the current situation, and Murphy and state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet conceded as much.

“None of this we could have envisioned when we set out to be educators,” Repollet said, himself a former principal and superintendent.

But now come the hard questions. What will happen with graduations? How and will students be retained or moved ahead? How will special education and its unique challenges be addressed? And then there’s the matter of summer schools.

Repollet for the most part said more guidance was coming, leaving most of the hard decisions to individual districts. “There are different needs with different districts,” he said, repeating it several times.

Nonetheless, he said districts would be required to submit revised “emergency preparedness plans” for how the year would end and how instruction would be provided.

How graduations are handled will be left to each district, he said, with Murphy adding that he hoped for a range of  “safe and creative ways to give the Class of 2020 a proper send-off.”

Grading and retention decisions would be left to districts as well, although there may be some guidance from the state, the commissioner said. And summer school viability was yet to be determined.

The yawning technology gap

Murphy said when he closed schools the first time in March that there were three main concerns: distribution of food to those in need, efficacy of remote instruction in general, and equitable access to technology for that learning.

Food for the most part is being delivered, officials said, as is remote instruction to the majority of the state’s 1.4 million schoolchildren.

But there remains a huge question mark concerning the technology needs of students, as Repollet said. The department’s own survey of 520-plus districts found 90,000 students without the needed technology at home.

When asked whether he was concerned about those numbers, Murphy acknowledged the reality: “This is not ideal. I don’t want anyone to think this is ideal.”

The districts in their revised plans will need to address those shortcomings, Repollet said, adding the state would seek $310 million in education aid under the federal CARES Act to apply to technology and other emergency needs.

“That digital divide should be lessened as we move toward September,” he said.

Repollet said districts would be left to decide how that money is to be spent. There are no guarantees the technology would be in students’ hands tomorrow, leaving students in many communities, especially poorer ones, continuing to rely on paper-and-pencil and other low-tech measures.

“School districts would be left with a great deal of discretion to how to apply these funds to address the needs of their students,” Repollet said.

Far less money to go around

 Murphy didn’t mince words about the next wave of sobering news for schools and their finances: It’s going to get ugly.

When asked what should public schools expect in terms of state aid, Murphy said it’s “to be determined, but everything will get crushed.” He added that significant layoffs are to be expected across all government sectors.

“I’m more worried about manpower,” Murphy continued. “State aid has an indirect impact on manpower when it comes to our education system.”

The Education Law Center on Monday released a letter it sent to Murphy outlining the steps that districts will need to take to apply for the CARES money. With it, the ELC released estimates about how much funding would go to each district, ranging from no additional money for a handful of small districts to more than $32 million to Newark, the state’s largest.

But the funds are specifically earmarked to serve the most disadvantaged districts, especially when it comes to technology, the ELC noted.

“There is a digital divide in our state across lines of poverty, race, disability and other factors that puts students at-risk while sheltering at home,” said David Sciarra, the ELC’s executive director. “It’s time to permanently close that divide.”

And then there’s next year

School districts had already started planning for next fall’s reopening, if it’s even happening at this point. Ideas that were unheard of two months ago are suddenly real possibilities: staggered schedules, smaller class sizes, online learning and even face masks.

Again, Repollet said there would be considerable leeway offered to districts.

“Our guiding policy-principle is each local community knows its students best, and our job is to provide every flexibility we can to unlock innovation while also putting guard rails in place,” he said.

Murphy said nothing is anywhere close to decided, and a steering committee of stakeholders would be created in the coming days that would begin having those discussions.

 “There is a lot to be considered to how the school day may differ once our students and faculty return,” he said.

Repollet added what is becoming all too obvious through this pandemic: “As for the future, we don’t know what it will look like.”

 

Header: Dickinson High School, Jessey City Times file photo

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new jeresy economic development authority

Murphy Gives Local Officials Option to Push Back Property-Tax Deadline


Governor gives cities, towns ability to lengthen grace period by a month to June 1, but concerns already being raised about next payment deadline on August 1

This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.

Full story link – HERE.

By John Reitmeyer

An executive order issued by Gov. Phil Murphy just days before May 1 property-tax payments are due is enabling local officials to push back the payment deadline by a full month.

Murphy’s 11th-hour executive order doesn’t automatically extend the May 1 payment deadline, but instead gives New Jersey’s municipalities the option of lengthening a statutory grace period to help taxpayers struggling with the coronavirus pandemic.

The executive order was announced during a media briefing on the pandemic held in Trenton on Tuesday. It drew immediate praise, including from officials who represent the state’s many cities and towns, some of which are facing their own financial hardships amid the still-unfolding pandemic.

State of grace for taxpayers

In communities that choose to take advantage of the executive order, taxpayers will be able to wait until June 1 to submit their May 1 payments, without facing the penalties and interest that local officials can charge after the grace period, which typically lasts 10 days.

“I think it was wise to make this permissive,” said Michael Cerra, the assistant executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities. “It’s in the hands of local officials.”

New Jersey has been among the hardest-hit states as the pandemic has spread across the country in recent weeks, trailing only New York in reported COVID-19 infections and fatalities. In addition, strict social-distancing measures ordered by Murphy to prevent further spread of the disease have shut down many businesses that have been deemed “nonessential,” and unemployment claims have reached record highs in recent weeks.

In response to the economic hardships, Murphy, a first-term Democrat, had already taken action to delay the state’s April 15 income-tax deadline. Other newly enacted measures have also assisted homeowners struggling to pay mortgages and tenants in danger of falling behind on their rent.

Murphy’s ‘additional measure of relief’

Murphy described his latest executive order as “an additional measure of relief” as he discussed it during Tuesday’s briefing.

Under a quarterly-payment schedule established in state law, property taxes are due on the first day of February, May, August and November. They can be paid directly to a municipality or through a mortgage company, which is something many homeowners do as they pay down home loans over the long term.

State law allows for the 10-day grace period for property owners to make their payments without facing penalties or being charged interest.

Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who leads the state Department of Community Affairs, said the payment delay for taxpayers that will be allowed under Murphy’s executive order will help property owners who “need extra time to get their finances in order.”

“We understand that many property owners are coping with financial challenges they’ve never had to face before because of this pandemic,” she said during the briefing.

Stephanie Hunsinger, New Jersey state director for AARP, said she hopes “all New Jersey municipalities act immediately to provide relief to their residents.”

“On behalf of AARP New Jersey’s nearly 1.3 million members, we applaud Gov. Murphy and his administration for issuing today’s executive order,” Hunsinger said.

But many communities are also getting hammered themselves by the pandemic as social-distancing regulation have restricted many activities that generate significant revenue. And while New Jersey is notorious for having some of the nation’s highest property taxes, those bills fund much of the frontline services that are being leaned on heavily during the pandemic, including police and other first responders, as well as municipal health officials and sanitation workers.

In addition, while municipalities collect property taxes, they must turn over a large portion of the revenue to local schools and county governments in transfers that are due by the 15th of every month.

Can local officials afford the extension?

Making it an option for a town to extend the 10-day grace period allows local officials to work with their professionals to assess whether they can afford to offer the extension, especially since the deadline for turning over tax collections to school districts and counties still remains in effect, Cerra said.

With the intervention coming from Murphy so close to the May 1 deadline, many local officials had already begun to take action on their own to give their residents a break. In some cases, officials passed local resolutions that lowered the interest rates that can be charged for late payments to the lowest amount allowed under state law, which is less than 1%.

The executive order creates a uniform way for municipal officials to provide taxpayers with a break during the pandemic, just as Murphy has by doing things like delaying the April 15 income-tax deadline, said Cerra, whose organization will likely be drafting a model resolution to distribute to local officials.

“I think local officials were looking to do same,” Cerra said.

Legislation had been proposed in recent weeks in the state Assembly to push back the May 1 deadline for many homeowners to July 15, which would have matched the state’s new deadline for filing income taxes. But that bill has stalled since its introduction.

Despite Tuesday’s action from the governor, Cerra said the next quarterly payments, which will be due on August 1, have already been flagged as a looming concern. Many homeowners may have had enough in escrow accounts to cover their May 1 property-tax payments, but they may still be facing economic hardships several months from now.

“We’re a little bit concerned about August 1,” he said.

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State Parks to Open

Liberty State Park Will Reopen on Saturday, May 2


Liberty State Park along with New Jersey state parks will reopen on Saturday, May 2.

Governor Murphy will sign an executive order today to reopen New Jersey’s state park and allow county parks and golf courses to reopen.  Information on Lincoln and Washington Parks will hopefully be forthcoming.

This order will take effect at sunrise on Saturday, May 2.

Social distancing will continue to be mandated.

See our opinion piece urging the reopening of Liberty State Park HERE.

 

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Governor Phil Murphy

Murphy’s Re-Entry Plan for NJ Businesses and Public Spaces Lacks Timeline, Specifics


While governor says he is leaning toward a statewide approach, it’s too soon to rule out a county or regional strategy, similar to what’s proposed in New York state

This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.

Full story link – HERE.

By Lilo H. Stainton

Before the economy can begin to recover, New Jersey will need to see a two-week decline in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, expand testing capacity to double the current level, recruit as many as 7,000 people to track down infections, and be ready to house and care for residents who test positive and lack a safe place to quarantine.

That’s according to the broad six-point plan Gov. Phil Murphy outlined Monday in Trenton, which includes a series of public health benchmarks he said must be met before businesses and public spaces can safely reopen. Today, he plans to announce the members of a new recovery commission that will guide the economic elements of the state’s revival in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Murphy provided no timeline for the strategy — which lacked detail — and said the stay-at-home order he issued in late March will remain in place for now. But establishing sufficient testing capacity alone could take five weeks, he acknowledged. The governor also said the process would be regionally coordinated with reopenings in six other states, including New York and Pennsylvania, although these efforts would not be identical.

“I don’t know when we’ll be able to formally and finally start this journey. Hopefully, if we all keep at it, it will be soon,” Murphy said. “If we let up even one bit with our aggressive social-distancing measures too soon — even one day too soon — we can easily see ourselves skidding off this road.”

New Jersey has now diagnosed more than 111,000 cases of COVID-19, including in more than 6,000 residents who have died. The impact on hospitals, especially in the northern part of the state, has recently lessened, however, according to state data, and daily discharges have outpaced admissions for more than a week.

‘Public health creates economic health’

Murphy said that economic recovery “will be guided by one overarching principle…public health creates economic health.” The plan he outlined Monday means the state “will be ready to put the car in gear as soon as we see a green light,” he added, noting that getting back to work will still require face masks, social distancing and other strategies to reduce infection risk.

But the six-point plan — “The Road Back: Restoring Economic Health Through Public Health” — provided few specifics, including how it would be rolled out across New Jersey. Murphy said he was leaning toward a statewide approach, but it was too soon to rule out a county or regional strategy, similar to what is proposed in New York state.

“A lot of ideas, not a lot of detail,” remarked Rutgers University Dean Perry Halkitis, a public health and biostatistics expert. “I do think the intention is in the right place,” he added, but said three of the four public health goals will take some time to meet.

The plan calls for an “appreciable and sustained” drop in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations over 14 days; these terms aren’t defined in the outline, but Halkitis said these kinds of trends are fairly easy to track. Expanding testing and tracing capacity, and caring for those in quarantine are more complicated, he said.

Murphy has long stressed the importance of widespread COVID-19 screenings for the state to reopen, and his six-point plan calls for doubling the current daily capacity of approximately 10,000 tests. Roughly 205,000 New Jerseyans have been tested to date, or just over 2.3% of the total population, according to state figures.

Testing is still limited

But access to testing has been severely limited by the availability of kits, staff and other supplies, so screenings have so far been reserved almost exclusively for those with respiratory symptoms. Last week, the governor heralded the benefits of a new Rutgers University saliva test, which requires far fewer resources and — according to Rutgers officials — could be quickly scaled up to cover 20,000 or 30,000 people daily. But on Monday, he suggested it would be early May before the state was able to deploy widespread public testing, in part because of the time it would take to assemble sufficient resources.

“That’s a problem,” Halkitis said. “We need to have a better idea of the extent to which the population is either infected or has been infected.”

State Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli has said another task force — separate from the economic advisory panel — is working on a protocol for the testing and tracing, but it is not clear when these recommendations will be available. DOH had already said it plans to use the saliva test to screen residents at the state’s five centers for adults with serious disabilities, a process that may be expanded to prisons, psychiatric hospitals and other group-living facilities.

Murphy’s recovery plan calls for testing to prioritize health care workers, essential workers and vulnerable populations. COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on the African American and Latino communities, and the governor said he hopes to use the recovery process as a way to address the underlying racial disparities in health. “COVID-19 did not create the inequalities in our society. But, it laid them bare. So, this is also our opportunity to help close those gaps,” he said.

Once people are tested, Murphy underscored the need for “robust contact tracing” to identify all those who had come into contact with COVID-19 patients. Persichilli has indicated the process could involve 7,000 people to assist with the work, which 99 local health departments statewide are now handling. But the plan doesn’t address how they would be hired, paid or deployed.

Halkitis — who has urged the state to use public health students for this role, as has been done in New York City — said contact tracers need to be well trained to elicit the right information, including from individuals who may be undocumented or homeless and may wish to avoid answering questions. They must also be culturally competent to effectively communicate with people of diverse backgrounds.

Need for coordination

In addition, contact tracing of this scale must be coordinated through the state DOH, Halkitis said, not the local health departments; state officials declined to say Monday how this aspect of the response would be handled. “It’s got to be one approach. It can’t be 99” separate tracing programs run by local departments, he said. “Otherwise, it would be like using 99 different rulers.”

Murphy also said the state would partner with tech companies, including Google and Salesforce, to assist with electronic tracings and infection warnings, using software similar to that deployed successfully in other countries. “The ultimate architecture” of the recovery will be “some combination of boots on the ground and technology,” he said.

When individuals test positive, Murphy’s “Road Back” calls for the state to provide a free place and wraparound services, like medical care and social services, to those who don’t have a safe place to quarantine. While the state has secured hotel rooms in some areas that could be used for this purpose, it’s not clear who would coordinate or fund a larger effort.

Murphy said the state must accomplish these four public health elements before it can move on to short- and longer-term economic goals, described in the plan as “execute a responsible economic restart” and “ensure New Jersey’s resiliency.”

“That’s the order in which we must proceed,” Murphy said. “It means that before we reopen non-essential stores and businesses, before we can reopen our parks, or before we allow in-person dining in our restaurants — among any host of other activities — people need to know, first and foremost, that their health will be safeguarded from COVID-19.”

Returning to work

The Governor’s Restart and Recovery Commission, to be named Tuesday, will provide advice and help plan a “methodical and strategic return to work” based on a matrix that considers the transmission risk and essential nature of each business. Face coverings and work-from-home orders will be required, in some cases.

The final element calls for using the lessons of COVID-19 to improve the state’s resiliency to a potential resurgence of coronavirus or against future pandemics. It calls for hospitals and other health care providers to stockpile protective equipment and ventilators, and for the state to create its own stash to help guard against the shortages experienced over the past six weeks.

 

Header: Courtesy Governor Phil Murphy’s Facebook page

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Construction Photo

“Non-Essential” Construction Ban Causes Confusion


Building Industry Struggles to Adapt

“Non-essential” construction projects have been banned throughout New Jersey since April 10, when Gov. Murphy’s Executive Order 122 to reduce the spread of the coronavirus went into effect. Still, due to the numerous carve outs in the Order, many building sites in Jersey City remain active. At the same time, other projects that qualify for exceptions to the ban have been halted.  As a result, many developers and construction workers are left scratching their heads — while also doing their best to make active sites impervious to the coronavirus.

Construction, 1st and Coles Sts

Construction, 1st and Coles Sts., photo by the Jersey City Times

“Some of our employers and property owners are doing the best they can to figure it out —  some are going to lawyers,” said Greg LaLevee, business manager of Operating Engineers Union Local 825, whose members typically work on big construction jobs in the state including the new Rt. 7 bridge linking Jersey City and Kearny.

LaLevee mentioned a nearby project involving remediation —  one of the exceptions listed in the governor’s order —  that, he said, got shut down by local authorities. “That kind of baffled us,” he said.

Questions about who’s enforcing the order and on-site social distancing are still awaiting answers, he added. “I don’t think the full story’s been written yet. It’s going to take time to shake itself out.”

Three of the local’s 7,000 members have tested positive for the coronavirus, LaLevee said.

How vast does the shutdown appear?  Councilman James Solomon, whose Downtown ward hosts a lot of building activity, said recently, “[. . .] my reading of it is that most large-scale construction sites must shut down or be in the process of shutting down.” This is likely because the Order does categorize as “non-essential” residential projects with work crews greater than five and residential buildings with no units under sales contracts. But that still leaves numerous categories of construction the decree deems “essential”:

  • affordable housing projects
  • law enforcement facilities
  • buildings providing for first responders
  • federal, state, county or city government projects
  • healthcare sites
  • business data centers
  • owner-occupied apartments with work crews of five or fewer
  • social services facilities (such as including homeless shelters)
  • schools and education offices
  • utilities firms
  • transportation projects
  • building related to essential retail or online retail

Most other types of construction are deemed “non-essential.”  That said, the Order does allow for “any work on a non-essential construction project that is required to physically secure the site of the project, ensure the structural integrity of any buildings on the site, abate any hazards that would exist on the site if the construction were to remain in its current condition, remediate a site, or otherwise ensure that the site and any buildings therein are appropriately protected and safe during the suspension of the project. It also permits “any emergency repairs necessary to ensure the health and safety of residents.”

Construction

Construction photo by Ron Leir

Executive Order 122 also details policies to prevent the spread of COVID-19 that active construction sites must follow.

What has the city done in response to the governor’s decree? Mayoral spokesperson Kimberly Wallace-Scalcione said this:

“Following the Governor’s executive order, the city created an informational website for full transparency regarding all construction projects. The website includes a process for residents to file complaints, the feedback of which will be shared with the state. We are committed to protecting our residents the best we can within the parameters that have been set by Trenton.”

Residents are invited to email prosecutor@jcnj.org or call 201-547-4900 to report suspected violations.

The website has downloadable application forms for both types of construction. Once completed, Jersey City Construction Code Official Raymond Meyer reviews the applications for prospective authorization.

As of April 21, a total of 138 applications for essential and non-essential work had submitted to the city; all but 19 had been approved.

Based on a random citywide check this week, among those sites where workers — all wearing face cloths — could be seen going up and down exterior lift elevators, carrying lumber and tools, mixing cement and the like were:

180 Morgan St. off Marin Blvd. (abating hazards, site safety and site security); 99 Hudson St. (residential with contracts); 75 Park Lane South at Washington Blvd. and 14thStreet (residential with contracts); 170 Erie St. off 10thSt. (site safety and structural integrity); 348 Baldwin Ave. (site safety and structural integrity), 184-190 Academy St. between Summit and Baldwin Aves. (abating hazards, site safety and site security); 55 Jordan Ave. off Mercer Street (abating hazards, site safety, site security and structural integrity); and 136 Summit Ave. at Fairmount Avenue (abating hazards, site security and structural integrity).

Many of these sites were residential high rises.

Work is also continuing at the following school-related projects: 275 Washington St. (also listed as 25 Columbus Blvd.); 102-110 Brunswick St.; 130 Essex St. at the intersection of Carbon Place and West Side Avenue; 150 Bay St.; 178 Newark Ave.; 26 University Place Blvd.; 321 Warren St.; and 88 Regent St.

There is also construction going on at two public housing sites — Holland Gardens, 235 16thSt., and Booker T. Washington, 62 Fremont St. — that fall under the affordable housing allowance.

No construction activity was observed at either 662 Summit Ave. (off State Highway 139) or 75 Jordan Ave. (between Vroom and Mercer Streets). The city has listed no reasons for the apparent stoppages. It’s possible the owners or builders concluded they failed to meet the criteria for continuing work and therefore never filed applications.

Assuming the city has allowed for a limited amount of work to secure a building before shutting down the project, neither the governor’s order nor the city has proscribed how long that work can continue.

Construction Summit Ave

Construction Summit Ave., photo by Ron Leir

Jeffrey Wenger, former principal planner for Jersey City and now a private planning consultant, said it typically takes a week or more to wind down and secure a construction site by taking down a crane, installing tiles or strapping down materials on an upper floor, for example.

Indefinite setbacks caused by even the temporarily halting of projects will likely saddle developers with added financial pressures, Wenger said. “If you’re not going to meet your [completion] deadline, it will create strain with investors and lending institutions.  There’s a lot riding on the outcome; stopping a job will be a big deal.”

How big a deal?  Well, former Jersey City Redevelopment Agency director Robert Antonicello, who now runs a commercial real estate brokerage firm, posited: “For a $180 million project, which would be comparable to a Jersey City high-rise now under development,  it would not be unrealistic to expect that for every month the project is down, pending a lifting of the executive order, the owners would be hit with an additional $400,000 to $500,000 in insurance, interest reserves and other carrying costs that they would hope to pick up on the back end.”

How much of that added cost would get “eaten” by the developer or passed on to the building’s occupants remains an unknown at this point, Antonicello added.

Asked to assess how the city is handling enforcement of the executive order, Antonicello replied: “I don’t think the city has been careless with this. And remember, even the governor didn’t want to shut down everything.”

For more on the impact of COVID-19 in Jersey City, see Jersey City Times’ news section.

 

Header: Photo by Ron Leir

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