New Jersey Businesses Defy Lockdown After Murphy Violates Own Order

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(Bloomberg) -- New Jersey elected officials and small-business owners are challenging Governor Phil Murphy’s almost three-month shutdown, fueled in part by an unlikely source: the governor, who attended recent Black Lives Matter rallies in defiance of his own ban on mass gatherings.

On Thursday, a Republican lawmaker introduced legislation, dubbed “Murphy’s Law,” that would nullify any executive order the governor himself violates. Assemblyman Jay Webber noted that Murphy attended the rallies on Sunday, when outside gatherings were limited to no more than 25 people to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Two days later, Murphy raised the limit to 100 people and exempted political protests.

New Jersey Businesses Defy Lockdown After Murphy Violates Own Order

“Executive orders should end for everyone when governors break their own rules for themselves,” Webber said in a statement. The legislation, of course, has virtually no chance of being signed by Murphy, a Democrat who stood by his decision to demonstrate and on Thursday urged the like-minded to continue to do so peacefully, using masks and other virus precautions.

But business owners and others are expressing their own frustration with the governor, with unsanctioned startups of indoor dining and other activities in a state whose death toll, 12,443, is second only to New York’s. As Murphy, 62, in recent days has relaxed some restrictions put in place to slow the virus’ spread, he has warned that cases will jump when more people come in contact with one another.

A second U.S. coronavirus wave is emerging in states including Texas, Florida and California while New Jersey’s cases have slowed. But throughout the Garden State, some say they’re willing to risk a swifter return to typical operations -- albeit with some precautions.

‘Brink of Collapse’

In Asbury Park, the city council on Wednesday voted to allow indoor dining on June 15, with density restrictions, while a ban remains in effect statewide.

“We were getting varying and somewhat vague executive orders from the governor,” Asbury Park Deputy Mayor Amy Quinn, whose city has nonpartisan elections, said by telephone. “The council here is inundated with business owners on the brink of collapse.”

Asbury Park voted for Murphy 5-to-1 over Republican Kim Guadagno in the 2017 race for governor. “Black Lives Matter -- we believe so strongly in that cause,” Quinn said. “But seeing the governor in large gatherings was one of the factors” in the council’s re-opening decision.

Open Bars

Police have issued at least 3,690 citations for noncompliance with Murphy’s orders, with 319 of them indictable, according to state police Superintendent Patrick Callahan. Car washes, bars, salons and pool stores are among businesses that have been cited for violations.

Statewide, law enforcement has shut down indoor and outdoor weddings and other celebrations, broken up parties in private homes and ticketed organizers of anti-shutdown demonstrations.

Murphy and his wife, Tammy, provoked more lockdown discontent on June 7, when they attended demonstrations in Hillside and Westfield organized in response to the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man, in the custody of white Minneapolis police officers. Derek Chauvin, the ex-officer caught on camera with a knee on Floyd’s throat as the man begged for his life, is facing charges including second-degree murder.

In public, Murphy has called the peaceful protests “a profound moment.” On social media, critics said the Murphys were holding themselves to a different standard.

In Wayne, 22 miles (35 kilometers) west of Manhattan, Mayor Christopher Vergano, a Republican, on June 8 seized oversight of commencements for two public high schools from the school board, saying the “state-established guidelines make it virtually impossible to hold a meaningful graduation ceremony.” The events will take place in a parking lot, with attendance limits, for 300 students from each school on June 18 and 19, rather than on July 6 or later, as Murphy has allowed.

“They haven’t had much -- prom or senior trip, no spring sports, no spring musical,” Vergano said by telephone. “I got a lot of phone calls from parents during the last two weeks: ‘Isn’t there anything you can do?”’

In Northfield, a suburb of the Atlantic City casino resort, the Tilton Square Theatre last week started offering limited $6 seating for the 1986 comedy “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” the 2020 release “Trolls World Tour” and five other current and older films while such venues officially aren’t allowed to operate.

Callahan, the state police chief, said the theater was no longer open. Owner Brett Denafo didn’t immediately respond to a voicemail left on the theater’s phone line.

Local Frustrations

Murphy’s Executive Order 108 forbids local government from defying his coronavirus rules, and the governor on Thursday said his administration had talked to Asbury Park and other local officials about enforcement.

“Where there are violations of the governor’s executive orders, the appropriate action will be taken,” Sharon Lauchaire, a spokesperson for state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, said in an email.

Murphy on March 21 ordered nonessential businesses to close and residents to practice social distancing to help slow the virus’ spread. With the peak almost two months past, Murphy has eased bans on automobile sales, outdoor dining and recreation, retail, daycare and elective surgery.

The governor’s cap on outdoor gatherings will rise to 250 by June 22 and 500 by July 3 so long as virus cases don’t jump dramatically.

But the governor at his daily press briefings says “we’re not there yet” on indoor dining, unrestricted shopping and other activities. More than one in nine New Jerseyans, meanwhile, are newly unemployed and the state’s jobless rate in May hit 15.3%, highest on record.

“Restaurants have our enormous sympathies,” Murphy said Thursday. His administration, he said, was working “morning, noon and night to get to a responsible point to reopen.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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