By Anthony Birritteri
Feb 7, 2022
This article was originally posted on New Jersey Business Magazine.
Given the continuing decrease in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the state, in addition to a robust vaccination rate, Gov. Phil Murphy today announced that the universal school mask mandate will be lifted effective March 7. The move will apply to childcare centers as well.
At his weekly COVID-19 press briefing, Murphy said that it will be up to individual school districts if they want to, or need to, enforce masking policies based on their own local health situations.
He commented that, likewise, students, educators, staff members, or visitors who choose to continue masking while indoors could freely do so. “We expect schools to take swift disciplinary actions against those who may try to demean or bully anyone who chooses to wear a mask. We will not tolerate anyone being put down for exercising their choice to mask up,” Murphy said.
New Jersey students were mandated to wear masks at the start of the 2020 fall school year. It has been an issue of much debate among parents, teachers, school boards, and elected officials.
Asked why the date of March 7 was chosen, given that COVID-19 numbers are now trending in a positive direction, with the transmission rate down to .52 and the test positivity rate at 6.76% today (down from 11.51% from February 1), the governor said that he and members of his administration, particularly the Department of Health, are bringing various data streams together in order to make the best call possible.
“It’s a combination of the number of cases, hospitalizations, positivity rates, and the rate of transmission all going in the right direction. We try to project what the data streams will look like weeks ahead of time,” he said.
State Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said her department will be developing guidance that will incorporate all aspects of school safety protocols, helping school districts update their policies to align with the risks and unique needs of their settings and student populations to ensure safe learning environments.
The governor also said he will sign an executive order that extends the public health emergency for another 30 days, beginning on Feb. 11.
When asked when the mask mandate will be dropped for state buildings, the governor said there was no news to report, but said it was a current topic of conversation.
Most mask mandates left at this point are federal rules for healthcare facilities, long-term care settings, and transportation (planes, trains, buses, etc.), Murphy said.
Regarding a review of his executive powers as it relates to the pandemic, the governor said that when the dust finally settles, he is open to “an independent, comprehensive and smart postmortem” being conducted to see if his administration had the “right tools” at its disposal. “Was the balance proper along the various branches of government?” Murphy asked. “We are very much open to all of the above,” he said.