The health data say New Jersey should not still be on Stage 2 of reopening, where it “paused” seven weeks ago, but if the entire state cannot reopen, perhaps a regional approach will allow the much-needed economic recovery to begin.
That was the message NJBIA President and CEO Michele Siekerka delivered to members of the Assembly Commerce & Economic Development Committee Thursday during a hearing on whether the state should take a regional approach to reopening. Gov. Phil Murphy has ruled out a regional approach to reopening the economy, despite acknowledging the value of a regional approach for the reopening of schools in the fall.
“We clearly need a different way of doing things here in New Jersey because the public health numbers are on our side, and our economy is not rebounding commensurate with that,” Siekerka said during the virtual hearing.
In mid-June, New Jersey started reopening and the economic data, particularly employment, began to rebound with it. But rather than continue, July’s economic reports were bad again. Those businesses that had the opportunity to open weren’t holding on.
The governor has said that the threat of spreading the virus is still too great to justify reopening indoor dining and gyms or increasing capacity in already open businesses who are hardly making ends meet operating on a limited capacity. Neighboring states, which have had similar public health challenges as New Jersey, have nevertheless broadened their economic reopenings: New York is reopening gyms, and Pennsylvania has allowed indoor dining for a few weeks already. In fact, during the hearing, Philadelphia announced that it would allow indoor dining and reopen entertainment venues such as movie theaters beginning in September. (Philadelphia was the exception to the indoor dining rules in Pennsylvania.)
In other words, New Jerseyans are still going out to dinner, but they’re going to Pennsylvania and Delaware where the options are broader. That leaves New Jersey business owners at an even greater disadvantage.
“This isn’t about going out to eat,” Siekerka said. “This is about the hundreds of thousands of livelihoods that are at stake in the businesses that are still closed and those that are not being able to (increase their capacity).”
While the data justifies reopening New Jersey as a whole, the case is even stronger in some sections of the state.
Siekerka used the example of Atlantic County. Despite lifting stay-at-home orders and mandatory non-essential business closures, Atlantic County’s June 2020 unemployment rate increased two percentage points from May (32.3% to 34.3%). And the unemployment rate in Atlantic City is a whopping 43.3%.
Yet Atlantic County’s COVID-19 cases represented less than 6% of total statewide cases for June. The total case count since the onset of the pandemic represents just 1.9% of the state’s total cases.
The same lack of correlation between public health and economic health can be seen in other counties too including: Cape May, Cumberland, Hunterdon, Gloucester, Salem, Sussex, and Warren. In each of these counties, the unemployment rate has exceeded 12% while the total cases per county has not exceeded 2% of the state’s total cases.
“We see disparity in public health, we have hot spots, but we also have economic disparity because of the distribution of our jobs and the way that businesses function across the state,” Siekerka said. “This is why a regional approach is so significantly important here in the state of New Jersey.”