What to Know
- New restrictions are on tap for New Jersey this week -- and might be in store for other Northeast states -- following an emergency governors' summit to discuss next steps to curb the latest COVID tide
- The country recorded more than 1 million new cases last week alone and now has well over 11 million; 5% of NJ's COVID case total since March have come in just the last four days, Gov. Phil Murphy said
- Mayor de Blasio insists schools will move all-remote if NYC hits a 3% rolling positivity rate, and while Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he won't intervene, he also says schools aren't the problem
Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday he would lower indoor and outdoor capacity limits in New Jersey in the coming days, potentially one outcome of an emergency weekend summit convened by Gov. Andrew Cuomo with other Northeast governors, many of whom rolled out new protocol over the last week to stem their states' soaring rates of virus spread. More restrictions may follow.
"I must again pull back the reins," he said. "It gives me no joy."
Five percent of New Jersey's cumulative COVID case total since March, which has topped 281,000, have come in just the last four days, a sober Murphy said — that's one in every 20 cases. The state's positivity rate has soared well above 9 percent. ICU patient counts are up.
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Amid that swell, indoor gatherings will be capped at 10, down from 25, starting Tuesday -- echoing a move made by Cuomo last week in New York and another Gov. Ned Lamont made in Connecticut the week before that. Outdoor gatherings will be limited to 150, a reduction of 70 percent, as of Nov. 23. Indoor weddings, religious services, funeral services and performances can continue to operate under the prior 25 percent capacity limit (up to a maximum of 150 people).
Indoor sports practices and competitions can exceed the 10-person limit only for essential game personnel like players, coaches and referees. In most cases, where the number of essential parties top 10 people, no spectators are allowed.
"We think those are steps coupled with some of the other steps we've taken, which will hopefully begin to shave these numbers down," Murphy told MNSBC, referring to last week's new curfews. "It's gotten worse and it's going to get worse ... particularly with the cold weather, with the holidays, this is going to get worse."
He reserved the right to take additional actions, calling out youth hockey in his briefing Monday as a key source fueling new COVID cases -- and one where about 60 percent of those involved have refused to cooperate with contact tracers.
"I know you think you’re invincible. Maybe you think that people aren’t getting sick anymore, or going to the hospital, or dying anymore. Maybe you think you’re the victim of some witch hunt," Murphy said to those who refuse to comply. "We already had to shut the garage doors in March. If we have to, we'll do it again."
The mayor of Hoboken, Ravi Bhalla, announced a new executive order will be implemented in the city after the city had it's highest one-day number yet over the weekend. Under the new measure, restaurants and bars will now require patrons to sign in with their name, phone number and address.
"That way if a server, a waitress, an employee gets infected, we can quickly contact trace and have known who might have been in contact with that person," Bhalla said.
The developments come after New Jersey broke its own single-day case pandemic case record twice in two days over the weekend, reflecting the struggles of the nation amid a COVID surge that has left no state untouched.
They also come as New York emerges from its first weekend of a 10 p.m. indoor-service curfew on restaurants, bars and gyms, as well as a capacity cap of 10 people in private homes, which presents its own unique enforcement challenges as the health expert-feared holiday season draws ever closer.
Hundreds of thousands of New York City public school parents await what appears to be an all-but-certain fate in the re-closure of in-person learning, with the city clinging to a rolling positivity rate just below the 3 percent threshold that triggers the all-remote switch. That number was 2.77 percent Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said. Schools remain open for now.
"There is a second wave upon us. We're trying to beat it back," de Blasio said. "If we do have to shut down, we would work to come back very quickly with additional safety measures."
While weekend reporting may have held the rolling positivity rate in check for the last two days, the city's overall numbers continue to trend in the wrong direction. The daily case average topped 1,000 on Monday, according to the city's data. The 1,057 daily case average de Blasio reported is the highest since May 11, a number he called "very worrisome on its face." It has risen almost daily since Oct. 28.
Even before the newest New York restrictions took effect Friday night, Cuomo warned of new measures likely to come. His tone last week, while resigned to what he perceives to be an inevitable viral increase associated with the national and international climate, colder weather and holiday travel, also appeared more resigned to the necessity of new statewide measures than in previous weeks.
He has championed his micro-cluster strategy, which applies varying restrictions to narrow geographic areas based on risk, as an effective containment tool for the last two months. It has proven to drive down positivity rates in the highest risk areas, data shows; none of the initial red zones, which warrant the most severe restrictions under the micro-cluster plan, exist anymore, given their improvement.
That said, the current COVID climate in the tri-state area is more reflective of community spread than a simple cluster situation. More intense measures may be needed to stem that tide. It's "a pure consequence of science," Cuomo said. Ideally, those measures should be aligned on a regional basis to discourage people in New York, for example, from going across the river for a holiday party in New Jersey, where until Monday, the indoor gathering limit was more than double.
It wasn't immediately clear what may or may not have been agreed upon during the weekend summit, but Cuomo described it as a productive conversation. Previously he said airports, travel and enforcement were on the list of topics.
In-person schooling was also on the agenda, Murphy said Monday. The general consensus has been that schools are not a burgeoning or even minor spreader. He did indicate that the coalition intended to roll out specific guidance for college students returning to campus after Thanksgiving in the coming days. Hoboken and is already taking action on that front, having schools go fully virtual for a full week after the holiday, just case of any potential spread at that time, Murphy said.
"We're urging everybody to keep their Thanksgiving plans as small as possible because we know that indoor gatherings are particularly dangerous places for COVID-19 to spread," Murphy said. "I think there's some notion that in the house, that you've passed through some magic doorway, and especially as we celebrate the holidays. That's just not true."
Another school in New Jersey, Mount Olive School District in Morris County, will be going virtual not only the week after Thanksgiving, but for a period of seven weeks, until after Martin Luther King Day in January.
Cuomo has been hesitant to intervene in the potential closure of the largest public school district in the nation, though suggested for the second time in two days Saturday that Mayor de Blasio incorporate more factors than the rolling citywide positivity rate into his shutdown threshold. School has proven a bright spot in the city in its ongoing war against coronavirus, with less than 0.2 percent of mandatory weekly randomized student and staff testing returning positive.
Daily Percentage of Positive Tests by New York Region
Gov. Andrew Cuomo breaks the state into 10 regions for testing purposes and tracks positivity rates to identify potential hotspots. Here's the latest tracking data by region and for the five boroughs. For the latest county-level results statewide, click here
Not only are schools not fueling infection spread, they might actually help to mitigate it, Cuomo has said.
"Schools are actually the safe place – the infection rate in the schools is much lower than the rest of the city and the rest of the community," Cuomo said on MSNBC Monday. "Why not leave the children in the schools, rather than have them run around the streets where the infection rate is five times as high?”
For his part, de Blasio says he's sticking to the 3 percent shutdown threshold as he believes there is "still a chance to keep your schools open for a good while" -- but he is open to a different sort of assessment for bringing in-person back, should New York City schools have to move remote for a period of time.
"It's not a matter of saying, let's just forget we had that. No, that was a rule we made to keep faith with people and show our commitment to safety," de Blasio said of the 3 percent mark. "We're going to live by that rule. But then the question is how do we come back as quickly as possible? I agree with the governor, a different approach to testing could be a really crucial part of a fast comeback ... the conversation we are having with the state is now to quickly come back and what it's going to take."
“Today New York City schools are open,” the mayor said. “Tomorrow they will be open as well. We’ve got a fight ahead to keep them open. But I’m not giving up and you shouldn’t give up either. Every day that we can keep our schools open is a blessing for our children and our families.”
On Monday, the city launched a new ad campaign reminding New Yorkers to wear masks, hoping good hygiene and more testing keeps the number below the benchmark.
Thus far, there have been no clear metrics discussed as far as a road back. The micro-cluster approach, which mandates additional in-school testing requirements, is one potential model the mayor is reviewing, he said Monday. Ultimately, de Blasio says he hopes to return schools to full in-person instruction five days a week at some point before the 2020-21 academic year ends June 25.
Finding such bright spots as schools over the last month, which has seen the U.S. smash its own single-day case record nearly a dozen times and report a pandemic high in hospitalizations, has been a challenge of the highest order.
Both New York City and state have struggled to contain rising COVID rates in recent weeks. While the positivity rates within both remain among the lowest in the nation, the bar for "lowest in the nation" has risen steadily. New York has reported about an average of 4,545 new daily infections each day over the last five days, which is more than four times the numbers it was seeing at the end of October. That's only about six weeks ago. Hospitalizations are at their highest total since June 10, and daily deaths have ticked above recent lows accordingly.
In Westchester County's Mount Vernon, a stay-at-home advisory went into effect Monday. The city has recently seen a double-digit increase in daily cases, with 84 new cases reported this month. Only absolutely essential travel is advised, and the city said a COVID-19 task force will be in the community educating and enforcing the regulations.
Both New Jersey and Pennsylvania reported alarming COVID-19 numbers over the weekend, setting new pandemic highs for single-day case totals. The Garden State broke its spring record on Saturday when Murphy announced 4,395 new cases of COVID-19. It took 24 hours to break it again, with 4,540 on Sunday.
The numbers dropped back down to the 2,000 range on Monday, but the trend lines are stark and disturbing. Over the last four days, Murphy says New Jersey has confirmed more than 14,500 new cases. That's 5 percent of the cumulative 281,493 cases it has reported since its first case was announced in March.
Despite those highs, New Jersey hospitalizations (2,115) are less than a third of their end-of-April highs. Testing is far more expansive now than it was at the start of the pandemic, which leads to more identifiable cases. Treatment is more effective now, which may translate to fewer and shorter hospitalization and ultimately, less tragedy. On the other hand, hospitalizations lag increases in cases and deaths lag increases in new admissions, which means the full impact of the latest COVID surge may not yet have fully materialized in those regards.
"Small family gatherings are a significant driver of increasing cases," New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said Monday as she urged families not to take vulnerable relatives from care facilities for Thanksgiving.
She said those should be avoided as a rule if possible -- and went as far as to say people should be encouraged to even avoid singing to lower the risk of viral spread. If guests are coming over, Persichilli recommended avoiding "direct contact including handshakes and hugs with others outside their households." It's a somber mantra that health officials across the country have repeated often these last few weeks; their pleas have only grown more urgent.
The U.S. recorded more than 1 million new cases last week alone, including 156,416 on Saturday, which marked the eleventh day in a row the nation saw more than 100,000 daily cases. The country now has well more than 11 million. More than a dozen states, including New Hampshire, Maryland, Colorado, and Montana, all broke daily case records this weekend. Georgia is the only state to report a significant decrease over the last two weeks, NBC News data shows.
Experts say life in the U.S. won't return to any semblance of normalcy until there is an effective and widely available vaccine. That may not happen for months, despite encouraging news from Pfizer. Moderna followed up with its own positive news Monday, saying it expects to file for emergency approval of its vaccine in the "coming weeks," with 20 million doses ready to ship this year.
Cuomo wasn't quite as bullish on the vaccine timeline, however, saying on MSNBC that the "production schedule" for a new vaccine will have to be ramped up considerably if the goal is to make it available to everyone by spring 2021. He also said it would take a "massive effort" to make sure everyone has access to a vaccine, while expressing concerns that it might be inaccessible to underserved and minority communities — which have already been impacted harder by COVID-19 — that don't necessarily have major drugstore chains or personal physicians.
"The president talks about CVS and Walgreens and national chains," Cuomo said Sunday, repeating a criticism he has made previously. "Sure, but they are mainly located in rich communities, not in poor communities. My friends, we can’t compound the racial injustice that COVID already created."
Even when a safe, effective vaccine is approved, delivery and distribution to millions of Americans remain a mammoth challenge for governors. And Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert, says people should not abandon masks or social distancing even after they've been vaccinated.
Cuomo urged the federal government Sunday to get ahead of equitable vaccine distribution, referring Sunday to alarming health disparities unveiled within the first few months of the pandemic. He is determined not to repeat the patterns of spring, when New York hospitals were overwhelmed, testing was less expansive and fear crippled the economic and psychological nuclei of almost every state.
The governor described the COVID crisis as a "low tide" for America -- one that reveals ugliness below the surface that may not be visible under higher waters.
"Do you know how when you stand on the beach, and you look out at the water, and the tide is high, and all you see is the surface of the water, and the waves, and everything looks nice and beautiful? But you stand at the same point at low tide, when the water goes out and the sea bottom is revealed, and you see rocks, and you see debris, and you see the ugliness that the water was covering," he said.