TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey went from being one of the country’s worst Covid-19 hot spots to a model of how to flatten the curve.
Now, two months into the first summer of the pandemic, it’s backsliding. New cases are way up and the state’s rate of spread nearly doubled in the past four weeks as keggers, house parties and packed-to-the-gills vacation rentals became infection hubs.
If fresh scars of the pandemic’s darkest days and strict orders from the governor weren’t enough to keep tourists and residents from pretending 2020 was simply another raucous summer down the Jersey Shore, the future will be grim for other states that have been less aggressive.
New Jersey, where 16,000 residents are believed to have died from Covid-19 since March, is serving as a test case of whether any state can really reopen safely. The experience could be a harbinger for states like New York and Connecticut that also clamped down early.
By Monday, spiking case totals forced New Jersey to scale back its economic reopening and officials worry that, without the public’s cooperation, things will only get worse.
Other states that had strictly followed CDC guidelines and cautiously reopened are also seeing a surge in cases this summer as more Americans shrug off social distancing orders and flock to beaches, concerts and other potential super-spreading events. If July and August go down as the summer of spread, that doesn’t bode well for the fall, when many schools and colleges will reopen and colder weather will force all the parties indoors. Officials from across the nation told POLITICO this week they are worried about what comes next.
“Frankly, if you see a little bit of slackening of behavior, particularly among young people, it’s really hard to keep using that bullhorn. And with the same level of effectiveness,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said in an interview, speaking shortly before announcing new capacity limits for indoor venues. “The economic consequences will be around us for years. And keeping people’s confidence, keeping their sort of habits in the right place as the clock continues to go on? I think that becomes harder and harder.”
As the U.S. hurtles toward 5 million cases and more than 157,000 deaths, health experts are alarmed by how quickly Americans are resuming their usual summertime activities despite the increased risks. The threat posed by a highly infectious, deadly disease can’t keep Americans from piling onto boats in Connecticut, partying in the Hamptons with The Chainsmokers or clowning at a rodeo in Colorado. The spread isn’t confined to adults, either: About 260 children who attended a Georgia overnight summer camp tested positive in June.
“People are wanting to take their normal summer vacations. But how do you get the public to realize that this is the new normal?” said Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. “Some people aren’t ready to accept that yet.”
Some blame the public’s increasingly risky behavior on the lack of a coherent public health messaging strategy in the U.S. President Donald Trump only recently embraced face masks and has largely downplayed the seriousness of the virus while holding a campaign rally in a packed arena.
“We’re hearing a tremendous amount of mixed messages from the president on down,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director for the American Public Health Association. “You hear people saying, let’s get people back to school, and then they think well, if kids can go back to school, I guess I can go to the beach. … We’ll be floundering all summer.”
With daily case counts topping 60,000, federal health officials warn that the surge is showing little sign of abating. The White House’s coronavirus task force coordinator, Deborah Birx, told CNN on Sunday that the pandemic was entering a new phase and is “extraordinarily widespread,” adding that people in rural areas were not immune to the virus.
In Minnesota, health officials are scrambling to track down thousands of people who attended a large rodeo at the end of July after discovering one of the attendees had tested positive for coronavirus.
“It’s pretty clear our current executive orders aren’t being adhered to as well as we need them to be,” Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. State Attorney General Keith Ellison last week filed a lawsuit against the rodeo organizers for violating an executive order against large gatherings.
Even in states where large gatherings are banned and face masks are required, officials are struggling with enforcement. That challenge becomes even more acute with the countless weddings, graduation parties and private events — most of which occur behind closed doors — that represent a major source of the recent spread.
“It’s difficult. I wish it were as easy as telling people to put their seatbelts on,” New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said in an interview on Tuesday. “Unfortunately, this enemy that we can’t see, we now know it is in most places. And behaviors are difficult in that regard because you can’t see it.”
Those behaviors are even harder to control when you’re dealing with “the invincibility of youth,” said New Jersey Assemblymember Herb Conaway, who also works as the public health officer in Burlington County in the Philadelphia suburbs.
Rites of passage like weddings and graduation parties caused a rash of outbreaks in Montana, the state’s lead epidemiologist Stacey Anderson said. Those events are being held despite repeated warnings from state officials to avoid large gatherings and encourage social distancing.
“It’s kind of like a wildfire,” she said. “Someone will get infected at a little event in another county and bring it back to their home county and infect people in their community. And then it becomes a much bigger event.”
Testing backlogs and a lack of cooperation with contact tracers, due to privacy concerns or other factors, create even more challenges for overworked health officials tasked with identifying outbreaks before they become full-blown disasters.
Murphy’s long warned residents that another wave of Covid-19 cases would eventually hit the Garden State and, until now, he’d managed to stave off another round with the virus through preventative measures like postponing the opening of indoor restaurants and quarantining out-of-state travelers.
That’s no longer enough. New Jersey’s been forced back into the ring with Covid-19 because of something that’s even harder to contain than the virus.
“It’s human nature,” Murphy said at a recent press conference. After spending the better part of four months under lock-and-key, too many young people are “mad as hell [and] not going to take it anymore.”
New Jersey recorded its first case of Covid-19 on March 4. Over the next two weeks, as hospitals in the state’s northern counties were swamped by patients with flu-like symptoms, Murphy began implementing a series of orders that eventually ground the state’s economy to a halt. By March 21, residents were directed to stay in their homes and most of the state’s retail businesses had shut their doors.
Since starting to open back up in May, New Jersey kept its cases low — even as the virus raged across the Sun Belt — but that’s changed in recent weeks. Daily new cases went from 289 to about 500 during the month of July. Data suggests the bulk of the cases are in the southern part of the state, by the Jersey Shore, while the northern counties adjacent to New York that were hard hit at the start of the pandemic remain fairly quiet.
“It’s 95 degrees out,” he said. “As the clock has gone on, folks have begun to, a little bit, fall off the wagon.”
Anna Gronewold contributed to this report.