N.J. balancing how to enforce social distancing rules with mental health challenges of reopening

Gov. Phil Murphy said the trial run of beach reopenings this weekend went well.

“So far, so good, but we’ve got to make sure it stays that way,” he said at his daily COVID-19 briefing Saturday.

While crowds were large, no major disturbances were reported. The state can only hope that is the situation next weekend — Memorial Day weekend — when much larger crowds are expecting to head to the Shore.

The biggest challenge, Murphy said, will be keeping the peace while enforcing social distancing regulations. It is something he said he has discussed with Shore and law enforcement officials.

“We’re all sort of going through this together,” he said. “It’s going to be an unusual appetite to get to the beach, to get outside. (Shore officials) recognize that, and we recognize that. So, we’ve had conversations about, ‘How do you do this in a way where we’re enforcing, but we’re not putting our law enforcement and other folks in harm’s way.’”

State Police Superintendent Col. Pat Callahan said the first goal of law enforcement is control situations before they get unwieldly.

“Our training consists of a lot of deescalation techniques, whether that’s with a group of people directed toward law enforcement or law enforcement trying to break up either a physical or verbal altercation,” he said.

“I can only ask for people to try to have patience with one another and certainly with law enforcement as we try and work through this, some obviously unprecedented challenges that are facing each and every one of us.”

Murphy, who repeatedly says, “Public health creates economic health,” reiterated that mental health is as important to those goals as anything else.

Murphy announced the state’s Department of Human Services has received more than $2.8 million in federal funding to support behavioral health services during the COVID-19 crisis — some of which will be used to fund the NJMentalHealthCares helpline (866-202-HELP).

He said he understands residents have been through unprecedented times and encouraged everyone to be cognizant of that as the state reopens.

“You’ve got people in an unusual circumstance, but in their physical locations over the past couple of months — tied to home unlike ever before, in most cases,” he said. “And, now, you’ve got what’s on top of that, as we’ve been discussing for weeks, mental health challenges, just natural, human nature, ‘I’m dying to get out.’ We’ve just got to be very careful.

“If you’re trying to get your unemployment insurance, if you’re trying to get the beach, if you’re trying to get to the park or essential retail, we all have to be mindful of each other right now. This is something that we’ve never gone through before and we have to make sure that we get the best behavior possible.”

State officials, in a release, detailed how some of the $2.8 million in funding — which was given to the state’s Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services — will be used.

Human Services Commissioner Carole Johnson said funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Agency will be used to expand access to counseling and other supports during the pandemic.

“These funds will help New Jerseyans facing behavioral health issues during this crisis get the emotional support they need,” Johnson said. “We are here to help.

“We have launched the NJMentalHealthCares helpline (866-202-HELP) to provide New Jerseyans a safe space to connect and discuss the anxiety we all feel in this challenging time. With this new funding, we will be able to add additional services and supports.”

With the $2 million in SAMHSA funding, Johnson said the department will be funding Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care, which will serve as the coordinating entity to provide treatment, supports and referrals to treatment through expanded access to tele-mental health. These resources are expected to help serve as many as 2,500 individuals statewide. The SAMHSA funding also will allow Human Services to work with the Department of Children and Families to provide peer recovery supports, she said.

The $882,035 grant from FEMA will help fund the NJ Hope and Healing Crisis Counseling Program, which will be run by Human Services with services provided by Catholic Charities, Family Services Bureau of Newark and the Mental Health Association in New Jersey. To date, DMHAS has been providing virtual training and drop-in support sessions to first responders, among several other groups.

The additional FEMA resources will support the training of more counselors, appropriate social distancing outreach, informational materials and increased linkages to resources, Johnson said.

Read more from ROI-NJ on coronavirus: