Murphy’s dilemma: The summer is here. COVID’s back is broken. And residents are starting to lose patience

There’s a joke going around with the parents of children who are scheduled to graduate in the coming weeks: Have the kids line up outside of a Costco and do a procession through the warehouse. After all, that would be allowed under the governor’s executive orders.

It’s a silly thought — but ignoring the feelings behind it is to ignore what appears to be a growing sentiment: Public opinion may be teetering away from Gov. Phil Murphy.

Murphy, who scored record approval ratings for his handling of the crisis at the beginning of the month, may see those slip away in the next poll. The governor, who has preached daily about following the science, may soon have to listen to social science.

Ben Dworkin, the director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship, said the governor is facing a very fluid situation.

“There’s a certain tolerance level for something like this,” he said. “If the science says this needs to go on forever, it’s going to get harder to get the public to buy into it.

File photos
Ben Dworkin.

“But it’s almost impossible to determine when you have to flip the switch and say, ‘Forget the science.’ It’s a very difficult needle to thread.”

More and more residents appear to feel that day has come.

They don’t understand why they can go to one store and not another. Why they can congregate at the beach, but not at a church. And they are starting to question why there isn’t a specific end game. Especially when they feel they have kept their part of the deal.

Murphy said the state needed to essentially shut down to break the back of the curve. This weekend, it’s clear that we have.

The key hospital numbers Murphy says help determine his decisions — hospitalizations, the number of patients in intensive care and on ventilators — are all trending favorably, down as much as 45% from just two weeks ago.

Hospitalizations are at 2,755, down from 4,195 just two weeks ago. The number of patients in intensive or critical care is down to 719 (it was once over 2,000) and the number of people on ventilators is likely to drop under 500 in the coming days.

The number that’s not clear is just how many residents have grown tired of vague responses such as “We’re not there yet.” Or the number of residents who have no interest in waiting for the recommendations of the numerous blue-ribbon commissions Murphy has created.

But you’re starting to see an open rebellion. And it’s not just at gyms or on message planes at the Shore. It’s at places such as the Solid Rock Baptist Church in Berlin, which held services Sunday. It’s one thing for a gym to openly ignore an executive order, but a church? That’s not a good look.

Imagine if a dozen places of worship did the same thing next weekend?

That’s why this is such a big week for the governor.

  • He has hinted at a plan for outdoor graduation — he needs to deliver upon it;
  • He has repeatedly praised New Jerseyans for doing the right thing — it’s time he trusts them to do so;
  • His working groups have dozens of plans from industries and geographic regions — it’s time to let them be implemented.

Here’s the catch — this ultimately may be what’s best for the state. One-size-fits-all decrees work well when shutting down. They may not work as well when opening up.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said as much last week, when he announced his reopening plan for Newark. For instance, curbside pickup doesn’t work in Newark, he said. It’s not about trying on shoes on the sidewalk, Baraka said.

That’s why businesses in Newark will need to submit proposals to the mayor’s office — and have them approved — before they will be allowed to reopen.

Baraka also said what works in Newark may not work in other Essex County towns — or in other counties. He’s right. And if all government is truly local, it’s time to let the endless layers of government (that elected officials insist we need) operate.

Murphy gave a shout-out to local governments on CNN on Sunday morning when discussing the success of the Shore weekend.

“The plan worked out with the local mayors and counties is a good one — it largely leaves it to them to execute,” he said.

It’s time to do that everywhere. From cities to towns, to industries and sectors.

The incentives for business to get it right are obvious: Failure to do so will cost them their business. And residents need an opportunity to prove that they are, in fact, the most educated in the country — or, at least, a few steps ahead of the knuckleheads at the Lake of the Ozarks.

The good news for Murphy? If he dramatically reopens the state soon, residents will be accepting, Dworkin said.

“Once they make the move to open up significantly, memories will be short,” he said. “The moment people get back to some sense of normalcy, they’re not going to remember they had to wait a few weeks longer than other states.”

Murphy, however, cannot rule by executive order forever, Dworkin said.

“If we hit Aug. 1 and we’re in the same position we are today, it will be a major political problem,” he said. “But where in between the decision should be made to open things up is hard to say.”

Murphy, for his part, said again Monday that he won’t be swayed by demonstrations, such as the one that took place in Point Pleasant.

“I don’t begrudge their right to protest, but they don’t sway me,” he said. “The only thing that sways me are the facts and the data and the science.”

Dworkin, however, said he may not be able to hold that opinion forever.

“It’s hard for anyone to advise him with confidence, but I’m sure the political advisers of the governor are worried about extending this too long,” he said.

“At some time, he’s going to have to go with the social science, and not the medical science.”

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