BAYVILLE, N.J. — Eye-popping Covid-19 outbreaks in a fast-growing and heavily Orthodox New Jersey community are forcing Gov. Phil Murphy into perilous territory.
For months, the Democratic governor took relish in lambasting “knucklehead” behavior, citing individual bars, restaurants and even the infamous “Jersey Shore” house as dangerous examples of how personal behavior could detonate the state’s recovery from the pandemic.
Now, faced with rapidly escalating case totals in Lakewood — an Ocean County township of more than 100,000 people that’s roughly 70 percent Orthodox — Murphy is employing a softer touch to try to control the outbreaks.
Flanked by more than a dozen local officials, business and religious leaders and members of his own administration, Murphy took his regular coronavirus briefing to Ocean County on Friday to highlight the severity of the health crisis without hammering a community that’s acutely sensitive to outside attacks.
“There’s no room for even a speck of blaming that community or this community for what’s going on,” Murphy said, echoing language he’s used over the past two weeks as Lakewood’s daily positivity rate has climbed into the high 20s.
“I believe with all my heart that we can achieve that balance, that we can both be factual about where the hot spots are and what we need to do to drive them to the ground, but also defend with one thousand percent vigor every single community and their right, as long as it’s responsible, to do things like worship and pursue their faith,” Murphy said. “We have no tolerance for any amount, not a speck, that would creep into this finger-pointing stuff.”
But while Murphy and local leaders were effusive in their praise of each other’s cooperation throughout the last several weeks, the notion that “finger-pointing” was occurring still bubbled to the surface.
“Our numbers are much higher [and that] causes hate and can increase the challenge of anti-Semitism,” Duvi Honig, CEO of the Orthodox Chamber of Commerce, said near the end of Friday’s briefing, “kindly” asking Murphy to take “the media” to task for singling out Lakewood’s outbreaks.
“When you have an increase of testing in one location, the numbers should reflect in a way based on a certain percentage, but not based on the testing because that’s false information,” Honig said.
Honig’s assertion that the increase in testing capacity was contributing to rapidly escalating case totals doesn’t explain the community’s dangerously high spot positivity rate. More than 27 percent of Lakewood’s new tests came back positive on Sept. 28, compared to less than 2.5 percent for all of New Jersey.
Nonetheless, Honig’s comments regarding media attention and anti-Semitism carry real weight.
With its population projected to grow by nearly 40 percent over the next decade, Lakewood has emerged as a major population hub in New Jersey. Murphy carried Lakewood in the 2017 gubernatorial election despite the township voting overwhelmingly for President Donald Trump — who himself tested positive for the coronavirus on Friday — in the 2016 presidential election.
The state’s oversight of the outbreak in Lakewood could become a referendum on the governor’s relations with a key constituency and may influence how he fares in deep-red Ocean County in his bid for reelection next year.
While he refused to rule out taking localized mitigation efforts — such as those engaged in Bergen County at the start of the pandemic — Murphy rejected the suggestion of a community-specific quarantine mandate, saying the practicality of such would be “beyond real feasibility” and would run counter to the notion of “one New Jersey family.”
Murphy repeatedly emphasized that while Lakewood is a concern, a resurgence of the virus in there is simply part of persistent worries related to New Jersey’s overall caseload.
Recent upticks in New Jersey’s public health data have hardly been universal across the state. Of the 796 new cases reported by state officials on Friday (the highest total in four months), 190 came from Ocean County — home to just 7 percent of the state’s population — and 126 of those were from Lakewood. Three other Ocean County townships — Jackson, Lacy and Stafford — have also seen dangerous spikes, Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said.
Persichilli said the increases followed religious holidays, as Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah both fell in the last two weeks. While local leaders were adamant that rabbis have been cooperating with social distancing guidelines, Murphy administration officials have said religious observances almost certainly played a role in viral spread. Persichili also noted the administration received reports of weddings and funerals, where attendees may not have consistently practiced social distancing and mask-wearing.
State Sen. Robert Singer, an Ocean County Republican and vice chair of the county’s board of health, said Friday that health officials believe “transportation back and forth” between Lakewood and other communities in Brooklyn and Rockland County, N.Y. — areas with large Orthodox populations that have also seen spikes in new Covid-19 cases — likely played a role in recent as well.
Lakewood is home to one of the 80-odd school districts that started the academic year with all in-person instruction. Though there’s been little documentation of transmission in the classroom, the district reported seven students and 10 teachers who have tested positive for the virus since Sept. 1, Superintendent Laura Winters said.
The Murphy administration has already deployed 6,000 tests, and more contact tracers to assist in halting spread in Ocean County in the coming weeks. More aid could be forthcoming, Murphy said Friday.
“We cannot allow anyone with ill intentions to use this as a cover — whether it’s antisemitism, whether it’s dividing us — we will accept none of that,” Murphy said.