Coronavirus update: N.J. to reopen parks, freelancers get unemployment

The reopenings take effect Saturday. Freelancers and gig workers to start receiving unemployment payments.

Stevens Park in Hoboken, N.J.

Stevens Park in Hoboken, N.J., is closed during the coronavirus pandemic on Tuesday, April 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

Are you on the front lines of the coronavirus? Help us report on the pandemic.

New Jersey reported 2,481 new coronavirus cases Wednesday, bringing the state’s total to 116,264.

Another 329 people died of complications from COVID-19. The state has now lost 6,770 residents total to the pandemic.

“To put that in perspective, and let’s just pause and think about this for a second,” Gov. Phil Murphy said, “the number of 6,770 is more than New Jerseyans lost in World War I, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, both Gulf wars, Afghanistan and Iraq, Superstorm Sandy and 9/11 combined.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

It’s a number that “takes your breath away,” Murphy said as he asked for a moment of silence at his daily news briefing.

N.J. to reopen parks, golf courses

Murphy announced Wednesday that he will sign an executive order reopening state parks, and allowing county parks and golf courses to reopen, starting at sunrise on Saturday.

Some restrictions will remain in place. Parking will be capped at 50% of capacity; playgrounds, visitor centers and restrooms will remain closed; and organized activities like picnics and team sports will remain prohibited. Wearing a face covering is a “strong recommendation” but not required.

“And we would ask you — we can’t make you do this — but we want you to stay close to home, so if you chose to go to a park beginning Saturday at sunrise, go to one that’s near you,” Murphy said, adding that social distancing will be “strongly enforced.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The closure of state and county parks on April 7 had been among the most complained-about measures that Murphy took to slow the spread of COVID-19, although a Monmouth University poll released last week found that 70% of residents supported the policy.

The New Jersey Outdoor Alliance called the move an “overreach,” while several lawmakers said access to public parks was critical to the mental health of people otherwise cooped up inside under stay-at-home orders.

Murphy originally justified the closures based on reports that residents and out-of-staters were gathering there in defiance of social distancing mandates, putting at risk those law enforcement officers who had to disperse them.

At the time, officials were still concerned about a surge in COVID-19 patients overwhelming New Jersey’s hospitals. Since then, however, the number of new cases reported daily has leveled off, and hospitals have at least temporarily averted disaster.

Murphy said Wednesday he made the decision based on “data, science, fact,” and with the exception of the mental health argument, public pressure to reopen the parks “did not matter one little bit.”

Freelancers, gig workers to start receiving unemployment payments

New Jersey’s self-employed workers, gig workers and independent contractors will start hearing Wednesday whether they qualify for unemployment benefits, the state Department of Labor announced.

Those who are eligible will begin receiving payments as early as Friday.

Those classes of workers — including those who do not meet a threshold for recent earnings — would not normally qualify for benefits. But Congress authorized so-called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance as part of its $2 trillion coronavirus relief act.

“Workers in this group, who have applied for regular unemployment and been denied, do not have to do anything further,” the Labor Department said in a news release. “The Department will start reaching out today, and will start processing payments this week.”

More information on how to make a claim for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance is available on the department’s website.

N.J. businesses would still struggle under ‘soft reopening,’ survey finds

A substantial majority of New Jersey businesses say they can reopen in a way that protects workers and customers, according to a new survey conducted by the New Jersey Business and Industry Association.

But at the same time, just 16% of businesses said they could turn a monthly profit if half their customers showed up or placed orders. That raises the prospect that even under a “soft reopening” of businesses, where the state hypothetically limits capacity in all stores to 50%, businesses will continue to suffer and shed workers.

That capacity limit is currently in effect for essential retail businesses still open in New Jersey.

“It’s a positive to see the capability and willingness of employers to operate with appropriate social distancing,” NJBIA President and CEO Michele Siekerka said. “What remains to be seen is what entry limitations will be put on businesses, and whether customers will have the same initial willingness to patronize out of health concerns.”

In the survey of roughly 1,350 businesses, two-thirds reported a decline in revenues and another 27% reported no income at all. Just one in 20 businesses reported normal revenue.

Meanwhile, Americans continue to feel ambivalent about lifting the stay-at-home restrictions that have shuttered businesses and caused record unemployment. Recent polls found that large majorities of Americans have some concern that the coronavirus may trigger an economic collapse, but also that remaining at home to combat the coronavirus’ spread is more important than returning to work.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal