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Coronavirus update: Testing in N.J. prisons to begin, $1.4B paid to unemployed

Medical assistant Michelle Gravinese (left) helps her colleague Kayla Clauso put on protective gear before administering COVID-19 tests at a testing site in the Motor Vehicle Commission parking lot in Camden, New Jersey. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Medical assistant Michelle Gravinese (left) helps her colleague Kayla Clauso put on protective gear before administering COVID-19 tests at a testing site in the Motor Vehicle Commission parking lot in Camden, New Jersey. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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New Jersey reported 2,651 new coronavirus cases Thursday, bringing the state’s total to 121,190.

Another 311 people died of complications from COVID-19. The state has now lost 7,538 residents total to the pandemic.

$1.4 billion paid in unemployment benefits

Some 622,000 New Jersey residents are now receiving unemployment benefits, as the state struggles with the financial crisis caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Gov. Phil Murphy said the state had paid more than $1.4 billion in unemployment insurance benefits since the start of the public health crisis.

But some people have reported long wait times on the state’s unemployment hotline and other technical delays on the Department of Labor’s website, which has slowed their ability to secure government assistance after losing income.

Murphy says the vast majority of outstanding unemployment claims are self-employed people, independent contractors, and gig workers who filed through the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. He added that, even in a non-pandemic economy, it takes about three weeks to process new unemployment claims

“We appreciate your patience and we appreciate even your frustration as you’ve been waiting to get through,” Murphy said. “Every New Jerseyan eligible for unemployment benefits will receive every dollar, every penny they qualify for.”

Murphy urges caution ahead of parks reopening

Fearing a spike in new COVID-19 cases just as the state has begun to finally “flatten the curve,” Murphy urged residents to continue social distancing this weekend as they venture out to newly opened parks and golf courses.

Earlier this week the governor announced he would allow the outdoor sites to reopen if they adhered to strict social distancing measures intended to slow the spread of coronavirus. Counties may decide on their own whether to reopen county parks.

“Who doesn’t want to get out right now and get some fresh air and exercise a little bit?” Murphy said. “But please, please keep doing what you’ve been doing.”

Murphy implored residents to wear face coverings when going out in public, though the state does not require it. Residents should maintain a six-foot distance from others and not congregate in groups, he added.

The New Jersey State Police and other law enforcement agencies will be enforcing the social distancing requirements at parks and golf courses, Murphy said.

Universal testing in prisons, halfway houses to begin next week

The New Jersey Department of Corrections is embarking on an ambitious effort to test its roughly 8,000 employees and 18,000 prisoners for COVID-19.

In a plan outlined Friday, officials will use the FDA-approved saliva test developed by Rutgers University to conduct universal coronavirus testing in the state’s prisons and halfway houses beginning late next week.

The department is also offering alternate housing to staff members and Rutgers University Correctional Healthcare workers who have been exposed to the virus and don’t want to bring it home.

“This comprehensive plan is a result of the Department’s steadfast commitment to protect the health of staff and inmates, while ensuring the safe operation of our correctional facilities,” Murphy said in a press release. “This action represents the single largest mass testing initiative by a State department.”

But the administration has also been criticized for moving too slowly to address the spread of COVID-19 behind bars, which has now sickened 527 DOC employees and 157 prisoners. Twenty-nine people serving time have died.

Civil rights groups including the ACLU-NJ have urged Murphy to hasten the process releasing people convicted of low-level offenses who are at a greater risk of developing severe cases of coronavirus.

NJ Transit lost 98% of its ridership by April

NJ Transit was missing out on 98% of its ridership and had lost some $29 million in fare revenue by the beginning of April, as the COVID-19 pandemic was bearing down on the Garden State, according to a report in NJ.com.

Public transit use plummeted in the state after Gov. Phil Murphy issued a stay-at-home order on March 21 in a bid to slow the spread of coronavirus in what has become one of the worst outbreaks of the illness in the U.S.

Jeff Bernstein, NJ Transit controller and deputy chief financial officer, told a board of directors committee Thursday that the agency has enough money to last through June, the website reported.

That included $1.76 billion the agency received from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, part of which was dedicated to helping public transportation systems remain solvent during the global health and financial crisis.

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