N.J. calls for cancellation of all public events over 250 people, suspends jury trials

N.J. Gov. Phil Murphy delivers his second State of the State address in Trenton on January 14, 2020. (Edwin J. Torres/ Governor's Office)

N.J. Gov. Phil Murphy delivers his second State of the State address in Trenton on January 14, 2020. (Edwin J. Torres/ Governor's Office)

Updated at 9:20 p.m.

Gov. Phil Murphy called Thursday for all public gatherings of 250 people or more — including concerts, sporting events and parades — to be cancelled to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“We are taking this step because social distancing works,” Murphy said in a statement. “It is our best chance to ‘flatten the curve’ and mitigate the chance of rapid spread.”

Later Thursday, New Jersey Chief Justice Stuart Rabner announced the courts would suspend all new jury trials “until further notice,” although trials already in progress would continue.

And in Bergen County, which has the highest number of confirmed cases statewide, officials said all public school districts would shut down Friday afternoon and transition to online and paper learning for at least two weeks, according to The Bergen Record.

Murphy’s guidance on large public gatherings is not mandatory, and health officials said they would leave questions of whether to hold large private events, such as weddings or religious ceremonies, up to the hosts and attendees.

“Part of the personal responsibility of those people is to consider the impact of having 250 people in a contained space for a period of time,” stated Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli at an afternoon briefing.

Officials also stopped short of forcing schools to close, continuing to leave that decision up to local policymakers.

State Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet said that stance is consistent with the guidance on large public gatherings because there are not more than 250 students in a single classroom.

“We have them separated throughout the entire school,” he said. “We’ll be making recommendations tomorrow to our school districts to modify their schedule and to actually have lunch inside within the classrooms.”

The decision to close all 75 districts in Bergen County was made by County Executive Jim Tedesco. He urged private and religious schools to do the same.

Persichilli stressed that the risk of contracting COVID-19 in New Jersey remains low, even as officials said six more people had tested positive for the virus, bringing the total in the state to 29.

Thirteen of those cases have occurred in Bergen County and five in Monmouth County, Persichilli said. No other county has seen more than two cases, she said.

A 69-year-old Bergen County man died from the virus earlier this week.

Pressed by reporters regarding why New Jersey did not ban public gatherings of more than 250 people — as Philadelphia did Thursday with events larger than 1,000 — Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver said state leaders didn’t feel it was necessary at this point because so many venues were postponing or cancelling events on their own.

But that could change, Oliver said, adding the governor has the authority to impose more draconian restrictions.

Institutions like the NBA, MLS, MLB and NHL had already suspended their seasons by the time state officials spoke Thursday, and the NCAA announced shortly thereafter it had cancelled its popular March Madness basketball tournament.

Atlantic City announced Thursday it had cancelled its St. Patrick’s Day parade as the impacts of coronavirus continued to spread.

But several venues where people gather in close quarters are still operating, such as flights, mass transit and casinos.

In a statement, Chief Justice Rabner called the decision to suspend new jury trials an “extraordinary step,” but one needed to protect public safety.

He said the court system would otherwise try to keep the wheels of justice moving by conducting motions, non-jury trials and certain hearings remotely via video and telephone.

He also said courts would stagger schedules for landlord-tenant, small claims and other proceedings to avoid bringing large groups together in confined areas.

Persichilli said that beating back the coronavirus in New Jersey has to be a collective effort.

“We certainly will get through this, but we have to work together,” she said.

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