N.J. orders malls, amusement parks to close as 15,000 apply for unemployment

New Jersey joined with New York and Connecticut to close bars, restaurants and movie theaters starting Monday night. Here, customers wait in line at a store in New York. (Yuki Iwamura/AP Photo)

New Jersey joined with New York and Connecticut to close bars, restaurants and movie theaters starting Monday night. Here, customers wait in line at a store in New York. (Yuki Iwamura/AP Photo)

Updated at 5:15 p.m.

So many New Jersey residents tried to apply for unemployment insurance on Monday — about 15,000 — that the state website crashed, said Gov. Phil Murphy on Tuesday, the first full day that severe new restrictions on business operations were in place.

It was a strong indicator of the financial stress Americans are feeling as states across the nation restrict individual movement and limit economic activity to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

In New Jersey, health officials confirmed 89 new cases of COVID-19 since Monday — bringing the state total to 267 — as well as the state’s third coronavirus-related death, a 90-year-old man from Bergen County.

They also said there’s more evidence of “community spread,” meaning some new patients can’t be traced to any confirmed cases.

That dynamic — together with the wider availability of testing — has contributed to a sharp uptick in the number of confirmed cases over the past few days, said Christina Tan, the state epidemiologist.

“I think what we’re seeing right now is because there’s a lot of testing,” she said. “Seek, and you’ll find.”

Murphy on Monday banned nonessential businesses from operating later than 8 p.m. and ordered the outright closure of others, including gyms, movie theaters, performance arts centers, casinos and racetracks.

On Tuesday, the Democrat expanded that list to also include malls and amusement parks. Bars and restaurants — including those that are part of malls but have their own entrance — can serve take-out and delivery meals only.

“In many respects, this is day one of life in New Jersey under the measures we put in place yesterday to ensure social distancing and to help flatten the curve and slow the spread of coronavirus,” Murphy said during a Tuesday afternoon news briefing.

Positioning the safety nets

The governor said officials are moving quickly to try to prop up as many programs as possible for people who are feeling the effects of the widespread business closures.

The Department of Labor and Workforce Development is again accepting unemployment applications, he said, and has listed protections available for workers on its website.

At the same time, Murphy implored employers to keep workers on payroll so they could access any sick leave or paid family leave benefits that could be coming as part of an emergency response by Congress.

“Not paying employees now might keep them from taking advantage of these,” he said.

For small businesses, Murphy said his administration submitted an application to the federal Small Business Administration for disaster loan assistance on Tuesday, and is working with lawmakers to create a business assistance program “within the coming week.”

Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver stressed that the Department of Community Affairs is accepting rental assistance applications for people who may be feeling pressure as rent checks come due on the first of April.

“We serve veterans, we serve the elderly, we serve single parent populations — a wide variety of cohorts that find themselves in that situation,” she said.

Hospitals could be ‘severely overburdened’

In an alarming letter Murphy sent to President Trump on Tuesday, the governor formally asked the U.S. military and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to assist in expanding the state’s hospital and intensive care unit capacity.

“Currently, there are approximately 23,000 hospital beds in the State of New Jersey across 71 hospitals, with 55 percent of those beds occupied,” Murphy wrote. “Estimates from The Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers-Camden suggest that New Jersey could be facing a peak shortfall of anywhere from 123,000 to 313,000 hospital beds sometime between May and October.”

Should that situation materialize, Murphy noted, health care workers will have “no choice” but to deny lifesaving care and ventilators to some people — as doctors have had to do in Italy.

“We must do everything in our power to prevent these awful situations from happening here in America,” Murphy said.

State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said Tuesday that the state is exploring the possibility of opening up eight acute care hospitals that had closed in recent years, as well as bringing shuttered wings in open hospitals back into use.

In his letter to Trump, Murphy stressed that time is of the essence. State health officials, he wrote, estimate that New Jersey will need an additional 2,000 critical care beds in the next two weeks, with ventilators in about 10% of them.

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