Murphy will still wait a week to lift N.J. school mask mandate March 7 despite CDC’s new COVID guidelines

Published: Feb. 25, 2022

Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration will stick with plans to wait until March 7 — a week from Monday — to lift New Jersey’s statewide mask mandate in schools and child care facilities, despite the federal government softening COVID-19 guidance Friday, the governor’s office told NJ Advance Media.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new guidelines late Friday afternoon for communities where the virus is declining, with the focus less on positive tests and more on hospital numbers. Healthy people in areas considered at “low” and “medium” risk are no longer recommended to wear masks indoors, including in schools.

More than 70% of Americans fall into one of those categories — including all parts of New Jersey.

The federal government will also no longer require masks on school buses.

But Alyana Alfaro Post, a spokeswoman for Murphy’s office, said in a statement to NJ Advance Media on Friday evening that New Jersey is keeping March 7 as the end date for its school and child care mask mandate. That means all students and staff will still be required to wear masks indoors for the next week.

Alfaro Post cited how the state health department released guidelines just two days ago to help schools prepare, including guidance on when masks will still be recommended.

“Many districts and childcare centers are still reviewing the guidance released by the Department of Health earlier this week to determine how they will proceed,” she said. “Changing the date the mandate is lifted would create challenges for districts and childcare centers that have not yet made a final determination about masking in their schools.”

The CDC’s updated guidance is not binding. States are still allowed to set their own rules.

Murphy announced earlier this month he will drop the mandate March 7 as coronavirus numbers keep plummeting after a recent spike. Individual schools districts and child care facilities can keep the requirements if they choose, and many have already announced they will. Otherwise, face coverings will be optional for staff and students.

New Jersey lifted its broader statewide indoor mask mandate last May, though schools and child care have remained among the few locations where face coverings are still required. The state also still mandates masks in health care settings and state government buildings, and the federal government requires them on mass transit.

Murphy said Wednesday officials will consider lifting the mandate in government buildings next.

The governor often insists that science, not politics, guides his COVID-19 decisions and has frequently pointed to CDC recommendations to support his moves. But he has veered a few times.

Last May, Murphy waited two weeks to end the state’s broader mask mandate despite the CDC dropping face covering recommendations for fully vaccinated people. He then decided not to reinstate the mandate when the agency tightened guidelines amid rising numbers in July.

Murphy made the announcement earlier this month about lifting the school mask mandate even though the CDC was then still recommending face coverings in schools. He said at the time “we’re doing the best we can to manage a pandemic and to not declare victory but to say we can live with this responsibly.”

Murphy is one of several Democratic governors to recently announce they’re easing school mask rules as the omicron wave subsided. He has suggested residents should learn to live with the virus and move from pandemic to endemic footing two years after the crisis started.

Republicans have repeatedly called on Murphy, a Democrat, to end the school mandate immediately amid the steady decline in numbers. Others — including a top Democratic state lawmaker — have urged him to keep the mandate, especially in day care, because COVID-19 vaccination rates are still relatively low among students, while children under 5 still aren’t eligible for vaccines in the U.S.

The CDC’s announcement Friday signals a shift in the way the federal government is approaching the virus.

The agency said people with COVID-19 symptoms or who test positive shouldn’t stop wearing masks. But officials noted how protection from immunity — both from vaccination and infection — is rising and the risk of severe disease is now generally lower.

“Anybody is certainly welcome to wear a mask at any time if they feel safer wearing a mask,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a news briefing. “We want to make sure our hospitals are OK and people are not coming in with severe disease. ... Anyone can go to the CDC website, find out the volume of disease in their community and make that decision.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-02-26 03:43:42 -0800