New Jersey and Tennessee Plans For Reopening Differ Immensely

Apr 22, 2020
Originally published on April 22, 2020 7:30 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When will life get back to normal? That is an ever-present question hanging over almost every aspect of this pandemic. Well, the answer to that question is, in many ways, determined by where you live. Some states are already lifting stay-at-home coronavirus restrictions. Others are being much more cautious.

We're going to get the view now from two states taking two very different approaches - New Jersey and Tennessee. Karen Yi of member station WNYC in New York and Blake Farmer with member station WPLN in Nashville are here to walk us through what's happening in their states.

Hello to both of you.

KAREN YI, BYLINE: Hello.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: Karen, I want start with you. New Jersey has been a lot more cautious and understandably so because New York and New Jersey saw such a huge outbreak. Can you just give us a sense of what kind of restrictions are still going to be in place there?

YI: That's right, so casinos, schools and even parks are still closed here. And just this afternoon, Gov. Phil Murphy says these social distancing policies are going to stay in place for at least the next few weeks. So while we're seeing that the number of new cases and hospitalizations is flat and staying flat, he says these numbers need to start showing a significant decrease before Murphy even considers reopening parts of the state. Here's Murphy today.

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PHIL MURPHY: We're not even close to even considering claiming victory. We need this curve to meaningfully start to decline and to do so over a sustained period of time before we can begin considering the implementation of any sort of a reopening strategy.

YI: Murphy says the state also needs to do a lot more testing before safely reopening. He has repeatedly said the state has tested the fourth-highest number of people in the country, behind New York, Florida and California. But that's still just a little under 2% of the population. Remember; this is a state of 9 million people, and it's one of the hardest-hit states. The death toll today is now at 5,000, and cases are at 95,000. So Murphy says that he plans to outline a blueprint for measures the state must hit before reopening. And this, of course, will be done in regional coordination with neighboring states like New York.

CHANG: OK. Well, now let's go to Tennessee for a very different view. Blake, I understand that the governor there has already declared the safer-at-home order will expire at the end of this month. But what I don't get is Tennessee's tested even fewer people than New Jersey has, so why is the governor so confident that the worst of the pandemic is over there?

FARMER: Well, hospitalizations have been far lower than first projected. A big plan to convert convention centers into hospitals has been shelved for now. The number of cases being confirmed each day had been stabilizing, even dropping a bit up until today. We actually had the largest jump that we've had throughout the pandemic. Now, that's also because far more people are being tested. Over the weekend, the state began offering COVID-19 testing to anybody who wants it, whether they had symptoms or not. And they showed up. Folks like Mally Edging (ph) from the town of Portland, Tenn. - her boyfriend works at a Tyson plant that had an outbreak.

MALLY EDGING: It's to make sure. My son and I both have asthma, and so we want to make sure that we're OK.

FARMER: Edging said she couldn't get tested in the doctor's office without symptoms. But the state set up these 30 sites, which will operate on the weekends. This is where the National Guard and health department nurses are taking swabs. Private, regional labs are processing most of those swabs, so testing capacity has really expanded to the point that Tennessee's top elected officials say it's time to inch the economy back open. And in many parts of the state with more conservative voters, that is exactly the pressure politicians are feeling - you know, get us back to work.

CHANG: OK, so that's how some people in Tennessee are feeling. But how about people in New Jersey, Karen? Do you have a sense of how people there feel about reopening anytime soon?

YI: People are actually really supportive of the stay-at-home measures. A Monmouth University poll released just this week found a majority of residents support all of the measures the governor has taken. Even the more controversial steps, like shutting down state parks. There is a small percentage that say these measures should go even farther.

I should also mention that not everyone in the state has seen the worst of this outbreak yet. Cases really started to hit the northern end first and hard. And now we're seeing the infection moved to the central and the southern part of the state. So what we've seen is the state is doubling ICU bed capacity and has opened up these pop-up field hospitals. They just opened one in the south. And what they're trying to do is follow the trajectory of this virus. And even though we're seeing a slowing of the cases, all of these measures are important because even when the state reopens, Murphy is very clear that he expects to see a spike in cases again.

CHANG: Well, Blake, when we're looking at the more populated areas in Tennessee like Nashville or Memphis, where there are much higher numbers of COVID cases and deaths, how are people there responding to the statewide restrictions lifting so soon?

FARMER: Well, the statewide safer-at-home order being lifted actually excludes the largest cities, but they do neighbor counties that are reopening. Here in Nashville, the city's leaders, who are pretty much all Democrats, have urged the state, led by Republicans, to slow down. Some have even called the governor reckless. At the same time, the biggest cities are talking about reopening some businesses in early May. It's just there's a bit more emphasis on how social distancing will have to be a way of life for the foreseeable future.

CHANG: All right. That's Blake Farmer of member station WPLN and Karen Yi of member station WNYC.

Thank you to both of you.

YI: Thank you.

FARMER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.