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N.J. will now require people wear masks outside to battle coronavirus, Murphy says

Shoppers wear masks while exiting Wegmans in Woodbridge in April. (Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media/TNS)

People in New Jersey will now be required to wear masks outside in public when social distancing isn’t possible to help prevent the coronavirus from spreading, Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday morning.

Murphy said during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that he is signing an executive order today mandating the practice.

“There’s no question that face coverings are game-changers,” the governor said. “I think we were the first state in America to require them indoors. They’ve been strongly recommended out-of-doors. We’re gonna turn that up a notch today and say, We’re gonna ask you: If you can’t socially distance, it’s gonna be required.”

People in the Garden State have been required since early April to wear face coverings in public while indoors, at stores, eateries, and other businesses, or on public transportation. This broadens the edict to include when you’re in an outdoor setting with a large number of people and keeping 6 feet away is difficult.

It comes as officials warn that the state’s rate of transmission has jumped back over 1, meaning, on average, each newly infected resident is passing the virus to at least one other person.

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Murphy did not specifically say what the penalty would be for violators and admitted this will be more difficult to enforce. He was asked if that means you can get a ticket if you’re walking on a boardwalk at the Jersey Shore without a mask.

“If you’re there by yourself or with your family, the answer is no,” the governor said. “But if you’re congregating with a lot of other folks and there’s no social distancing, you’re gonna at least get a warning, if not something stronger.”

“Admittedly, this is harder to enforce, which is why it’s not a no-brainer,” he added. “But we have to take this step, particularly given the hotspots we’re seeing elsewhere in the country. We’ve gone through hell in New Jersey. We’ve lost over 13,000 people. We’ve brought our numbers way down. We can’t go through that hell again.”

Murphy is expected to discuss the new executive order more at his coronavirus briefing in Trenton at 1 p.m.

The announcement comes a day after the World Health Organization said there is emerging evidence that the virus’ airborne spread may be greater than previously thought.

Even as the coronavirus has claimed the lives of more than 130,000 people in the U.S., masks have been the center of a fierce culture war. Some residents refuse to wear masks, saying they don’t believe they’re helpful or infringe on their freedom.

Murphy said during a television interview Sunday that wearing masks should be a national mandate. So far, President Donald Trump’s administration has recommended people use them but not required it, though there has been mounting pressure for Trump to change that stance.

Once a coronavirus hotspot, New Jersey has seen its daily figures drop dramatically since peaking in April and remain relatively steady in recent weeks as cases surge in other states.

But the state’s rising rate of transmission has worried officials. Murphy said Monday he’s pumping the brakes on taking more steps in its gradual reopening from months of lockdown restrictions until officials can bring the rate down.

Meanwhile, the state is calling on people traveling from 19 states with rising cases — including neighboring Delaware — to self-quarantine for 14 days after arriving in New Jersey, including residents returning homes. Connecticut and New York have the same advisory.

Murphy said Wednesday that has been difficult to enforce because it’s not a mandate. The U.S. Constitution, he said, prevents states from blocking travelers.

“It’s a lot of bully-pulpit,” the governor said. “It’s a lot fo pleading to personal responsibility for folks to do the right thing. We call it common sense for the common good. … We’re pleading with folks to do the right thing.”

New Jersey, a densely populated state of 9 million residents, has reported 15,281 known deaths attributed to COVID-19 — 13,425 lab-confirmed and 1,856 probable — with 173,878 known cases in a little more than four months since the state’s first case was announced March 4.

Officials on Tuesday reported 52 new deaths related to the virus and 310 new cases.

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© 2020 NJ Advance Media Group