NEWARK – Gov. Phil Murphy said “everything’s on the table” in terms of considering mandatory vaccinations to protect against COVID-19 infections but signaled that a narrowly focused requirement might be a likelier first step.

After a bill signing event, Murphy was asked by reporters about coronavirus-related options such as requiring vaccines for state workers and contractors. President Joe Biden is imposing similar rules for federal workers, and other states, cities, colleges and private employers are doing the same.

“Listen, we’re looking at a whole number of options as it related to vaccine mandates,” Murphy said. “You probably won’t be surprised our most heightened focus right now is on vulnerable communities.”

Murphy said those communities include those with a health care element or vulnerable populations – which could mean hospitals or nursing homes.

Murphy on Wednesday strongly recommended that people wear masks indoors in New Jersey in crowded places or places where they don’t know if other people are vaccinated. He gave an example Thursday: Wear a mask walking through a restaurant but not necessarily at your table.

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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends masks in counties with high or substantial rates of COVID transmission, which it says currently applies in 10 counties in New Jersey: Atlantic, Bergen, Burlington, Essex, Gloucester, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean, Passaic and Union.

The CDC also recommends that masks be worn by all people in schools, staff and students alike, regardless of whether they’re vaccinated. The New Jersey Education Association concurs. Murphy said he respects their opinions but that a decision an any statewide mandate will wait until closer to the start of school.

“This is like trying to predict the weather on Sept. 7 right now,” Murphy said. “It’s a mask. The big thing for me is masking is not an HVAC system or a new building. We have the ability to let the clock play out. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

Murphy said there are other factors to weigh, such as the lack of COVID vaccines for kids under 12.

New Jersey also has the opportunity to see how the Delta variant affects schools in other states that reopen in the next few weeks, ahead of schools here that generally open shortly before or just after Labor Day.

“We know the dynamic among kids in different than among adults,” Murphy said. “That doesn’t mean they can’t get it. Sadly, we’ve lost now I think seven precious lives under the age of 18, a lot with significant comorbidities.”

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Murphy said stronger mask mandates have to remain an option and that his record over the past year and a half is proof his administration doesn’t think about politics in making COVID decisions.

“We have made so many calls that are unpopular,” Murphy said. “At this point I hope we have the credibility that we’re prepared – we were the first state in America to have an indoor mandate for masking and the last state in America to hold it.”

That isn’t the case. Hawaii still has its indoor mask mandate in place, and its governor plans to keep it until 70% of its population is fully vaccinated.

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