Business groups pushing for a regional reopening for still-closed portions of New Jersey’s economy have the backing of a bipartisan group of lawmakers – and support, with some asterisks, from the dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health.

Dr. Perry Halkitis told the Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee that COVID-19 transmission often gets worse after a regional economic reopening but that he endorses it, so long as people are willing to reverse some steps if the data dictates that.

“The slow but sure reopening pattern will get us to a point eventually where the entire state is open,” Halkitis said.

When Assemblyman John DiMaio, R-Warren, noted that infection rates have been low in Hunterdon, Sussex and Warren counties for months, Halkitis said that should be taken into account.

“I think regional reopening makes the most sense, absolutely makes the most sense,” Halkitis said. “I think that what you’re seeing in the counties that you oversee if that there is more space between people, period.”

Gov. Phil Murphy opposes a regional reopening, saying it would encourage people from higher-risk areas to travel to low-risk ones for things like indoor dining. DiMaio said he sees plenty of cars in the region now with New York plates without causing a health problem.

However, Halkitis said the reopening should wait until no ZIP codes in a county are a hotspot. Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti, D-Hudson, said a glance at a COVID-19 map of the state produced by Rutgers shows lots of pockets of red.

“If we’re going to be informed by the science, I’m not sure there’s a county right now that does not have a hotspot,” Chiaravalloti said.

Assemblyman Rob Karibinchak, D-Middlesex, said the ZIP code map indicates to him that 80% of the state can reopen safely. He said it’s time to take a risk on a regional reopening.

“Because if we don’t, I can predict what’s coming – besides bankruptcies, foreclosures, tax appeals and taxes that you’ve never seen before. That’s coming,” Karibinchak said.

Christina Renna, president and chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey, said the state needs to “move past being scared to live life” because COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere.

“Look all throughout the state and let’s pick and choose some pocket populations potentially where we can test drive the economy and see if we can reopen the economy safely,” Renna said.

The head of the New Jersey Restaurant Association, Marilou Halverson, said New Jersey is one of only three states without at least regional indoor dining. The others are California and New Mexico. It will resume in Philadelphia after Labor Day.

Tom Bracken, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, said that unlike states that have had to reverse economic reopening because they started too soon, New Jersey is starting too late.

“The comment that we are too dense and too small to regionalize growth is an excuse, not a reason,” Bracken said. “It reflects a desire to control, not to empower better performance by decentralizing.”

The monthly jobs report issued Thursday showed New Jersey’s economy added 129,900 jobs in July. That brings the three-month gain to 341,300, which amounts to 41% of the 831,300 jobs lost when the pandemic took hold and lockdowns were ordered in March and April.

The unemployment rate in July was 13.8%, down from a revised 16.8% in June.

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