Chanting “Open New Jersey now!” and largely defying social-distancing guidelines by packing closely together, a few hundred protesters gathered Tuesday in Trenton to pressure Gov. Phil Murphy to lift the near-lockdown orders he’s instituted to slow the fast-moving spread of the coronavirus in the state.
The demonstration came the same day Murphy reported another 402 Garden State residents have suffered deaths related to COVID-19. That brings the statewide total to 6,442 fatalities attributed to the virus — the second most among U.S. states.
The protest also came a week after a poll from Monmouth University found a majority of New Jersey adults — 64% — support the restrictions Murphy installed five weeks ago to fight the pandemic, including ordering residents to stay at home, banning social gatherings, closing schools, and mandating nonessential businesses to close.
But Ayla Wolf, a Burlington County resident at the protest, said Murphy’s orders trample on citizens’ rights and are wreaking havoc on the economy.
And Wolf argued the state’s data on the number of deaths and cases so far is “not living up to the projections” that officials warned about, even as hundreds of new fatalities have been reported nearly every day.
“We’re here because at no point in the history of the United States has the Constitution been as much in jeopardy as it is now,” she said. “Businesses are suffering, unemployment checks are not being sent, landlords are not getting rent. We feel like these directives are causing more suffering than is necessary.”
A record number of New Jerseyans — more than 850,000 — have filed for unemployment since aggressive social distancing began, and businesses here have lost an untold amount of revenue.
On Monday, Murphy unveiled a broad road map outlining the steps New Jersey needs to take before he can begin gradually lifting his orders. But the governor did not provide a specific timetable, and he said the restrictions could stay for at least another few weeks to ensure the state’s COVID-19 cases drop and don’t surge again, while saving as many lives as possible.
The protesters Tuesday also chanted “Liberty is essential!” Some carried signs that read: “Live free or die,” “Legalize the Constitution,” and “Arrest Bill Gates.” Some held yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags and banners supporting President Donald Trump. One man was selling Trump’s trademark red “Make America Great Again” hats to the crowd. Cars drove by honking in support.
And some demonstrators accused Murphy, a Democrat, of being fascist, tyrannical, and even criminal. One sign read: “Murphy’s law — anything that can go wrong will.”
Many protesters were not wearing masks or face coverings. And many were not practicing general social distancing protocols to help prevent the virus from spreading, such as standing at least 6 feet from each other.
Tuesday’s demonstration was larger than recent coronavirus protests in Trenton, though a tally of attendees was not available. They marched from the Statehouse to the city’s War Memorial, where Murphy holds his daily briefings.
And in a scene of coincidental contrast, they gathered as Navy Blue Angel and Air Force Thunderbird planes flew over Trenton to honor healthcare workers battling the outbreak.
Murphy stressed during his briefing he’s making his decisions to protect public health in the state.
“I don’t begrudge anyone’s right to protest,” the governor said. “This is America. We all have First Amendment rights.”
But he said he’s fearful the gatherings could cause people to spread the virus and urged people to protest via the internet.
“I really wish they would do it at home,” Murphy said. “Just driving over here, I could see they’re congregating, and that’s the last thing we need right now. I hope they’re not making each other sick.”
Murphy also dismissed their arguments that he is overstepping the Constitution.
“This notion of fascism is ridiculous,” he said. “This isn’t a question of patriotism. This is a question of doing what’s right. … We’re in here trying to save lives, every single day. … We are absolutely, desperately trying to save every life we can.”
“Our heart — trust me — is in the right place,” the governor added. “We love our country, we love our state.”
State authorities have been issuing citations and publicly naming people who violate Murphy’s orders.
Col. Patrick Callahan, superintendent of the State Police, suggested Tuesday officials won’t charge protesters unless they are not practicing social distancing.
Callahan said the challenge for police is to strike a balance — to give people “the opportunity to protest and assemble but as long as they’re doing it with social distancing in mind.”
A woman who organized a smaller protest in Trenton earlier this month was charged with violating Murphy’s orders.
Ronald Chen, a constitutional law professor at Rutgers-Newark, told NJ Advance Media on Tuesday that Murphy’s orders are constitutionally sound because the Bill of Rights, as defined by the U.S. Supreme Court, “takes emergencies into account” as long as decisions are being made with the best scientific data available.
“The court does not require scientific certainty,” Chen said. “In times of uncertainty, executives are allowed to decide which way to go.”
Murphy said officials can begin lifting restrictions only after they see 14-day trend showing drops in numbers, as well as doubling testing capacity and instituting robust contact tracing and plans to isolate the infected.
Still, some Republican lawmakers have called on Murphy to allow more businesses to open while practicing social distancing — the way restaurants and supermarkets are.
“While Governor Murphy offered only a vague outline for reopening New Jersey’s economy with no real plan, tens of thousands of businesses are ready to open safely today if given the opportunity,” state Sen. Steven Oroho, R-Sussex, said in a statement Monday.
There have been similar protests across the country as governors have instituted lockdown orders in other states, though polling shows most Americans back the restrictions.
Trump, a Republican, has encouraged the protests, while also issuing guidelines that governors can use to reopen their economies.
A main guideline is that there must be a 14-day decline in the number of cases. New Jersey has not met that benchmark, and Trump noted earlier this month the Garden State won’t be among the early states to open.
New Jersey, a densely populated state of 9 million residents, has more COVID-19 cases and related deaths than any state other than New York. As of Tuesday, officials have reported least 111,188 cases in the Garden State.