NJ freezes nearly $1B in spending because of COVID-19; Tammy Murphy unveils relief fund

At least 3,675 positive cases, 44 deaths — second highest in country

KYW Staff
March 24, 2020 - 12:48 pm

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UPDATED: 9:55 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — New Jersey is preparing for a huge drop in tax revenue from the hit to the economy from coronavirus, and Gov. Phil Murphy is putting nearly $1 billion in reserve to get ready, the state treasurer announced.

Treasurer Elizabeth Muoio said in a statement issued late Monday night that $900 billion in appropriations are being placed into reserve.

"The state expects precipitous declines in revenues in Fiscal Year 2020 and Fiscal Year 2021," she said.

Related: The latest coronavirus news from Pennsylvania and New Jersey

It's unclear exactly what the frozen funds will mean for residents. The list of frozen spending includes money for homestead property tax rebates, as well funds for the Motor Vehicle Commission and aid programs to towns and cities.

The news comes as the state weathers the closure of nonessential businesses amid the COVID-19 outbreak, and with a June 30 budget deadline on the horizon.

Case count is second highest across country

State health officials reported 846 new cases on Tuesday, bringing the state total to 3,675, including now 44 total deaths. Although this is a fluid situation, Murphy said New Jersey now has the second highest amount of positive cases across the U.S., behind New York.

"If anyone is looking to me for a reason to justify the steps I’ve ordered, I can now give you 44," Murphy said in a tweet.

“There were more than 12,000 tests performed on residents of New Jersey, of which approximately 3,600 have tested positive. The overall positivity rate is 27%,” explained Health Commissioner Judith Persichelli.

That data helps the state better develop both a short- and long-term strategy. That said, Murphy is not ready to predict how long restrictions may stay in place. He can’t say how long schools may remain closed either, but he did receive federal approval to cancel required student testing.

On a positive note, the state is receiving 200,000 N95 masks from the national stockpile, as well as more than 84,000 respirators. 

PSE&G is donating 50,000 N95 face masks as well — a critical piece of protective gear for health care workers. However, the state is still accepting donations for more hospitals and first responders. Anyone with extra supplies is asked to email ppedonations@njsp.org.

FEMA is planning to open four field hospitals in the state soon, one of them at the Atlantic City Convention Center.

The state also launched a job portal to help residents who have been laid off as a result of the virus. People can apply at jobs.covid19.nj.gov or post job availabilities at jobs.covid19.nj.gov/intake.

In addition, Murphy passionately emphasized the importance of non-essential businesses closing. He said his office has heard many reports of some non-retail businesses violating the stay-at-home order.

“No one who can do their job from home should be going to work in an office. We must have 100% compliance. This is about people’s lives, your employees' lives, their families’ lives, and your life,” he said in a tweet. “Let me be clear: my Executive Order is not a polite suggestion. It is an order.”

Inquiries about failures to comply with the order should call 609-963-6817.

For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. It may take up to two weeks for symptoms to appear. The vast majority of people recover.

State health officials have recommended calling your health care provider if you have symptoms, including fever and shortness of breath. Officials also point people to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, which recommends people stay home except to get medical care.

New fund features celebrity supporters

First lady Tammy Murphy on Tuesday unveiled the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund with a video featuring some of the state's biggest celebrities, including Bruce Springsteen, Jon Stewart and Bon Jovi.

Tammy Murphy posted a video online with the goal of raising money for people struggling.

"Phil and I have asked some of our neighbors to join us in sharing this announcement," she said.

"These are uncertain times," Springsteen says in the video. "What is for certain is the pain, the fear, and the real needs of many of our neighbors, our friends and certainly all those who are on the front lines of this pandemic."

She said all of the money raised will be used to fight medical, social and economic impact of COVID-19 on the state's most vulnerable. She said administrative costs would be covered by grants.

No more cash tolls

Cash tolls are being suspended on two major New Jersey toll roads as another way to control the spread of COVID-19. 

The Pennsylvania Turnpike went cashless last week. Now, the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway are doing the same thing. 

“We are suspending the collection of cash tolls. All the tolls will be collected electronically,” said Turnpike Authority spokesman Tom Feeney.

That won’t be a big deal to most drivers — Feeney said 85% of them use E-ZPass. But if you pay cash, you’ll have to go through the toll booth, and a picture of your license plate will be taken. The registered owner of the vehicle will get a bill in the mail. There will be no added charge beyond the cash toll. 

This procedure will be in place until further notice.

Testing centers are open

Monday was the first day open to the public for a federally operated testing center in Monmouth County, joining a similar drive-thru facility in hard-hit Bergen County.

According to the state Health Department, there are also testing centers at Kean University, for Union County residents only, and Hudson Regional Hospital in Secaucus, for Hudson County residents only.

Other counties are considering opening their own drive-thru testing sites. Camden County said it hoped to open a center soon in southern New Jersey.

Transit agencies request federal help

New Jersey Transit and several other agencies around the country have written a joint letter to congressional leaders to "urgently request" a federal relief package with at least $25 billion dedicated to public transportation.

They say they are on the frontlines, providing support to health care professionals, first responders and others, but a financial catastrophe is on the horizon, with projected losses in the tens of billions of dollars.

They urge Congress to act swiftly because the country depends on it.

No self-serve coffee

Last week, Camden County imposed a regulation barring convenience stores from allowing customers to serve themselves coffee and more.

A number of stores are not complying with the order, according to a statement issued by Freeholder Director Lou Cappelli. He insists that any business that fails to comply “will be penalized to the maximum extent possible.”

A county spokesman says that could include shutting the store down.

Spokesman Dan Keashen also noted that Wawa stores not only complied, but the chain has adopted the standard outside of Camden County as well.

Beach towns close

Seaside Heights Mayor Anthony Vaz instructed town officials to close beaches to better adhere to the governor's weekend order for the state's nonessential businesses to close for gatherings to cease.

The mayor also told people with vacation homes in the Ocean County town to stay away, according to NJ.com.

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KYW's Mike Dougherty, David Madden, Charlotte Reese, Rachel Kurland and Eric Walter, and The Associated Press, contributed to this report.