“Don’t Be a Knucklehead” — the signs glow above highways all over New Jersey like the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby. Just as the faded optician sign stood in for God in the 1925 F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, the highway signs sub in for Governor Phil Murphy, gazing sternly yet benevolently across the coronavirus-addled landscape of the second most-infected state in the nation. “Stay home,” he chides via the signs, “Wash your hands.”
Murphy has become one of a recognizable cast of characters in the COVID-19 era: The governors working with — and sometimes against — the federal government to keep their populace safe from the spread of the virus. He has been the 56th governor of New Jersey since January 2018, perhaps most notable at that time for proposing the legalization of marijuana in the state. Previously, he spent 23 years at Goldman-Sachs before switching to politics, serving as U.S. Ambassador to Germany under President Obama and before that as finance chairman for the Democratic National Committee under Howard Dean in 2006.
Just a few weeks before COVID-19 hit the U.S. hard, Murphy was undergoing surgery to remove a cancerous tumor for his kidney. He hoped to spend a few weeks recovering but instead was thrown into the midst of one of the most dire public health emergencies in American history.
Not long after Murphy ramped up testing efforts and managed to flatten the curve of the virus — with daily deaths down from hundreds to the double digits — protests over the police killing of George Floyd began to erupt throughout the country, ever-expanding Murphy’s role as caretaker and peacekeeper of New Jersey.
We spoke with Gov. Murphy in early May, the second in a series of interviews by Rolling Stone with U.S. governors about how they are handling the unprecedented challenge of the coronavirus pandemic. (Read the first, our interview with Washington state governor Jay Inslee, here.)
You had your own health situation right before this started. How did that affect how you viewed the pandemic and its spread?
If this were ever, God forbid, to become abstract, that certainly makes it very real. When you go through major surgery and you go into recovery and you’re back in your bed and you pick up your phone and the first text you get is that you’ve got your first [COVID-19] case in New Jersey, it makes it even more real than it otherwise would have been.
I had plans to come back pretty slowly and that went out the window. Thank God I’m now two-plus months later and I’m doing OK. I’m grateful for that.
I know in late April you went to D.C. to meet with the president. Can you tell me a little bit about that meeting and what you discussed?
Clearly, we’re in different parties and there’s a whole long list of things we probably don’t agree on, but I would say, to his credit and to mine and our team’s credit, we’ve been able to check a lot of that, if not all of it, at the door and find common ground. We got out of that meeting a big chunk of money for our hospitals, a lot of personal protective equipment direct to long-term care facilities, which has been a huge tragedy in our state as it has in so many others.
Was it a face-to-face meeting?
Oh, yeah. You get your temperature checked. You then go in and get tested for COVID-19. I was with my health commissioner, chief of staff. We came in with face masks and then we got tested and we had a face-to-face meeting with not just the president but many members of his senior team.
Were they all wearing masks, too?
There weren’t any in the meeting. I assume it’s because all of us had been tested pretty recently. That was my first test and only test because I’ve been asymptomatic, thank God, but it’s at that moment in time you’re negative. We did not wear masks in the meeting.
What has been your reaction to the protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police — and President Trump’s handling of the protests?
Inequality and systemic racism have long been allowed to run rampant in our nation, and our black and brown communities have lived an unjust reality for far too long. The protests around our state and nation are emblematic of that struggle, and I unequivocally support peaceful protests that have emerged across the country in response to the murder of George Floyd. I pray that this is a transformational moment for our nation and that we march toward justice together.
Are there specific metrics that you want to see in terms of new COVID-19 cases and fatalities before fully opening the state back up?
Remember the fatalities, as tragic as they are — and we mourn each and every lost life — they are a lagging indicator. These are folks who were infected some number of weeks ago. We’re much more focused on the currents coming down on new cases, on hospitalizations, ICU bed use, ventilator use, heat maps of our counties. Those are all going in the right direction, which is allowing us to take some of these steps. [On June 15th, New Jersey plans to reopen non-essential businesses — with social-distancing and mandatory face coverings.]
It must take an emotional toll to report these deaths every day and be in the trenches.
It does take a toll. I’m not patting myself on the back. It’s nothing compared to the emotional toll on the folks who have lost loved ones. I speak every single day to a handful of families. I had a particularly hard time yesterday. I talked about a woman who lost both her husband and her daughter, both of them medical doctors. If that weren’t enough, she’s a medical doctor and she’s got two other daughters who are also medical doctors. A family of five medical doctors, two of whom were treating COVID-19 patients, her husband and her daughter who were killed by it. That’s just one example. It just rips your heart out.
What would you like to be remembered for when this is over?
My hope is that we shot straight with people, we told them the truth even when it was ugly, that we [asked] them to do the things that we knew would help us win this, which is overwhelmingly staying at home and keeping distance.
We’ve lost so many lives but, please God, when we look back we’ll say that we were able to save a whole lot more.
Are you aiming for a higher office once this is over?
Never occurred to me. My focus is 1,000 percent New Jersey, and right now my focus is 1,000 percent saving as many lives in New Jersey as possible.
You’ve made this campaign against COVID-19 so personal, with your “Don’t Be a Knucklehead” highway signs. How did you inject your personality, your levity into this crisis?
You just told me the best example. In what is a very dark chapter, if there is an opportunity to be a little bit lighter, we have to find those ways.