Just a few hours before my interview with Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey, he sent out a tweet so dystopian that I had to take a moment to breathe: “Wawa sent a 53-foot refrigerated truck to Bergen County after hearing about our need for refrigerated trucks to help take the pressure off our morgues and funeral homes in protecting the bodies of those we have lost.”
I texted my husband, who had braved the outside world to get a prescription, “Please put me in the fridge before the Wawa truck.” It was a sad show of humor that I regretted almost immediately — especially since his response was a grim, “Jesus Christ…”
Like many Jersey residents, I tune into Murphy’s daily COVID-19 updates, a medley of death tolls, encouraging messages, and news about the governor’s pandemic relief efforts — plus an occasional shoutout to President Trump for sending resources our way. So, when I got 15 minutes on the phone with Murphy, I was eager to find out just how long he thought this daily phantasmagoria would continue.
New Jersey is currently a hotspot for the virus, behind New York. According to the governor, we have 47,437 cases and 1,504 total deaths as of Wednesday. My county, Bergen, is the hotspot in the hotspot, with 7,874 cases.
.@Wawa sent a 53-foot refrigerated truck to Bergen County after hearing about our need for refrigerated trucks to help take the pressure off our morgues and funeral homes in protecting the bodies of those we have lost.
Their help is invaluable. We’re so thankful.
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) April 8, 2020
Before calling in, I thought back to when I interviewed Murphy late last year about Jersey’s hilarious Twitter account, @NJGov, and the massive American Dream retail center that was then months from fully opening. Now, the Twitter account that mostly posted sassy tweets about the supremacy of New Jersey pizza is dedicated to urging citizens to stay at home. And the three-million square foot mega mall featuring an indoor ski mountain, waterpark and theme park? Its opening has been delayed indefinitely.
During our discussion, Murphy didn’t pull any punches; he couldn’t promise when life would return to normal. Still, his relentless cheerleading about breaking the back of the virus was enough to convince me that my final resting place likely wouldn’t be the back of a Wawa truck.
I feel like a lot of people are confused about what they’re supposed to be doing in terms of sheltering at home. What does an ideal week look like for a Jersey resident who is successfully flattening the curve?
They should stay at home. They should limit any travel outside of home to literally the supermarket, pharmacy — something that might be unexpected like a doctor’s visit. You can walk or jog outside your home — although we’ve shut the county and state parks, so you need to do that in your neighborhood. And I would say to everybody, if you’re doing that on the streets, obviously be careful, because we don’t want any unintended consequences from that.
You’ve got to be even careful at home. I wouldn’t be doing a whole lot of kissing and hugging even with your family members.
We just don’t want you out. Are you going to get pulled over if you’re out? Unlikely, but you shouldn’t be out. No gatherings. If you go to the supermarket, we’re now saying we want you to wear a cloth mask. If you are in a pharmacy or a supermarket, there are new protocols for how you need to behave — as well as the folks who run those supermarkets and pharmacies, and the workers there, what they need to do.
We really don’t want you out — again, you can go out if you have to and you’ve got to get food obviously, but even then, social distance. I’m literally going to try to run tonight for the first time since I had surgery. I’ll probably end up running on a running machine, but my wife and I were taught that if we ran, we’d have to run ourselves, even the two of us, six feet apart.
I hate to be a killjoy, and again, not to go off, we’re going to get through this. But here’s the problem, people start talking about, “The curve is beginning to flatten.” That’s what you hear a lot. It looks like it’s true in terms of positive tests — it certainly doesn’t look true of fatalities, and we were prepared for that.
Tony Fauci told me to be prepared for the paradox; it could be several weeks of flattening test numbers, positive test numbers, and at the same time, spiking mortalities, which are really from folks who may have gotten infected several weeks ago. I again, don’t want to be a killjoy, but we have not scaled the mountain yet.
I see you mentioning or tweeting at the president, thanking him for his help. Could you describe your relationship with President Trump?
Listen, I’ve said this and it’s true, job number one for me is the safety and security of all nine million folks [in New Jersey], and to keep the sicknesses and fatalities at as low a number as humanly possible. It’s already too big a number.
So I wake up every morning with that as my number one job, and I wake up every morning without the luxury of picking administration-X or president-Y. So, Donald Trump is the president, Mike Pence is the vice president; I need the federal government. That doesn’t mean we’re rolling over and just playing nice all the time, we have very specific asks.
I just got off the phone with @realDonaldTrump – he granted our request for access to some of the beds on the USNS Comfort.
This is a big step for us. I thank both the President and @VP.
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) April 6, 2020
To their credit, they have delivered on at least pieces of our asks, and some significant ones. So we still need a lot more ventilators, that’s for sure. We still need a lot more personal protective equipment. We’re trying to source all of the above from as many places in the world as possible, but there’s no substitute for the federal government.
We needed hospital beds, so the Army Corps have been helping us build out field medical stations. I toured one today; that’s deeply appreciated. We have access to the USNS Comfort, which is a big deal. FEMA has co-sponsored two drive-through testing sites for us, big deal.
So, I’ve said if I don’t disagree, I’m not going to pull my punches — and I know the president won’t pull his — but we’ve been able to find common ground under the theory that we’re all in this, whether we like the situation or not, we’re all in this together.
I’m wondering also about the information that you choose to share with the public. I saw some fear today in reaction to the Wawa truck that was sent to the morgues. How do you decide what to tell people?
We don’t hold a lot back. … So when you talk about a refrigerator truck, which is basically a morgue, we’ve had a lot of corporations step up — that’s a pretty unique one. So Wawa, to their credit … It’s uncomfortable, it’s not something that you feel very good even talking about. But I also think at the same time, we need to shoot straight with each other. I feel strongly that we need to tell folks the truth.
I’ve said this several times in public; I’ve looked at what Churchill was doing in the early stages of World War II when there was real desperation and anxiety and Germany was overwhelmingly powerful. I think it’s a good model of getting the balance right between being honest with people like, “We’re up against it, folks. And this is what you’re going to have to do, even though it’s really uncomfortable. This is a fact, whether it’s a refrigerated morgue trailer truck or whatever it might be.”
But on the other hand, being genuine and saying, “You know what? This is the path in how we win this thing. This is how we’re going to get through this.” Getting that balance right, I think, is really important.
To that point, I know New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has talked about this — but is New Jersey considering temporary burials on public land or anything in that nature?
Not that I’m aware of. When I say not that I’m aware of, I’ve not been a party to any conversations. I have looked at the New York City discussions, and that’s pretty shocking. When you see something like that, like a refrigerator morgue unit, it’s possible that there’s some discussion in a certain county, but I’m not aware of any discussions with that at the state level.
I’m also wondering about some of these bigger complexes, like the American Dream, which we talked about before. Have any of those big complexes stepped forward to offer hospital space or anything of that nature?
I don’t think they have, but I wouldn’t necessarily hold that against them. We have an unusual amount of authority, and we’re prepared to use it if we have to use it. But the good news is folks have willingly come forward, so [we have] the field medical station at the Meadowlands Exposition Center. Same with the Edison Exposition Center space today, Atlantic City next week. So we’ve also got a lot of hotels and dormitories that are being either surveyed, reviewed or actually contracted.
The American Dream [isn’t a] hospital or a dorm and it’s still obviously a construction site for a big piece of it, at least so far we haven’t needed that. Who knows when we go forward?
You recently called for volunteers who know COBOL, a Fifties coding language. Why? What other niche skills do you think we need to break the back of the virus?
I’m probably not the right guy to ask about the COBOL, because I was never the head of the class in COBOL. But I’d say technology generally, we could use help. [We need help with the] legacy computers and phone lines [that] allow people to sign up for unemployment insurance. That’s where we’ve got a big exposure, which led to the COBOL discussion.
I’d say most of the niche requirements, Brenna, are going to be right now in healthcare. I was out specifically today talking through the sort of folks we need to staff and lead the Edison field medical station. I know respiratory therapists were on the list and a couple of other specific skills.
Today, Dr. Fauci said we shouldn’t shake hands anymore after this is over. What fundamental changes do you think this will bring to New Jersey?
That one’s a bummer for me because I like to shake hands. I think it’s pretty profound. I think it’s dramatically different. That doesn’t mean it won’t be a good, ultimately a good normal, but it’s a different normal, and particularly the early stages.
So physical contact, giving people handshakes, hugs, high-fives, I don’t see it. [I could see] restaurants where someone’s at the front door with a thermometer, one of those instant thermometers checking you before you come in, and if you’ve got a temperature, you can’t. You’re inside, servers are masked and gloved, surfaces are wiped down with much hyper regularity. At most, you’re allowed 50% capacity in the restaurant, minimum of X-feet between tables. I’m making this up, but I could see that. I could see businesses going back with different shift expectations. I think we’re going to need significantly more healthcare infrastructure to allow us to really test much more universally, contact trace effectively.
I’m worried like heck we go through hell, we begin to open the place back up again, and even on its own, the virus comes back. Or some other lower common denominator state that didn’t shut as tightly as we did, or didn’t shut as early as we did, [allows people into New Jersey], and you have a backdoor re-ignition of it.
We’ve got to do everything we can to prevent that, and I think a lot of that has to do with health infrastructure. I don’t know what theaters, gyms, stadiums look like in protocols. I think we’re going to be — at least for a period of time — my guess is that we’re going to be in a different place.
I see a lot of people talking about how they’re going to have block parties when this is over. What season do you see those parties taking place?
Boy, I’ll tell you, even the block parties, again, I hate to be New Jersey’s killjoy here, but I believe this with all my heart, we have got to kill this virus first and then we can reopen to some extent. I hope even that the block party people are being smart. I hope it’s warm weather, that would be my hope.
I know April’s going to be hell, May feels like it’s going to be very — depends on the model you look at — May’s going to be I think challenging, maybe not as challenging as April. June is a little gray for me, I’m hoping July and August are good months. God knows we could use it on the Shore, the state could use it, our mental health could use it. I’m hoping that warm weather is good to us.