crowd with masks

As a new wave of COVID-19 surges, concerns are growing about private gatherings, including the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

"A lot of the transmission is in private settings," New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, said during a Thursday morning live interview on the Today show. "We just have to plead with people to not let their guard down, to keep their gatherings as small as possible and to keep fighting this."

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, also a Democrat, on Wednesday announced his state would limit private gatherings to 10 people. The rule, effective Friday at 10 p.m., drew criticism that included one New York Republican leader who vowed to have more than 10 people at his Thanksgiving dinner.

Murphy announced at Thursday's COVID-19 briefing that he was giving municipal and county officials the power to regulate the operating hours of non-essential businesses after 8 p.m. The governor said this empowers local authorities to prevent local COVID "hotspots" from turning into "wildfires."

New Jersey reported 3,517 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, down from the 3,877 reported on Tuesday — the highest number since late April. The state reported 1,827 COVID-19 hospitalizations, the highest daily total since 1,842 on June 5, with 360 in intensive care, the highest since 363 on June 12. About 12% of COVID-19 tests in the state came back as positive on November 8, it was announced.

New eating and drinking restrictions in New Jersey went into effect at 5 a.m. Thursday. Restaurants, bars and casinos must stop serving food and beverages indoors between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. No one will be permitted to sit at bars at any time, according to the new rules.

"Our numbers have gone up dramatically," Murphy said. "Everything is going in the wrong direction....The second wave is without question upon us."

Judith Persichilli, New Jersey's health commissioner, said recent private gatherings — many of them Halloween parties — sparked an outbreak in infections across the state. Gatherings led to 70 new cases, including 22 from a Halloween party in Gloucester County and 30 from a Halloween party in Union County, Persichilli reported at Thursday's COVID-19 briefing.

"Youth sports also continues to be a challenge," she said. Since the beginning of October, 14 outbreaks among youth hockey teams have led to more than 70 cases of COVID-19, she said.

Wearing those masks

At the press conference after Thursday's briefing, one reporter mentioned a recent study on the efficacy of masking.

The reporter asked: "What is your message to the people who apparently are tired of wearing the mask over their nose as well as their mouth, they think it's uncomfortable and annoying and it's just too much for them to handle, so they're just not doing it."

"You know what's really uncomfortable and annoying? When you die. That's my answer," Murphy said.

Schools watching the case data

Some schools have moved away from the hybrid model as infections increased. Cherry Hill schools were to begin hybrid instruction on Tuesday, but Monday pulled the plug after about three dozen infections among students were disclosed by the county Health Department. 

Cherry Hill Superintendent Joseph N. Meloche on Wednesday announced the district would now debut the hybrid model on November 17. "Please remember bringing children back does not mean that that is a done deal for the rest of the year," Meloche told the school board Tuesday night, saying the district would err on the side of caution.

Teachers unions in Pennsylvania have demanded that schools in the counties with the greatest infection increases go all virtual. On the Today show, a rumor of a New Jersey statewide shutdown of hybrid learning was debunked by Murphy.

"That's not the case. That's something that could happen but, at the moment, back to school two months in has worked quite well. So far so good," Murphy said during the interview.

The Camden County Health Department continues to monitor all COVID-19 cases and is in constant contact with school districts, according to Rianna DeLuca, a county communicable disease investigator. "In-school transmission rate is still relatively low. The problem is it's getting into schools," she said Thursday morning at a Camden County COVID-19 briefing.

Thinking about Thanksgiving gatherings

At the Camden County briefing, Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. did not hold back with his worries about private gatherings. "We are continuing to see small, private gatherings as one of the primary drivers of the spread in Camden County," Cappelli said. 

"Please do not attend or host indoor gatherings no matter how many people are participating. Indoor gatherings need to stop," he said, noting that the virus spreads in poorly ventilated areas and most homes are poorly ventilated.

Camden County has reported higher levels of daily new infections in the last week than it did in March and April. Cappelli said he expects this week will set a new record for the county.

Thanksgiving, traditionally celebrated with huge private gatherings, is just two weeks away. 

"Folks want to be able to celebrate with family," Dr. Mark Condoluci, a Jefferson Health NJ infectious disease physician, said at the county's briefing. He recommended keeping the gathering small, ideally less than 10 people, and paying special attention to visitors invited from out of the area.

"You might have to do a sacrifice this year to have many more Thanksgivings moving forward," Condoluci said.