Gov. Phil Murphy repeatedly has claimed that his decisions about when to allow what parts of New Jersey’s economy to resume are predominantly data driven. Yet he provides neither the data nor medical experts to talk about specific studies and statistics that supposedly form the basis for his many emergency orders the past five months.
Now a story in the Bergen Record suggests the state’s own health experts not only haven’t supplied the basis for crucial reopening decisions, they often were surprised by Murphy announcements for which they had little or no input.
One pandemic response official, who like the others insisted on anonymity, said he was told about Murphy’s reversal on reopening indoor dining less than a day before he announced it, and then only to “generate talking points” to justify the governor’s decision.
A health official said the administration cornered him and ordered him to find evidence that wearing masks outdoors prevents COVID contagion. He came back with two related studies but “nothing that specifically looked at mask efficacy.” The next day, Murphy ordered people to wear masks outdoors when not staying distant from each other.
The story also reported on a telephone recording of state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli, obtained by the newspaper’s USA Today Network, complaining that the “amateurs” of the governor’s team don’t listen to her and personnel differences prompted her to threaten to resign at one point.
We never thought Murphy’s thinking was mainly driven by health data. Such data has been slow to develop, often conflicting and insufficient for confident determination of the best course about nearly everything pandemic-related.
As the elected chief executive of New Jersey, the governor is supposed to take into consideration a wide variety of views and interests when making a decision. Health experts, while uniquely pertinent for disease questions, have their own interests and a narrow focus that can blind them to problems outside their specialty. Politics will be one input, since elected officials are still driven by politics, even in a pandemic.
The interests of the public should be flowing through the Legislature to Murphy. It could have helped him avoid the damaging reversal on indoor dining. It could still help him make more broadly based and transparent decisions. That almost inevitably results in better decisions.
Instead legislators are left to try to clean up the mess. A bipartisan bill would provide $30 million in block grants for restaurants, bars and caters who spent money preparing to reopen, only to have the supplies, added staffing and other preparations wasted.
Autocratic rule should be strictly limited to very short emergencies requiring decisive action in days — not inscrutable, malleable edicts for months.
The New Jersey economy, the future lives of the state’s children and the protection of those especially at risk to COVID are being determined by these decisions. Murphy and legislative leaders should insist that they use their strengths collectively to make the broadly based, sound decisions that ensure public confidence.
Even political considerations should tell them this. Autocrats never look good in hindsight.