With COVID cases in New Jersey surging, raising concerns more business restrictions could be on the horizon, legislation is advancing in Trenton that would have the state take a more nuanced approach to shutdowns and reopenings in the future.

Gov. Phil Murphy rejected the idea in the spring in favor of statewide business restrictions. However, last week he gave local officials more leeway to restrict hours at nonessential business, which has the idea’s supporters hopeful he’ll be more open to their approach.

Under the proposed county-based mitigation plan, the state would use weekly data to establish three categories of risk, color-coded red, yellow and green. All towns and counties would be assigned a color and any business restrictions would be based on those categories.

Christina Renna, president and chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey, said a county-by-county approach that accounts for case rates, hospital capacity and population density is sensible and safe.

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“Economic reopenings and closures based on health data and the metrics makes sense, and if most other states in the nation can do it, why can’t New Jersey?” Renna said.

Tom Bracken, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce said the state has done a good job addressing the pandemic’s medical crisis – but not the other side of the challenge.

“Economic crisis, virtually ignored,” Bracken said. “We have an economy in New Jersey that is in very bad shape. It’s getting worse by the day. Something needs to be done about it.”

Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, said the bill isn’t a shot at Murphy. And he said he’s concerned about recent COVID trends, including nearly 9,000 new cases over the weekend and a seven-day rolling average that up 65% in the past week to 3,526, approaching 40 per 100,000 residents.

“These numbers are not good. We are not in the right direction,” Burzichelli said. “But it is not effective to paint New Jersey with one brush top to bottom. You don’t accomplish the same things.”

Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-Burlington, supports the idea but noted that while some counties are worse than others, the current outbreak is statewide. Case rates over the past week range from 66.2 per 100,000 residents in Passaic County to 19.5 per 100,000 residents in Sussex County.

“This pandemic is not under control,” Conaway said. “The numbers that I see at least in Burlington County are off the charts and running well ahead of what we saw in the first surge this April and May.”

Seven of New Jersey’s 21 counties are currently registering their highest weekly COVID rates of the pandemic: Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Gloucester, Hunterdon and Warren.

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The bill, A4910, was unanimously advanced Thursday by the Assembly Appropriations Committee. Assemblyman Brian Bergen, R-Morris, and other Republicans who have criticized Murphy’s extensive use of executive orders in response to the pandemic applauded the bill.

“And I hope that if our governor decides to do what he’s done way too many times before and vetoes an awesome piece of legislation like this, that we override him and get it passed because this is good stuff,” Bergen said.

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