Gov. Phil Murphy continues to move too slowly to reopen New Jersey’s economy after shutdowns imposed a year ago at the start of the pandemic, business owners and Republicans said at the second in a series of Republican oversight hearings.

The hearing held Friday was more than three hours long, following an earlier 4-hour dive into the Murphy administration’s handling of COVID-19 in long-term care settings. This one focused on the economy, and at least one more meeting is planned.

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Last March was a scary time, which made the initial lockdowns understanding, but enough was known about the virus to start reopening the economy by late April of last year, said Bruce Groves, president and chief executive officer of Emilcott Associates.

“It made no sense to shut down industries that could implement procedures to keep their workplace safe and to protect the public,” said Groves, a scientist focused on occupational health and safety issues who used to be an inspector for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Groves said 80% of industries are at low or moderate risk. He helped develop a reopening plan last spring through the Morris County Chamber of Commerce but says it got no response from Murphy’s office.

Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, said that’s a shame.

“I thought what the committee put together from the very beginning was a home run and would have saved many, many, many businesses in this state if we had only implemented it or if the governor had only considered it,” Bucco said.

Republican lawmakers conducted an oversight hearing into the Murphy administration's handling of the economy during the pandemic on Friday, March 19, 2021. (Townsquare Media NJ)

Business association officials estimated at the hearing that one-third of businesses will close permanently due to the pandemic and associated restrictions, with the number slightly higher for restaurants.

Anthony Russo, president of the Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey, said it’s probably still too early but that at some point, the state has to lift the public health emergency.

“When we decided to make certain businesses essential and nonessential, I think if there’s any lessons learned here is that all businesses are essential,” Russo said.

New Jersey has the nation’s highest rate of new COVID cases currently, and it’s not particularly close – nearly 45 a day per 100,000 residents, with Rhode Island second at around 34.

Marilou Halverson, head of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, said one reason may be that capacity limits push people into unregulated private gatherings.

Indoor dining capacity went to 50% on Friday. Restaurants can be fully open in Connecticut and Maryland and at 75% in Pennsylvania and most of the state of New York, although New York City is still at 35% capacity.

Stress Factory comedy club owner Vincent Brand said restrictions are arbitrary and inconsistent, noting airplane flights can operate at full capacity.

“And it seems odd to think that they somehow made that safe and yet serving chicken fingers in New Brunswick is a death-defying feat,” Brand said.

Karen Buckingham, owner of COHO Brewery in Cape May Court House, said COVID is real and that she takes it seriously – but that the economic restrictions are killing people. She wound up hospitalized at one point.

“I used to love life. I used to love going to work. I feel like I’m dying. I feel like I’m slowly dying,” Buckingham said.

Darlene Pallay of Franklin in Sussex County is in court trying to receive compensation from the state for her shuttered kickboxing studio. Her husband lost his job in December, they’re $50,000 in debt and trying to save their family home.

“My life has become living day by day with not much hope for the future that I used to have,” Pallay said.

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Lawmakers on the panel were critical of the ongoing limitations on businesses.

“Virtually every other states has moved faster than we have, again, with no negative health impacts,” said Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth. “Nobody here, none of you, myself, none of the senators on this panel have advocated throwing the doors open and to hell with public health. What we’re saying is what we need to do is balance our concerns and make sure we exploit the progress we’ve made in our health metrics.”

“We are well past the time to open up businesses 100% in the state of New Jersey,” said Sen. Kristin Corrado, R-Passaic.

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