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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

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COVID-19 Cases Grow as Population Swells; Reopening Moves Forward Unevenly; COVID-19’s Financial Bite Still Distant for Municipalities; Justice Issues Remain in Public View

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‘The Wrap’ is a new feature from the Herald that offers our take on the news of the week. Get it in your inbox every Monday by signing up at http://eepurl.com/bTyNZL.
July 13-19:
COVID-19 Cases Continue to Grow as Population Swells
County COVID-19 cases are rising faster than at any point since the health crisis began. With the larger summer population, the county is seeing higher numbers of confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infections. 
Last week we told you how the demographic shifted from the elderly to the young. Now, the location shifted from long-term care facilities to the island communities.
One thing certain is that July, with almost two weeks to go, is racking up COVID-19 cases at a rate not seen since April. Case counts can be confusing since the county reports on three separate populations, adding only two of the three in its cumulative numbers.  
County permanent residents are included in two of the three categories: community-based cases and long-term care associated cases. The third category, non-resident cases, is included in the daily county report, but not added into the county totals. 
Using these categories, the last week accounted for 60 resident cases and 49 non-resident cases. 
The 60 resident cases were all community-based, except for one reported new case at a long-term care facility. The long-term care locations are no longer the focal point of virus spread. The hope is that the new state directive allowing indoor visits at long-term care locations will not reintroduce the virus to an already compromised population. The elderly and the compromised are still at the heart of the fatalities numbers. 
Local officials are asking out-of-county visitors, especially the young, to be more aware of the dangers they can pose, as potential vectors for virus spread. “Mask up” is the plea. 
Reopening Moves Forward Unevenly
While perhaps not in the numbers of years past, crowds of visitors are back, and small businesses are doing the best they can to serve summer memories. 
There are large holes in the ability of the business community to participate fully in the summer offerings. Indoor dining is still unavailable, theaters remain closed, and cancelations of long-standing events continue to pile up. 
Wildwood refused permits for the annual Roar to the Shore, a major shoulder-season event. Middle Township postponed its National Night Out. The hotel industry continues to struggle following months of forced shutdown. 
Addressing the county Chamber of Commerce, Dr. Oliver Cooke, an economist at Stockton University who regularly forecasts the South Jersey economy, saw some potential positives for the local economy, including a possible increase in second homeowners who decide to make the county their permanent residence. 
Meanwhile, the virus rages in many parts of the nation, posing a threat to the Garden State’s recovery. New Jersey added four states to its travel advisory while removing one this past week. 
Amid the return of visitors and the reopening of parts of the economy, some residents hedged their bets, turning to growing their own food
COVID-19’s Financial Bite is Still on the Horizon for Municipalities
The state is suffering massive losses in revenue due to the economic hit of the pandemic. Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill that will allow the state to borrow up to $9.9 billion. Municipal borrowing will be part of that package, as well, but no one is sure what the municipal needs will be. 
Several critical pieces of funding remain undefined, including state money for schools and state aid to municipalities. For some county towns, state aid to municipalities will be a critical figure in determining how badly the pandemic will erode local budgets. 
Municipalities are adopting different strategies on the 2020 and 2021 budgets. Cape May, with a budget heavily dependent on visitor spending, is seeing a rebound in miscellaneous revenues. Dennis Township is moving ahead with a $1.9 million bond ordinance to fund capital projects. Avalon decided to give another look at priorities for flood mitigation, putting a $9.5 million drainage project on hold. 
For many municipalities, business proceeds as usual. Upper Township announced the opening of the Garden State Parkway Bridge bike path. Cape May resolved an item of long-standing litigation in the state’s Appellate Court
Perhaps the largest of the local issues is what the reopening of the schools will look like. What format will be used? Where will extra funding come from? 
Will the third-quarter property tax payments be sufficient to allow municipalities to pay the school districts the required school tax revenue? 
Will parents feel comfortable sending their children back to school? 
How will districts deal with the digital divide that leaves some students with no connection to remote learning? 
There are many questions and few hard answers at this point.
Justice Issues Remain in Public View
Establishing new protocols for policing and use of force remains a central issue in public debate. A recent incident, in Wildwood, gave a concrete example of community concern. County Prosecutor Jeffrey Sutherland held a public forum July 15, at the Martin Luther King Center, in Whitesboro, to collect input for a statewide initiative to improve policing. 
These efforts came as the state Supreme Court announced a series of reforms it is seeking to implement in the next year to remove institutional obstacles to equal justice in the court system. The Supreme Court also issued a series of measures aimed at the rights of tenants and landlords during the health emergency. 
The state Division of Community Affairs announced actions to expand access to mental health and substance abuse services. 
This week also saw the passing of a tireless crusader for equal justice under the law. Murphy ordered flags at half-mast to honor U.S. Rep. John Lewis, of Georgia. 
And…
Zoo goers were delighted at the news of the birth of a baby zebra. The little one, yet to be named, could be seen romping across the plains enclosure with a dutiful, but tired, mother in tow. 
Things heated up in the dispute between North Wildwood and the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Following four separate notices of violation from the DEP, North Wildwood’s Mayor Patrick Rosenello issued a statement, blaming the damage to dunes and beachfront on DEP, and claiming the attacks on the city are motivated by his political opposition to the governor. 
Middle Township, working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Concerned Citizens of Whitesboro, is continuing its efforts to get the new post office named after Whitesboro founder George H. White

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