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Saturday, April 20, 2024

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Too Little, Too Late?

Too Little

By Vince Conti

COURT HOUSE – During the fall, a bear eats and drinks at a rapid rate to gain weight in preparation for winter hibernation, process known as hyperphagia.  

It is not dissimilar to what occurs in a seasonal economy when summer’s golden weeks produce a vastly disproportionate share of the annual economic revenue. That share must see everyone through the low months, when revenue is scarcer.   

For the past week, the county’s health metrics keep trending in the right direction. Life is not back to normal, but the county is in a relatively good place concerning the pandemic.  

More restrictions were lifted, but is it all coming too late to save the local economy? 

Cases 

New cases continue to be reported and the fatalities inch upward, yet the county is still dealing with a glancing blow from a virus that has been devastating elsewhere. 

The county reported 47 new confirmed cases last week, beginning Aug. 25; 30 in the general community, 10 among non-residents, and seven associated with long-term care facilities.  

The total number of cases since the first 30-year-old man, from New York, was confirmed positive March 18 has grown to 1,117 total residents infected. If one adds the non-residents who tested positive while in the county, that total climbs to 1,464. 

Those are initially scary numbers, but 88% of all cases, resident and non-resident, have recovered and were removed from quarantine.  

Almost 8% of the confirmed resident cases resulted in fatalities. There were three this past week.  

A majority of those, including two of the three, involved individuals who were patients in long-term care facilities. 

Despite all of the crowds this summer, the number of active cases of the virus, in the county, at the end of this week, remains under 100, at 93. 

State reports of positivity ratios and rates of transmission remain below the desired thresholds. New hospitalizations have also continued to decline.  

The seven-county southern region, designated by the state Department of Health, has 139 COVID-19 related patients in acute care hospitals. Less than 2% of the state’s ventilators are in use in the struggle with the virus. 

There are some “buts” that should also be mentioned.  

State contact tracers have had an increasingly hard time gaining cooperation as they try to track contacts from known infected individuals. State data shows that one in five of the people with confirmed cases will not even take the call from contact tracers. Of those that do, over half, 52%, will provide no contact information.  

The more impediments that are placed in the way of contact tracing, the lower the rate of infection may appear. Lack of cooperation can mean that someone who was infected through contact with a known case will not be identified because the contact information was not supplied.  

In these situations, one has to rely on the trends in general community metrics, like spot positivity measures and transmission rates. 

The other potential “but” is that the county is about to begin a big experiment in containment versus the spread of the virus – the reopening of schools. No school district, in the county, is opting for fully remote instruction. That experiment begins Sept. 8. 

New Freedoms 

The positive trends in health metrics statewide resulted in the lifting of several restrictions, most of which were in place since March.  

This week, Gov. Phil Murphy announced that gyms, water parks, and amusement centers could resume business in indoor facilities Sept. 1. Movie theaters and indoor dining will follow Sept. 4. All will face capacity limits and be subject to health department protocols.  

For the county’s seasonal economy, these new freedoms are coinciding with the Labor Day weekend, which marks the end of the summer tourism season. A shoulder season has been growing, in recent years, but several events were already canceled.  

Business owners will certainly welcome an opportunity to begin to restore pre-COVID-19 service patterns, but will it be too little, too late in terms of supplying the ‘fat’ necessary for the slow months to follow? 

There were other indicators this week of a potentially difficult winter. Admittedly, there is a lag in the official data, so the reporting of statistics is often as of a point in time already past. 

According to the state Labor Department, unemployment at the end of June was still at 20%.  

Days ago, the Mortgage Bankers Association reported that second-quarter delinquency rates surged, with New Jersey being one of the hardest-hit states. New Jersey landlords also keep filing eviction proceedings despite the state moratorium on lockouts. Landlords are expressing concern that state actions give little attention to their plight, as they are left with rising costs. 

All these warning signs suggest that things could get worse in a seasonal economy after the end of the season.  

Washington is deadlocked in a continuing morass that prevents any real action. The state is moving ahead with plans that call for heavy borrowing and new taxes on the wealthy. Murphy has one month to get his budget approved, including the millionaire’s tax, which he has, unsuccessfully, tried to get adopted in the past. 

Toll increases on the New Jersey Turnpike, Garden State Parkway, and Atlantic City Expressway, effective Oct. 1, were also announced.   

Closely following was the announcement of a 22% increase, 9.3 cents per gallon, in the gasoline tax (also impacting diesel fuel). It was stated that the tax was increased because revenues dropped from gasoline sales during the pandemic, and the existing 2016 law automatically dictates an increase in the tax when the state’s revenue declines below threshold levels. Taxes, in other words, are now on autopilot. Increases do not require politicians to vote. 

Gas and toll hikes are not good for local businesses that will try and attract more visitors for short trips in the offseason.  

The COVID-19 numbers are trending well. More restrictions were lifted. It should have been a good week. One can’t help but feel it may be too little, too late. 

To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com. 

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