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Memorial Day Weekend Kicks Off Jersey Shore's Summer Season

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The United States is approaching a grim milestone. Nearly 100,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus, and we're approaching this milestone as the country moves forward with lifting restrictions, especially over this Memorial Day weekend. New Jersey has been among the hardest hit states. It has the second-most COVID-19 cases and deaths nationwide. This weekend, though, its beaches and boardwalks were open. Vin Gopal is a New Jersey state senator for a district including beach locations like Asbury Park and Long Branch, and he is with us now on the line. Thanks so much for being here.

VIN GOPAL: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So are you encouraging people to go to the beaches? I mean, do you think it's safe? Are you telling family and friends to go?

GOPAL: So I personally am not going to the beach and family and friends aren't, but the beaches are open. The governor and State Department of Health felt that it was OK to open as long as it's properly at 6 feet of social distancing, masks are strongly encouraged. I think we lucked out a little bit with the weather this weekend. So, you know, the beaches are open and people are able to enjoy it. The virus, we know, doesn't transfer as well outdoors, according to all the study and research we've seen at the Department of Health. So folks were out this weekend but obviously not in the numbers they would be if the weather was nicer.

MARTIN: Right, so you were spared the risk of those big crowds, but there's going to be a sunny weekend in New Jersey at some point. I mean, you yourself say that you and your family, your close circle of friends are not going to the beach. What concerns do you have about this reopening?

GOPAL: Oh, lots of concerns. You know, I speak to our five hospitals here at the shore pretty regularly. The good thing is hospitalization is down dramatically. More people are leaving the hospital than going in. But with that said, it's still - people are still going in, so it's alarming. Everything's got to be done very cautiously, but I trust the data and research coming from the medical experts at the Department of Health and they feel that it's appropriate now. And, of course, you know, we have to open up as time goes by.

MARTIN: What did you make of a lot of the pictures that had been circulating over the weekend online of other beach locations, lake locations around the country where they did see huge crowds, and those crowds were not social distancing? I mean, does that give you pause? Are you worried about what might happen in your coastal communities?

GOPAL: Yeah, it's very concerning. I mean, we saw something similar two weeks ago when Governor Murphy opened up parks and golf courses, but some of our county and state parks were just as crowded. It's concerning and there has to be responsibility from local authorities to make sure social distancing takes place.

MARTIN: What does that look like? I mean, does it mean more accountability? Does it mean issuing tickets, verbal warnings? How do you hold people accountable in what is largely just a kind of a leap of faith, the honor system?

GOPAL: Yeah, I think it's a combination of verbal warnings, but it's also up to fellow New Jerseyans. I mean, we've seen 90% to 95% social distancing extraordinary compliance. And God bless those lives here in New Jersey that have passed, over 10,000 blessed souls who have died here in New Jersey, but that number would have been 10 times worse if we didn't take the extraordinary social distancing actions that we took these last three months. So I think New Jerseyans overwhelmingly are complying and they're going to push their fellow New Jerseyans, that small minority, to make sure that they comply also.

MARTIN: New Jersey is unique in that you have these large boardwalks around the beaches that can be super crowded in the peak seasons. So you've got the concerns about spreading the virus, but you also have the health of those businesses I imagine you're worried about. How is the state supporting those boardwalk businesses?

GOPAL: Very hard. I mean, we have mom-and-pop small businesses that their entire economy, their entire livelihoods of them and their employees depends on these three months. So to not be open and especially not have crowds is extremely difficult. New Jersey is billions in debt, so we need real support from the federal government. The first CARES Act money didn't really benefit states like New Jersey and New York. Unfortunately, it was per capita of what federal funds we got. But we're hopeful there's a package moving through the House of Representatives right now and there's also a bipartisan piece of legislation by Senator Menendez and Senator Cassidy of Louisiana that's moving, so we're hoping we get more federal support.

MARTIN: On the whole, just in closing, do you think your state has achieved the right balance between keeping your communities safe and maintaining the health of your economy?

GOPAL: I think the governor has done a great job of flattening the curve and we are in a great place. But with that said, we have to now look at some realistic approaches of how we can open pieces of the economy very responsibly, and it has to be done responsible.

MARTIN: New Jersey State Senator Vin Gopal, thank you so much for your time this morning. We appreciate it.

GOPAL: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.