South Orange and Maplewood enact indoor mask mandates

MAPLEWOOD/SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — As the omicron variant drives cases of COVID-19 upward, South Orange, Maplewood and the South Orange–Maplewood School District are taking precautions to keep residents from getting infected. Both South Orange and Maplewood enacted indoor mask mandates this week; the school district will be returning to classes virtually after the holiday break.

“Despite our incredibly high vaccination rates in all age categories, we have 113 open cases right now. The overwhelming majority of these cases are considered breakthrough cases, meaning a fully vaccinated person got infected with the virus and can spread it to others,” village President Sheena Collum said of South Orange, in the announcement about the South Orange mask mandate, which was signed by an executive order on Tuesday, Dec. 21. “Our current situation necessitates additional mitigation measures to stop the spread.”

Masks must be worn in all public facilities and businesses in South Orange. There are exemptions for people younger than the age of 2, those with medical conditions and employees working in high heat settings. Actively eating and drinking in restaurants is also an exception.

“This holiday season, I am so incredibly grateful for this community and how we have all worked together to prioritize public health and safety for ourselves and each other. Let’s continue that strong sense of community into the new year,” Collum said. “When we see each other indoors wearing our masks, we know what we’re signaling to each other, ‘I protect you and you protect me.’”

In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Dec. 22, Collum said 55 new cases had been confirmed in the village. Eighty percent of children between age 5 and 11 have been vaccinated, but only 56 percent of those people eligible have received booster shots. She encouraged residents to receive a third dose of the vaccine.

“For the most part, our residents have been following the science, which has shown us that vaccinations will greatly reduce likelihood of severe illness and hospitalization,” Collum said. “However, we do what we do to protect those who are more vulnerable than we are. This is exactly what community is all about. It’s a team sport, not an individual event.”

At its meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 21, the Maplewood Township Committee voted unanimously to approve an indoor mask mandate. According to a message from Mayor Frank McGehee posted to the township website on Wednesday, Dec. 22, officials from Maplewood and South Orange met to discuss blanket safety for the whole community. The mandate is the same in Maplewood.

In addition, Maplewood is also requiring anyone who attends a public or private event that is open to the public to show proof of vaccination or a negative test within the previous 72 hours.

“These decisions were made in collaboration with our local health departments, the Special Improvement District managers and key stakeholders,” McGehee said. “As we continue to be thoughtful regarding this pandemic, especially taking into account the spread of the omicron variant, our main goal continues to be the same: keeping the community healthy and safe.”

When students return to school in January, it will be virtually. In-person classes will resume on Monday, Jan. 10.
“Thankfully, there has been no evidence of in-school COVID transmission; however, our local community transmission is high, and the cases are rising rapidly. In addition, as we shared in our Dec. 9 community update, according to the recently released COVID Activity Level Index report for the state of New Jersey, the entire state is now considered as high transmission,” the Wednesday, Dec. 22, announcement from Superintendent Ronald Taylor said.

According to Taylor, hundreds of students have had to move to virtual learning as a result of quarantines from being exposed to the virus. Dozens of staff members have also had to be isolated due to breakthrough cases, leading to school operations suffering. Cases of COVID-19 have spiked after each break from which the district has returned.

“We understand that this may be a hardship for some of our families and can be disruptive to student engagement; however, the health and safety of our students and staff is paramount,” Taylor said. “To assist our community in reducing the possibility of additional cases, we believe this a prudent and necessary decision, as many families will be gathering over the winter break and also traveling to see loved ones.”