Staff members, school visitors and students from kindergarten to 12th grade will be required to wear masks in New Jersey schools -- regardless of vaccination status -- when the new school year begins in a few weeks amid renewed COVID concerns stoked by the delta variant, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Friday.
The decision to require masks is an about-face from just a few weeks ago when Murphy said it would take a “deterioration” of COVID-19 data to require masks.
Murphy went on to say Friday that the requirement is not permanent and will be lifted again, if and when the state takes a turn for the better when it comes to the spread of the delta variant and coronavirus in general.
Tracking Coronavirus in Tri-State
Get Tri-state area news and weather forecasts to your inbox. Sign up for NBC New York newsletters.
However, there are a few exceptions to wearing the masks in schools, the governor went on to say, including: students with documented medical conditions or with disabilities in which wearing a mask would be difficult or dangerous; during rigorous activity in gym classes; during excessive heat; when playing a musical instrument; and when eating/drinking in a classroom or cafeteria.
"We know firsthand how impactful masks are in slowing the spread of this virus and in protecting individuals and in crushing the curves," Murphy said.
The state's figures, like many across the country, have been trending up in recent weeks. The seven-day rolling average of new cases climbed over the past two weeks from 512 on July 20 to 1,104 on Tuesday, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The surging figures are part of a nationwide struggle with the contagious delta variant, which has been leading — along with vaccination holdouts — to higher hospitalization rates across the country.
The decision also comes as states across the country grapple with masking in schools.
In Florida, two school districts have decided to require masks when children return to classrooms because of dramatic rises in coronavirus infections, with the state leading the country in hospitalizations. That's despite a statewide ban on masks by the governor.
In Arizona, at least three school districts are defying the state's prohibition on masks, despite a recently enacted law barring face covering requirements.
It's unclear whether any of New Jersey's roughly 600 school districts will be permitted to depart from Murphy's expected order on Friday.
Unlike other places in the country, though, New Jersey's vaccination rate is among the highest in the nation. Nationwide, the percentage of adults fully vaccinated against COVID-19 stands at nearly 61%. In New Jersey, the rate is 71%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
New Jersey was an early hotspot in March 2020, and the state's positive cases and hospitalizations haven't reached the high levels they did early on in the outbreak, but they're higher than they were a few months ago as vaccinations became more widely available.
The mandate from Murphy, a Democrat seeking reelection this year, comes amid pushback against masks in schools, particularly among some Republicans and parents who worry about the effects masks could have on their children's psychological and physical health.
Earlier this week, Murphy argued back with protesters skeptical about vaccinations at a public event. “You’ve lost your minds,” Murphy said, “You are the ultimate knuckleheads.”
Meanwhile, in nearby New York City, the highly transmissible delta variant continues to burn through New York City, now accounting for 83% of all positive samples -- and every key indicator in the city is moving in the wrong direction.
The situation is deteriorating so quickly, in fact, that as of Friday, all five boroughs of the city now meet the CDC guidelines to be considered "high transmission" areas where extra precautions should be taken, including universal indoor masking.
New confirmed plus probable cases are up 25% in the city versus a week prior, and up 70% versus two weeks prior. The seven-day rolling averages for positive tests in general, positive tests as a percentage of all tests, hospitalizations and deaths are all higher than the 28-day averages, suggesting a steepening curve.
To be sure, there are some faint signs of optimism -- the daily new case totals did finally drop a bit this week after weeks of unabated increases. Vaccinations are on the rise too, spurred by the city's offer of $100 for every first dose, as well as new measures increasingly closing daily life to the unvaccinated.
But the fight against the delta variant isn't anywhere close to over, it's only just beginning, as Mayor Bill de Blasio and other city leaders have made clear.