March 4 had been circled on New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s calendar for weeks. It was surgery day, to remove a cancerous tumor that had developed on one of his kidneys. The plans were set: Murphy, a Democrat, was to have the surgery, then recover at home for a few weeks and build up strength. Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver would step in as acting governor, temporarily handling the day-to-day responsibilities of the Garden State’s top office.
The operation went as planned, but the leave never happened. On March 4, with Murphy recovering from his procedure, the first positive case of the coronavirus was confirmed in New Jersey. Doctors had advised rest, but Murphy continued to work, and he held his first in-person news briefing about COVID-19 just nine days after the operation, when the state had recorded 50 total cases.
Over the next two months, COVID-19 cases and deaths in the state rose rapidly. Throughout April, New Jersey reported more than 3,000 new coronavirus cases almost every day. Hospitals were nearing capacity. Seventeen bodies were found piled into one nursing home’s morgue; other retirement communities reported mounting lists of casualties. The state’s economy ground to a virtual halt, and the unemployment rate jumped to 15.3 percent. So far, more than 13,000 people have died because of complications of COVID-19 in New Jersey, the second-highest death toll in the country, behind only New York’s.
Murphy led the team working to combat the rapid spread of the virus hand in hand with the state Health Department and other public health experts, holding more than 80 news briefings.
His early reviews weren’t universally positive. In April and May, hundreds across the state took part in “ReOpen NJ” protests, angry at the governor for his extended closing of nonessential retail businesses. Crowds made it clear that they were desperate for paychecks; meanwhile, Murphy went on cable news talk shows, telling CNN on May 25 that protests weren’t swaying his decision-making.