MR. SCOTT: Hello, and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Eugene Scott, national political reporter here at The Washington Post. Thanks for joining us today as we continue our series, “Leadership During Crisis.” My guest this morning is New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy.

Welcome to Washington Post Live, Governor.

GOV. MURPHY: Good to be with you, Eugene. Thank you very much for having me.

MR. SCOTT: First, let's start off, obviously, speaking about the coronavirus pandemic. You all in New Jersey have one of the best vaccination rates in the country, reaching your goal of over 70 percent of adults. That's over 5 million people fully vaccinated. Can you give us some idea of what you got right? How did you get to this point?

GOV. MURPHY: Yeah. I would just say, Eugene, I will describe our program, but we're not in the end zone yet. I have to say we continue to need to make progress, particularly in Black and brown communities, but I think the answer, Eugene, is we didn't rely on any one program. We put a lot of elements in place, everything from free state park passes, as your video showed, to a Shot and a Beer at our breweries to Uncork the Vaccine at our wineries to a contest to have dinner with my wife and me to faith leaders leading and going into communities and I think, importantly, the less sexy but vital elements of going literally door-to-door.

As we sit here today, we're still in 20 communities in the state literally knocking on doors, "Have you been vaccinated? If not, why not?" multiple languages, "This is the location near you," remind folks that it's free, that no one is going to ask about their immigration status. I think it's a whole range of approaches.

We had mega sites at the beginning. Now we are taking the vaccine to the community, and again, we've come a long way. I'm proud of what we've accomplished, but our work is not done yet.

MR. SCOTT: Absolutely. And we've seen examples of vaccine hesitancy in other parts of the country, much larger than what we've seen, though, in New Jersey. There's a recent Rutgers-Eagleton Poll in your state showing that only 16 percent of New Jersey residents say that they are unwilling to get a vaccine. When they asked that question in a November survey, between about, like, 36 and 47 percent were reluctant, so that has been an improvement. Why do you think the pro-vaccine message resonated so well with so many New Jersey residents?

GOV. MURPHY: Yeah. I think the answer is, frankly, folks are looking at family members, neighbors, friends, coworkers who have had the vaccine, and they had very little to no side effects as a result of it. I think there was some amount of legitimate skepticism last fall. Politics was a little bit part of that, but I think now that we're six or seven months into this program, as you rightfully mention, over 5 million New Jerseyans fully vaccinated with de minimis serious side effects, I think that's the biggest reason.

Folks see folks around them in their communities. They're healthy. They're protected against these variants, which is hugely important right now, and I think that's the biggest driver in those numbers going in the right direction.

MR. SCOTT: You have now called COVID-19 a, quote, "preventable illness." Do you have any concerns that the Delta variant of the virus may trigger a new spike in infections in your state?

GOV. MURPHY: Yeah, I do. I mean, we're watching the variants very, very closely, but this is, Eugene, without question right now--and it has been for a number of weeks--a pandemic of the unvaccinated. We've got 300-and-something folks in the hospital right now with COVID. I'd venture to guess 100 percent of them are unvaccinated.

We know that a vaccinated, fully vaccinated person can get COVID, but we also know that the vaccines are 99-point-something percent effective against keeping folks out of the hospital or, God forbid, going into the intensive care unit or, please, God, not passing away, and so I would just continue to beg folks who are on the fence to get vaccinated. It's the smartest thing they could do not just for the overall good of the society or welfare of society, but it's for their own cold-blooded personal health and well-being.

MR. SCOTT: What factors will you put in place if these variants continue and there's a need for more restrictions to make sure things don't get worse?

GOV. MURPHY: We'll keep all options open, and I say that not happily. We got clobbered early on in this pandemic last March, April, and May. We're the densest state in America, in the densest region in America. Most often, that's a good thing. Not in a pandemic. We got clobbered, and we were among if not the very first state in the nation to shut down, require masking indoors, et cetera. I hope like heck that we will not have to go back to that.

We had a second wave, not as lethal as the first, but we had to stay the course for quite a long period of time. I'm confident. We wouldn't be making the pronouncements about what school is going to look like if we did not have reason to be confident, but having said that, Eugene, you have to keep all options on the table. There's no question public health creates economic health, and unless we continue to take the public health seriously, who knows? But right now, I feel very, very good, except there are too many folks still who are unvaccinated, and they are exposed to these variants and to COVID-19.

MR. SCOTT: You mentioned New Jersey got clobbered pretty early in the pandemic. We know that more than 600,000 Americans have died from COVID, with about 24,000 of them in New Jersey. Those are some pretty grim numbers.

GOV. MURPHY: Yep.

MR. SCOTT: What lessons do you think you should take from that part of the COVID experience?

GOV. MURPHY: Well, I suspect this is an obvious statement, but I sure as heck wish we all knew what we ultimately learned earlier.

You know, we found a lot of common ground against folks' expectations with the Trump administration, and in our deepest, darkest hour of need, they were there, and we found common ground. And we will be forever grateful. We have an extraordinarily good and strong relationship with the Biden team.

But I got really--the one time I really got upset last year was when it came out--I think it was in Bob Woodward's book. There were tapes that the White House knew a lot more about this virus earlier than they let on. I don't know that it would have led to different steps that we would have taken, but we would have taken the steps we did take earlier. And there's no question--there's no question, in New Jersey, if we had, we would have saved lives, and that's a significant point of frustration because those lives are lost, and they're not coming back.

MR. SCOTT: Governor, you announced last week that when schools return in the fall, students will not be required to wear masks. Can you share what prompted that decision?

GOV. MURPHY: Well, the public health data right now, Eugene, across the board, we don't look at any one datapoint. We look at a collection of them. But if you look at positivity rate, rate of transmission, hospitalizations, even with the variants in our state, our numbers are very strong, and they have continued consistently to be strong now for many, many weeks.

So, when we put out our guidance last week--we have to remember the virus dictates the terms, not yours truly or anyone else, so this is our best guess at the time we put this out, and we promised to stay close to this over the course of the summer.

The good thing about masking--and I hope this does not happen, by the way. I hope that our kids are going to school and not wear masks. Believe me, that's our recommendation right now, but the good thing, if, God forbid, COVID-19 takes a turn that we're not expecting and things get worse, unlike putting in an HVAC system into an old school building, you can make a decision on very short notice on masking. But, please, God, we won't have to, and our kids and educators and staff will be able to go to school Monday through Friday full-time without masks on.

MR. SCOTT: As you mentioned, all school districts in New Jersey will be required to offer full-time in-person schooling, but with no remote option, was there any pushback on that from schools or even teachers' unions?

GOV. MURPHY: I mean, a modest amount, but I think it was legitimate pushback. If someone has--whether it's a child or an educator or a staff member who's got, for instance, some highly infection-prone, preexisting condition, we're not going to put anybody's life at risk. The standard or the bar for that will be very high, but New Jersey has always done that. We have the number one-rated public school system in America, and part of the reason we do is not just the educational qualities but also how we take care of our kids and our educators, so we'll continue to do the right thing. We always have, but we're expecting folks to be full-time, in person, in school, Monday through Friday.

MR. SCOTT: I want to pivot to the economy for a minute. We just had the long July 4th weekend, and I know tourism at the Jersey Shore and other spots was quite up to pre-COVID levels. How would you say the weekend went overall?

GOV. MURPHY: Oh, it was a great weekend, thank God. We've got a gun safety challenge in our state, like everywhere in America right now, so we are taking a whole series of steps preemptively against that scourge, and by the way, we've got the strongest gun safety laws in America.

But away from that, it was a magical weekend on the shore, which is not just a New Jersey gem. It's an American gem on our lakes, on our main streets. I myself went to three parades. There was just a feeling of exhilaration in the air, people sort of unburdening themselves after this awful year-plus of a pandemic, and it was overall a great weekend.

MR. SCOTT: In January, you signed the New Jersey Economic Recovery Act offering a variety of tax incentives and grant programs, yet some people say you should be doing more in light of the fact that almost 30 percent of small businesses in New Jersey closed over the last 12 to 15 months. What are you doing now to help small businesses in New Jersey?

GOV. MURPHY: Yeah. I mean, Eugene, the toll that this pandemic has taken under Jersey, like everywhere in the world, is overwhelming, over 26,000 losses of life when you include the folks who we believe passed from COVID but are not yet confirmed, 30 percent, as you rightfully point out, of our small businesses going under, especially restaurants and bars, other hospitality, 2 million unemployment claims, so the toll is significant.

As it relates to small business, we have already put hundreds of millions of dollars on the street. I think we've helped over 60,000 small businesses with either loans, grants, or some other form of capital. We're going to stay at it is the answer. Small businesses are the backbone of our economy. They employ 60 percent of the employment in New Jersey, and we are going to stay at it, whether it's American Rescue Plan money, whether it's the money in our budget that I just signed last week that has a lot of support for small businesses. That incentives package that you rightfully pointed out that I signed in January has a huge main street element, start-up element to it. We've done a lot, but we're going to stay at it and continue to help out our small business and start-up communities.

MR. SCOTT: I know you don't have a crystal ball or anything, but how long do you think there will be economic effects on New Jersey and other states from this pandemic? I mean, do you foresee a day when the financial impact of COVID-19 will be behind us?

GOV. MURPHY: Absolutely. I just can't tell you when that is, Eugene, but I do know this. Our economy is snapping back, and literally, it is proving the point that public health leads to economic health. We've been able to contain the virus. Please, God, it stays that way in New Jersey, and as a result, the economy is not just growing again. It's snapping back and growing aggressively, in fact, so much so that its speed is outdistancing the labor market's ability to keep up with it.

Having said that--and I think that recovery will stay strong at least for the near to intermediate term. Having said that, it's not as good a recovery as we're seeing--two things. One is it isn't a light switch. It's going to take time for a lot of these firms to get back on their feet and for the labor market dislocation to even out, and secondly, it's not enough in our state to go back to where we were. This pandemic--I've said this many times. The pandemic did not create the inequities, but it has laid them bare. So, as we recovery and as we grow again and get back on our feet, it's not sufficient to just grow and get back to some prior level of economic activity. It's to address explicitly inequities in business formation, in job opportunity, in housing, education, public health, you name it.

MR. SCOTT: Speaking of a snapback, unemployment in your state is now at 7.2 percent, which is a significant improvement over the 13 percent figure from last July, but what hope can you give those who are still looking for work in this economy?

GOV. MURPHY: Yeah. The good news is, Eugene, it's better than it was but not as good as it was before the pandemic in terms of the rate, and we're going to stay at that.

I think the big reason, by the way, is the small business component to our economy. We have, I think, almost unlike any American state, a disproportionate amount of our employment is through small businesses, so that number has come down, but it needs to come down further and faster. And we'll stay at it.

There's also--the economists will also point out that there is some amount of--and you never make light of anybody who's lost their job and are frustrated because they don't have their unemployment benefits, and we'll stay at it until they do, but when an economy is growing like this one is, the economists will remind us that part of the unemployment picture are folks who have an optimism about leaving the job they have because they think they can upskill themselves, upsell themselves to a better, higher-paying job. And that is one of, I think, many contributing factors to the dislocation of the labor market, and that element of it, unlike some of the negative contributing factors, exudes a certain amount of confidence. And we're seeing that play out as well in the state right now.

MR. SCOTT: I want to talk about 2022 a bit. We know that you're currently running for reelection in a reliably Democratic state, but your opponent, former State Assemblyman, Republican Jack Ciattarelli says you bought the governorship four years ago by spending $22 million of your own money in your campaign. Does he have a point, and if not, why not?

GOV. MURPHY: I didn't notice that he had made that point.

I'm on the ballot, by the way, this year, so 2022 is important. But New Jersey and Virginia are the two governors' races that are on the ballot this year.

Listen, I'm incredibly proud. I never spike the football. I never pat myself on the back, but I'll say this. I'm incredibly proud that as a candidate four years ago, as compared to how we have governed, we are exactly who we said we would be. We are pro-growth progressives, proudly progressive, but also, I got elected to fix this economy, to get New Jersey back as a state entity into a more responsible, fiscally sturdy position. And we've made enormous strides on all of the above, and we're going to stay at it. Our work is not done. It's the reason I'm running for reelection, because while we've made a lot of progress and we've started a lot of journeys, we have a long way still to travel, given the state that we had inherited, and I am honored to be back on the ballot. And God-willing, we're going to run like heck and get reelected in November and onward and continue our journey.

MR. SCOTT: Can you respond to the claim by your opponent that the $500 tax rebate checks that hundreds of thousands of New Jersey residents are now receiving is what he called, you know, nothing more than a campaign stunt?

GOV. MURPHY: Well, I didn't see that he said that either, but he clearly hasn't spoken to any of the 700-something-thousand families who have gotten a check.

This is what we promised last year. We said, listen, we're going to ask the wealthiest in our state to pay their fair share. I'm not a class warrior. I don't begrudge people's success. That's part of the American story, but we do need folks who are the most well off to pay their fair share. And we said, listen, if they pay their fair share and we got that done through a millionaire's tax, we would take the proceeds and do one of two things with it. Number one, fund big programs, particularly public education that impact the middle class and those who aspire like I was growing up to get into the middle class, and two, we would send direct cash checks to 700-something-thousand families who qualified under a certain level of income, right smack in the middle of our middle class and those aspiring to get there. That's no gimmick.

Given the pandemic that we've come out of, given the commitment we made, that money is desperately needed by hundreds of thousands of families in New Jersey, and they will put that to good use, whether it's for a child's education or to make a payment that they're otherwise behind on or whatever it might be. That is right into the middle class in our state, and it's desperately needed.

MR. SCOTT: I want to go to a viewer question right now. We have one from Cassandra Vega from New Jersey, and she's saying--she wants to know, how do you feel your handling of this crisis will affect your reelection campaign?

GOV. MURPHY: Sorry. How do I feel?

MR. SCOTT: Yes. How do you feel your handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the related crises will affect your reelection campaign this fall?

GOV. MURPHY: Yeah. I've been asked this a couple of times, and if you could follow me around and get inside my mind and be in the meetings I'm in, politics has never once been a factor during this awful pandemic. We literally have woken up, and we continue to wake up every day trying to save as many lives and save as many livelihoods as we can and make decisions based on the data, even when those decisions were not popular. And the politics of it has never factored into this, honestly, and it still does not. We have our heads down, as I say, trying to save as many lives as we can. It's why I'm begging people who are not yet vaccinated in New Jersey, please go out and get vaccinated and do it soon, and you'll save yourself the awful prospect of getting sick or dying from this virus.

MR. SCOTT: I want to circle back a bit to an issue you brought up when we were talking about the Fourth of July weekend, and it's gun violence. I really wanted to know if you had seen any issues related to morale in the law enforcement community in your state. Is there any pullback on their part in attempting to combat this rise in violence we're seeing in some parts of your state and across the country?

GOV. MURPHY: No, and to the contrary. You know, particularly in the advent or since the killing of George Floyd, New Jersey, like most places in America, had hundreds if not thousands of protests with enormous anger and passion, and I'm proud to say with very few exceptions, they were peaceful. And I think that is a tribute to the relationship between law enforcement and the communities that they serve in New Jersey. You can never bat a thousand.

I mean, believe me, and as I mentioned earlier, we have the strongest gun safety laws in America. But to the contrary, we have brave women and men in law enforcement who are continuing to deepen and try to deepen their relationship with the communities they serve. But they're also faced with the scourge of gun violence, and as strong as our gun laws are, we're not an island. We have too many crime guns that still come into New Jersey, and that is a huge frustration for law enforcement, rightfully so, and it's another reason why--it's a reason why we formed something called States for Gun Safety, so we've got a coalition of states trying to coordinate and work together and research on gun safety. But it's also why we need federal gun safety laws, and I pray that Congress can get there. I know this president will sign any gun safety laws that come his way.

But that is a reality in our state, and it's a huge frustration on my part on behalf of law enforcement, and I keep them all in our prayers as they deal with it until we get to a better place.

MR. SCOTT: Speaking of federal laws, do you think the increase in the proliferation of guns across the country is more of a federal problem or a local issue?

GOV. MURPHY: It's got to be both, and we're proving that having the best gun safety laws in America is necessary but not sufficient. The Giffords organization, named in Gabby Giffords' name, who has been a great ally of ours, gave two American states on their recent report card an A, and we're one of them.

But having said that, as I say, necessary but not sufficient, we know crime guns are coming up the Iron Pipeline on the interstate on the East Coast, up from places like Georgia and South Carolina that have lower and more lax gun safety laws, and it's the reason why we need and/both. We need what we're doing in New Jersey, but we need federal gun safety laws.

By the way, when you poll Americans--and you know this, Eugene--they overwhelmingly, both sides of the aisle in America, support things like universal background checks. It's the gun lobby that's prevented something like universal background checks from becoming law, and I hope that that can be overcome, as I say, and that Congress could pass sensible, smart gun safety laws that are aimed at crime guns, not guns own by responsible citizens.

We have no issue with the Second Amendment. This is about crime guns and criminals, not about regular God-fearing, responsible gun owners.

MR. SCOTT: Well, Governor, we're going to have to leave it there. That is all the time we have today, and I just wanted to thank you for spending some of your time with us here at Washington Post Live.

GOV. MURPHY: Great to be back, Eugene. Thank you so much for having me, and have a great weekend.

MR. SCOTT: You as well.

And for all of you, we ask that you join us on Monday, 10:15 a.m. Eastern time, when my colleague will interview European Commissioner Margrethe Vestager. They're going to discuss her efforts to reign in the power of tech giants doing business in Europe.

You can always head to WashingtonPostLive.com to register and get more information about upcoming programs.

Thank you for joining us.

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