Nursing homes, which accounted for half of the state's coronavirus deaths, are allowing residents and visitors to gather closely without masks as long as they're all vaccinated.

The new directive at long-term care facilities might be a preview of a further return to normal for other aspects of life in New Jersey as more people get vaccinated, new cases are decreasing, hospitalizations are dropping.

During the Wednesday COVID update in Trenton, Gov. Phil Murphy said he is signing an executive order that clears the way for outdoor gathering limits to be greatly expanded and capacity limits on restaurants gyms and stores to be lifted on May 19.

In addition state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli announced a plan to lift some restrictions for vaccinated residents at long-term care facilities.

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“If both the visitor and resident are fully vaccinated, residents and their visitors may choose to have close contact, including touching or hugging, and removing their face masks if they are alone in the resident’s room," she said.

With a growing number of entertainment and other businesses announcing plans to require those in attendance to provide proof of vaccination, Gov. Phil Murphy suggested we are seeing the start of a new trend where “it’s going to be a lot more convenient to be vaccinated and a lot more inconvenient to not be vaccinated. That’s just going to be a fact over time.”

Persichilli said the Health Department has also updated guidance on communal activities and dining for long-term care residents who fully vaccinated.

“If all residents participating in the group activity or dining are fully vaccinated, they can participate without physical distancing and without wearing a mask during the activity," she said.

She said the directive also indicates routine testing of long-term care staff, which has been required for months to prevent COVID from entering or spreading in a facility, will no longer be required for fully vaccinated staff members.

She also announced that non-essential personnel, such as barbers and hair stylists, will be allowed to enter long-term care facilities if they are screened and the facility has protocols for these services to be delivered safely.

She said the new directive aligns with updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid.

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