As the highly infectious delta variant has continued to spread across the nation, there has been increasing speculation that Gov. Phil Murphy might reinstate the indoor mask mandate.

In New Jersey, the average number of new COVID infections has risen about 60% over the past week, hospitalizations have also been increasing and the rate of transmission is now up to 1.37, the highest it has been in months.

A total of 324 COVID hospitalizations were reported on Monday, with 58 patients in intensive care.

In Los Angeles County, California, where COVID cases have also started shooting up, a return to mandatory masking indoors went into effect on Sunday.

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And less than two months ago, on May 28, New Jersey was the last state to officially lift its indoor masking requirement in most locations.

On Monday, the governor was asked about the possibility of once again requiring face coverings in public areas inside.

“We’re not there yet," he said. “We continue to be comfortable with where we are but we watch this like a hawk."

Critics say Murphy 'fear-mongering'

Some Republican critics of the governor say he is setting up the state for another lockdown.

“The Murphy administration continues to engage in a massive display of fear-mongering over the Delta variant,” state Sen. Michael Doherty, R-Warren, said Monday. “Nobody should be shocked if the Murphy administration uses it as an excuse to lockdown New Jersey again and reimpose all of the COVID restrictions and mask mandates we fought to have lifted.”

What will convince N.J. officials to return to mandatory masking?

He said ultimately a return to masking will depend on what happens with the COVID metrics.

“You can make decisions with the fullness of time and data and also make them very informed and also make them very quickly if need be," he said.

“I don’t want to go back but if we think that’s the right public health thing to do then that’s what the experts will suggest," Murphy said.

American Academy of Pediatrics vs. N.J. policy

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended universal masking mandates for school children. But Murphy noted that the recommendation was for the entire nation, which included areas that unlike New Jersey have lower vaccination rates

Murphy said that he continues "to be comfortable where we are” in not forcing kids to wear masks in school because “we are among the most vaccinated states in the country.” New Jersey has 5.18 million fully vaccinated residents.

“That’s a huge positive but we need more folks to get vaccinated,” he said.

Murphy said while some people wearing masks may not be vaccinated, others who are may want to mask up anyway because they might be in contact with an older person with a compromised immune system and don’t want to risk passing the virus along.

“If somebody wants to wear a mask, let’s not begrudge them that. We need to keep that in mind that we can’t stigmatize against someone who chooses to do that," Murphy said.

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