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The state, particularly South Jersey, has seen a slight uptick in new COVID-19 cases as it heads into August, despite cases having been in decline since the start of summer.

At Gov. Phil Murphy’s COVID-19 briefing Wednesday, Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli reported that the state positivity rate — the percentage of people who test positive for the virus of all those who have been tested — was 2.42. But South Jersey’s positivity rate was nearly double that.

On Thursday, 6ABC reported that four New Jersey counties, including Atlantic County, have been identified as emerging hot spots, according to a report by the Department of Homeland Security. Atlantic County had not been on the hot spot list since May 3.

Efforts to attain a copy of the report from DHS were unsuccessful Thursday.

Murphy said the increase in cases has been traced to indoor house parties across the state.

Just recently, a house party on Long Beach Island sidelined about three dozen lifeguards who tested positive for the coronavirus, 50 new cases were linked to a cluster of house parties in Middletown, Monmouth County, and a graduation party at the end of June in Cape May County led to 46 positive cases among New Jersey and Pennsylvania residents.

Last weekend, a 700-person house party at an Airbnb in Jackson Township, Ocean County, took police about five hours to break up. Murphy said it is too early to tell how many positive cases will be linked to that party, but Persichilli believed there will be many.

Since the party, Airbnb has deactivated the house listing pending further investigation and issued a public statement saying, “We strongly condemn the reported behavior, which represents both a clear violation of Airbnb’s community policies and a particularly serious abuse during this public health crisis.”

Since the virus outbreak in March, Airbnb has taken steps to address virus concerns, such as strengthening policies to prohibit gatherings that go against public health mandates, said Liz DeBold Fusco, spokeswoman for Airbnb. The company has also temporarily disabled the “event-friendly” search filter on its site — which is used for guests to seek out venues for parties — and temporarily removed the “parties and events allowed” rule from the house rules of any New Jersey listings that permit parties.

Airbnb took measures a step further Friday and suspended or removed 35 listings in New Jersey that received complaints or violated the site's policies on parties and events.

Among those are properties in Atlantic City, Brigantine, Ventnor and Stafford Township, according to a company statement.

“We stand with Governor Murphy, and we support his call to action to stop parties and promote behavior that respects the public’s health,” said Chris Lehane, SVP of global policy & communications for Airbnb. “We ban party houses and will not tolerate irresponsible behavior on our platform. We know that there is still more work to be done, we ask that neighbors contact us as soon as possible through our Neighborhood Support Hotline, to directly communicate any concerns, which will help us continue to effectively enforce our party house ban.”

Airbnb also implemented restrictions on some U.S. guests under the age of 25 from booking entire home listings in their local area. 

Because of house parties, positive cases in younger people also continue to increase, Persichilli said. For the first three weeks in July, the percentage of positive cases in people between the ages of 18 and 29 ranged from 24% to 33%, she said. In April, the percentage of cases in that same age group was 12%. In June it was 22%.

“We cannot continue to have crowded house parties,” Murphy said at his Wednesday briefing. “They are not safe, period. They are how coronavirus gets passed around more efficiently. I’m not going to say indoor dining is like a house party, because it isn’t. But when one party in an air conditioned house leads to dozens of new cases, it should give us all pause.”

With the slight uptick in cases — about 2,000 new cases were reported in a span of four days early this week — the governor said the state is where it was a month ago.

In late June and early July, the state was reporting anywhere between 317 to 539 cases per day, except for a dip June 29, when Murphy reported 156 COVID-19 cases.

Through mid-July, cases decreased to anywhere between 177 to 396 per day. But since July 24, cases have increased to more than 400, with 489 reported Wednesday.

Patricia Diamond, public health officer for Atlantic County, said the county isn’t seeing an increase in cases due to house parties, but rather due to an increase in testing and old lab results catching up.

“A couple (of house parties) have been reported, and the person reporting the gathering is directed to contact the local police,” she said.

Contact: 609-272-7239

Twitter @ACPress_CJ

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