Gurbir S. Grewal, Attorney General of NJ, speaks at Seton Hall Law School Gurbir S. Grewal, Attorney General of New Jersey, speaks at Seton Hall Law School

Ensuring 9 million residents are staying home in the nation’s most densely populated state during a global pandemic is a daunting task by all accounts.

So New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal said he’s enlisted some help. His office has created what he calls a vast network of prosecutors throughout New Jersey to enforce executive orders by Gov. Phil Murphy that began March 9 when the governor declared a state of emergency due to the new coronavirus pandemic.

Murphy’s orders accelerated with the closure of more nonessential retail establishments over the ensuing weeks to ensure “social distancing measures” were supported. Violation of the orders’ terms could be met with criminal charges.

“Our message is clear: stay home!” Grewal said in Wednesday release announcing his office’s stepped-up efforts to prohibit large gatherings.

Grewal said one reason for the crackdown was to prevent first responders from putting themselves at risk and expending their limited personnel and equipment on breaking up large gatherings instead of providing care to those who need it most during the pandemic. He cited two Lakewood incidents this week as particularly troubling since first responders were used to break up the gatherings

“We are strictly enforcing the Governor’s Executive Orders during this public health emergency, and those who refuse to comply will face serious legal consequences,” Grewal said in a statement to the Law Journal. “Those consequences include potential criminal charges ranging from a disorderly persons offense to second-, third- and fourth-degree indictable offenses.

“I’ve established a statewide network of prosecutors to advise police on how to pursue these charges,” said Grewal. “We hope that people will heed the Governor’s orders, but law enforcement agencies all across New Jersey will continue to take action if they don’t.

“And that’s why … we will charge anyone who threatens public health by holding large gatherings during this emergency,” Grewal said.

Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said “at this point statewide data on charges filed for violations of the governor’s emergency orders was not currently available.”

As of last Thursday, the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office had issued three disorderly persons charges in relation to COVID-19 violations, according to Colby Gallagher, the office’s public information officer.

“When an arrest is made, if the person is found to be responsible for violation of COVID-19 regulation, a charge is filed in addition to the original charge,” Gallagher said Thursday. “Some COVID-19 violations include disobeying stay-at-home provisions or making threats regarding the Coronavirus.”

As of Tueday, the death toll in New Jersey from the COVID-19 pandemic reached 267, and there were 18,696 total cases throughout the state. The U.S. death toll also continued to rise, to more than 3,500, surpassing China’s official death count.

Grewal said he has held multiple calls and virtual meetings with the state’s law enforcement leaders to discuss enforcement of the governor’s orders. In the office’s Wednesday release, he said, “If anyone doubts how serious we are about ensuring the health and well-being of our residents, they can ask the man in Penns Grove who was charged criminally by local police on Saturday night for holding a house party with more than 30 guests. We will also charge anyone who deliberately uses the coronavirus to intimidate others and spread fear, like the man we charged for allegedly coughing on a food store employee in Manalapan on Sunday.”

Grewal cited the recent incidents as examples where police charged individuals for holding prohibited gatherings, including the March 20 incident where more than 30 people attended a house party on Lanning Avenue in Penns Grove, Salem County. Penns Grove Police officers broke up the party and charged party host with a disorderly persons offense for allegedly violating Murphy’s order prohibiting large gatherings, according to the police report.

On Tuesday the first of two gatherings in Lakewood was for a wedding reception in an outdoor tent. At 2:30 p.m., police units responded to disperse the gathering when the homeowner continued the wedding ceremony. Lakewood Police issued a summons, charging the homeowner with a disorderly persons offense for allegedly violating the emergency order.

The second Tuesday incident took place about three hours later at a school located on Main Street, where approximately 25 teenage and adult males gathered, according to Grewal’s release. The school’s headmaster was issued a summons, charging him with maintaining a nuisance, which is a disorderly persons offense.

Using the pandemic to spread panic or generate discord with others will also land you in trouble, said Grewal, who thanked the Manalapan Police Department and Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office in the investigation and apprehension of a man charged with third-degree terroristic threats, fourth-degree obstructing the administration of law, and harassment, a petty disorderly persons offense, for allegedly coughing on a food store employee at the Wegmans on U.S. Highway 9 in Manalapan, and telling her he was infected with the coronavirus.

A detective of the Manalapan Police Department was working a security detail at the store and approached the man, who allegedly refused to cooperate or provide his name or driver’s license. After approximately 40 minutes, he identified himself and was permitted to leave, according to the Attorney General’s Office, which noted that he’ll be required to appear for a court date.

“Exploiting people’s fears and creating panic during a pandemic emergency is reprehensible. In times like these, we need to find ways to pull together as a community instead of committing acts that further divide us,” said Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher J. Gramiccioni in a statement following the Wegmans arrest. The case is to be prosecuted by the Division of Criminal Justice, the Attorney General’s office said.

Other state attorneys general are tightening restrictions. In New York—now considered the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S., with the largest number of reported coronavirus-related deaths—state Attorney General Letitia James on Thursday sent multiple cease-and-desist letters to individuals and companies allegedly selling and marketing certain products as treatments or cures for the coronavirus, and to hundreds of businesses in New York for charging excessive prices for hand sanitizers, disinfectant sprays and rubbing alcohol, in violation violation of New York’s price gouging statute.

Acting Middlesex County Prosecutor Christopher Kuberiet said he dials into a conference call with the AG’s Office daily at 3:30 p.m., Monday to Friday.

“We are in near daily contact with the Attorney General’s Office and his staff reviewing violations of the governor’s executive order and charging decisions in order to remain consistent throughout the state,” Kuberiet said in a phone interview on Tuesday.

There have been six cases in Middlesex County of violations of the governor’s social gathering ban, according to Kuberiet. They include: two persons charged with spitting on police officers and indicating they have the virus; four young people circling a Piscataway high school parking lot and doing damage to the parking lot; a proprietor of a  Woodbridge barber shop who has consistently stayed open; 11 young people involved in a group street fight in Spotswood; and a vehicular crash in Perth Amboy that resulted with the loss of three lives because of a driver traveling from out-of-state.

“We are vigorously enforcing the emergency orders issued by the governor and holding those accountable who violate them,” said Kuberiet. “The point can’t be missed that the number of positive cases are increasing and so are the deaths (related to Coronavirus), and so is the need for these orders that have been put in place to protect the community and citizens of this state to be enforced accordingly.”