New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is slowly lifting restrictions that were put in place to help curb the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). However, prohibitions of large public gatherings will likely remain in place for the foreseeable future.

With high school graduations around the corner, Gov. Murphy’s latest executive order is offering a glimmer of hope that the events can be salvaged, although in a modified form. Executive Order No. 142 (Order) permits car gatherings for the purpose of drive-through and drive-in events under specific circumstances. 

Executive Order No. 142

The Order specifically states that car gatherings do not violate the Governor’s ban on gatherings under Executive Order No. 107, with certain restrictions.  Although examples of authorized car gatherings might include drive-in movies, or drive-through farms or safaris, a school district might raise the question of whether it may be appropriate for a graduation celebration.  In considering this question, please note that car gatherings will be subject to serious restrictions in the Order, which include but are not limited to the following:

  • Attendees must remain in their same car throughout the gathering, unless: 1) an occupant needs to get out of the vehicle for their health or safety; or 2) an occupant needs to use the restroom;
  • The vehicle must remain closed at all times, including windows, doors and roofs, unless: 1) there is six feet of distance between other vehicles or individuals; or 2) an officer, public official or guard requires the vehicle to open. There is a further exception allowing the opening of the vehicle if necessary for health or safety;
  • Individuals organizing the gathering who are not in vehicles must follow social distancing and wear cloth face coverings.

Gov. Murphy’s Order reverses the earlier position taken by New Jersey State Police Superintendent Col. Patrick Callahan in a letter issued to the state Department of Education and school districts on May 9, 2020. "In the best interest of the health and safety of the public, in-person ceremonies, including graduations, all parades including 'wave parades,' that invite people to gather at a certain location, proms, and other similar celebrations violate the enumerated conditions of the order (Executive Order 107), and should therefore be canceled or postponed until such time as these restrictions are lifted," Callahan's wrote. "Until such time, virtual celebrations and other remote forms of recognition should take the place of any in-person or public ceremonies."

Practical and Legal Concerns of “Car Gathering” Graduations

In light of Executive Order No. 142, car gatherings may present a viable option for schools to hold a form of a graduation celebration. However, there are serious practical and legal concerns that should be carefully taken into consideration.

As the Order highlights, while attendees at gatherings who remain in their vehicles pose a lower threat to public health and safety, allowing individuals to leave their vehicle or open their windows or roofs when in proximity with other individuals could result in significant person-to-person contact and would violate the Order. Accordingly, there must be careful limits placed on car gatherings, particularly those involving large groups of people.

School districts should also consider the potential liability if someone contracts COVID-19 during the event and determine what steps should be taken to reduce such risks. Additional concerns are crowd control, liability for injury and a refusal by participants to abide by the rules. Finally, it is also necessary for districts to contact their insurance carrier regarding the carrier’s position on any potential plans before deciding to hold a school-sponsored or sanctioned car gathering.

If you have questions, please contact us

For more information about Gov. Murphy’s Order authorizing car gatherings or the legal issues involved, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Government and Education Law Group.