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To all the ‘knuckleheads’ out there

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is getting a lot of attention these days for resurrecting the term “knucklehead.”

Murphy has used it to describe bad behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic, most recently as he called out attendees at several house parties and graduation get-togethers where participants wound up being superspreaders of the virus.

Although there is no universal definition of a superspreader, a commonly agreed upon metric is one person who infects at least eight others.

The first time I saw Murphy make the reference to “knuckleheads” during one of his coronavirus briefings several months ago, I thought to myself, “Wow, I haven’t heard that word in a while.”

My most vivid recollection of the word goes back to the 1950s and the Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney Show. (Winchell was the voice of the Jerry Mahoney dummy, and, by the way, he was amazing, because unlike Edgar Bergen of Charlie McCarthy fame, Winchell’s lips rarely moved.)

In 1951, a second dummy appeared whose name was Knucklehead Smiff, who had the appearance of a stereotypical “country bumpkin,” according to Winchell.

The word “knucklehead,” however, preceded the TV show by at least a decade, according to Cassell’s Dictionary, which attributes the expression to the image of a knuckle pressed into the side of the head of a not-too-swift individual trying to think or remember something.

Well, now that Murphy’s use of the ancient term has caught on with a modern day public, he has taken it a step further by creating a mythical “Knucklehead Hall of Fame” whose inductees will be those who don’t follow state protocols, thereby becoming a danger to themselves and others.

Murphy insists it is because of people like these attending events without considering the consequences of their actions that he has hit the “pause” button on the state’s reopening of more indoor activities such as dining and health clubs.

Murphy cited the following outbreak clusters which have been traced to superspreaders attending events which violated state guidelines: a large mansion party in Middletown that infected 50 teens, 11 lifeguards infected in parties at shore communities, a Cape May graduation party that infected close to 50, a party on Long Island Beach responsible for 35 infections and a Westfield graduation party that infected 17.

Here in Pennsylvania, health officials continue to be concerned about our area’s residents who spend a few days up to a few weeks at the Jersey shore. While New Jersey is not on the list of 20 states singled out by Pennsylvania officials as hot spots that require self-quarantine when returning, shoregoers are exposed to visitors from those hot spot states who also flock to shore towns in the summer.

If safe distancing practices and masks are not worn in crowded venues at the beaches and boardwalk venues, the risk of infection rises significantly, and if infected these Pennsylvanians can bring the virus back to the commonwealth and spread it to others.

“We certainly have evidence that indoor parties associated with beach towns and other places have occurred,” said Edward Lifshitz, medical director of New Jersey’s Department of Health’s communicable disease service. “I would say we do not have any evidence related to protests or the beaches themselves.”

Murphy added, however, “If we don’t manage capacity at the beaches, if we can’t get social distancing, we’re probably playing with fire.”

Gov. Tom Wolf issued a strong plea in mid-May imploring Pennsylvanians to stay away from New Jersey beaches, but a dozen cases were detected about two weeks later in Bucks County that were traceable to a house party attended by county residents at a shore town.

Wolf did not issue a similar plea for the Fourth of July holiday, but reports started surfacing last week in Montgomery County that contact tracers had found superspreaders from Fourth of July and graduation parties.

There also have been instances throughout the suburban Philadelphia area of outbreaks among those returning from shore towns in New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland since July 4. Cases in Pennsylvania have more than doubled on average in July compared to May.

Here’s a heads up to Gov. Murphy: There are going to be knuckleheads out there, who, despite all we have been through, still do not take this pandemic seriously and who will try on purpose to win admittance to your hall of fame with outrageous behavior.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com