Like other states in the Northeast where the novel coronavirus first hit hardest in the U.S., residents of New Jersey closely followed COVID-19 guidelines set forth by health officials at the outset of the crisis, relaxed during a period of pandemic fatigue in the summer, but then clamped down again in the fall and early winter.

But now, say researchers at Rutgers, Harvard, Northeastern, and Northwestern universities in data published by The COVID States Project, as case numbers back down from their January peaks and the pace of vaccinations increases, New Jerseyans admit they are easing up again.

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The multi-state study saw similar trends, mirroring that general pattern from season to season and wave to wave, in eight distinct activities: going to work, going to the gym, eating at a bar or café, attending a worship service, seeing the doctor, visiting a friend, using mass transit, and being in an indoor space with people outside one's own household.

Katherine Ognyanova, assistant professor of communication at Rutgers, wonders if people are just a little less concerned about the threat of the virus after a year, cautioning that that may not be the right attitude considering that the virus not only is still here but has also begun to mutate more meaningfully.

"We are seeing those new variants of COVID-19 as well, that are more infectious and potentially more dangerous, more risky, and we don't want to risk having a new wave hit the U.S.," Ognyanova said.

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Although Gov. Phil Murphy did raise capacity limits for indoor dining from 25% to 35% in mid-February, Ognyanova said the increased responses of those in New Jersey who said they were now going out to eat more often appeared to be unconnected to the executive order.

"It's difficult to say how much of this is due to lowering of restrictions, and how much of it is due to just the weather is nicer, we're seeing people getting vaccinated," she said.

Avoidance of large crowds peaked at 83% of survey respondents last April but has fluctuated between 60% and 66% since the beginning of December.

On a national scale, Ognyanova said, relaxing gathering rules to this extent could portend a summertime spike like what America saw one year ago in those warmer months, even though New Jersey was on the downslope of the first wave at that time.

But specifically for the Garden State, she said continued adherence to mask-wearing can keep numbers low, as that has overtaken hand-washing and even distancing as the No. 1 request of state health officials.

"New Jersey's one of the top states where people are most likely to wear their masks. We're usually at over 80, 85%," Ognyanova said. "Since we've found how the disease spreads, I think there has been a little less emphasis on telling people to do a lot of hand-washing."

The research partnership next plans to release results of a study on Wednesday of vaccine hesitancy among residents.

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