The pandemic and its innumerable ripple effects have created many questions about exercising parenting time in light of the stringent restrictions on ‘unnecessary movement’ and social gatherings (not to mention a long list of other things) due to Governor Murphy’s Executive Order No. 107 which was issued on March 21, 2020, and can be found here. Just how far reaching is this Executive Order? If I am supposed to shelter in place, not leave my house, and socially distance, am I even allowed to exercise my parenting time? The short answer (for now, since everything changes day by day!) is, yes.
Paragraph number 2 of the Executive Order provides that all New Jersey residents shall remain home unless they are engaging in a variety of activities including, at subparagraph number 4,visiting family or other individuals with whom the resident has a close personal relationship such as those for whom the individual is a caretaker. So, despite the fact that we are all supposed to remain in our homes, this Executive Order carves out an exception which, on its face, would apply to having parenting time with children and leaving your house to effectuate parenting time. Transportation, i.e. being on the roads driving to and from parenting time exchanges, is a simple issue and not precluded based on the text of the Executive Order.
However, there are many more potential issues in light of the pandemic that cannot be addressed by the Executive Order and come down to the “3 Cs”—communication, cooperation, and common sense, which can sadly be missing between co-parents. But now, they are more important than ever. Hopefully, parties abiding by a parenting time Order are able to communicate with each other and decide whether their parenting time schedule needs to be modified, at least temporarily, in light of the pandemic. For example, maybe it would be in all parties’ interests health-wise to keep the amount of parenting time the same, for example, continue to maintain an existing parenting schedule, but with fewer exchanges. So, instead of a schedule with exchanges a few times a week with a 50/50 schedule, for examples, parties could transition to a one-week-on/one-week-off or even two-week-on/two-week-off schedule so that if there are any issues with the virus, the parent or child has less of a chance of contaminating two homes with the virus. Longer stretches may allow for symptoms to arise so that the parties can determine the best course of action if they do.
Another issue coming up for clients is what to do when one parent works from home while another parent is still going outside of the home to work in a hospital, for example, or choosing to go into work or out for social reasons. The parent working from home may be understandably apprehensive about exposing the child to a parent who has not been able to, or has chosen not to, shelter in place. While ideally a client would not violate a Court Order for parenting time, clients have to use and be guided by their best judgment in these unprecedented times and balance following a certain parenting time schedule with promoting their children’s best interests and the public’s interest in social distancing and keeping others, especially high risk individuals, safe. Achieving this balance is do-able and far easier if the parties can openly communicate with each other and decide the best course of action when either or both parents are still out in the community.
During a pandemic (and hopefully this will be the last one in our lifetimes!) strict adherence to a parenting time schedule is likely going to have to fall by the wayside in favor of more global concerns; parenting time schedules may need to be looked at on a day-to-day basis. For example, a parent who is an every other weekend parent may now need to see the children more, even if just to relieve the ex-spouse who is now home every day with the children and homeschooling them. Likewise, if a parent is sheltering in place with a child and practicing social distancing, that parent should be flexible in providing the other parent alternative access to parenting time by video or phone conference, and possibly makeup parenting time when this crisis subsides.
Hopefully we can all return to some semblance of normal, or new normal, sooner rather than later. Until then, remember that communication, cooperation, and common sense are key to co-parenting always, but especially during this crisis. Stay safe and healthy!