State lawmakers on Tuesday began advancing a plan that would end New Jersey’s public-health emergency over the coronavirus but allow Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration to retain many powers to keep battling the pandemic through the end of this year — including overseeing masking and social distancing rules.
Republicans have quickly denounced the proposal, arguing it doesn’t change anything.
With the state’s coronavirus numbers improving as vaccinations continue, Murphy and his fellow Democrats who lead the Legislature — Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin — announced Friday they were working on a deal to eliminate the public-health emergency the governor declared last March.
Murphy said he would allow the order to end next month if the Legislature passed a bill allowing his administration to retain some “tools” to keep protecting the state and rolling out vaccinations “in order to continue on the path to normalcy.”
The public-health emergency — which Murphy has extended each month since last March — has allowed the governor to issue dozens of executive orders, including capacity restrictions on businesses and masking mandates, without input from lawmakers.
Republicans have repeatedly called for Murphy to work more closely with the Legislature to determine how to handle the pandemic, which has killed more than 25,000 New Jersey residents and led to one-third of the state’s small businesses to close.
Lawmakers introduced the compromise bill Tuesday. It would revoke nearly all of Murphy’s executive orders related to the pandemic 30 days after his signs this measure.
But it doesn’t immediately wipe away all the restrictions the governor put in place. Instead, it keeps 15 of the orders until Jan. 1, 2022. Those include:
- Murphy’s “most recent” orders on masking and social distancing. The governor can ease these orders but tighten them only if the state’s rate of transmission reaches 1 or higher, hospitalizations increase, or statewide test positivity increases. Currently, the state has lifted its outdoor mandate but is still requiring masks indoors in public, though Murphy said that could change in the coming weeks.
- A moratorium on evictions during the crisis.
- A moratorium on insurance companies canceling policies for those who don’t pay.
- A moratorium on utility shutoffs for those who don’t pay.
- Expanded outdoor dining at restaurants.
- A requirement that health-care facilities give the state daily data reports.
- Workplace safety protocols, including temperature checks and masking rules.
- Protocols at summer youth camps.
- Shielding federal stimulus payments from wage garnishment.
Murphy’s administration also keeps powers over vaccination distribution, testing, and data collection.
The governor can revoke or alter any of the 15 remaining orders before Jan. 1.
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The Assembly Appropriations Committee approved it Tuesday along party lines. It must pass the full Senate and Assembly — both of which are controlled by Democrats — before Murphy can decide whether to sign it or veto it.
Republicans were aghast. Assemblyman Brian Bergen, R-Morris, said GOP lawmakers were expecting a proposal that would end Murphy’s executive authority when this gives the governor “essentially, all the powers of having a health emergency without having a health emergency.”
State Sen. Steven Oroho, R-Sussex, said the measure “has to be some kind of joke.”
“It ends the public health emergency in name only while allowing Governor Murphy to perpetuate until 2022 executive orders and unnecessary restrictions that should no longer be valid once the public health emergency has ended,” Oroho said. “Democrats shouldn’t try to fool people with this sleight of hand.”
Sweeney, the Senate president, told NJ Advance Media he was disappointed Republicans weren’t more “receptive.” He argued the bill allows Murphy to handle health matters while allowing the Legislature to become “a partner” with a say in the matter, especially when it comes to state finances.
“I don’t want to tie their hands on dealing with pandemic issues,” Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said of Murphy’s administration. “I understand the partisanship, but I think we came out with a fair compromise.”
Sweeney said he disagrees with Murphy over masks, noting that the state should follow recent federal guidelines that vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks or social distance in most cases.
“But I still don’t think the Legislature should be the one ordering mask wearing or taking it down,” he said.
Sweeney insisted he has the votes in the Senate to pass the measure despite Republican resistence.
“I’d love to pass it with them,” he said of the GOP.
This all comes as more than 3.7 million people who live, work, or study in the Garden State have now been fully vaccinated at New Jersey sites, while another 165,700 residents have been vaccinated in other states.
The state has set a goal of having 70% of New Jersey’s adults vaccinated by the end of June. More than 54% of the state’s 6.9 million adults have been fully vaccinated so far, while kids as young as 12 are now eligible to receive shots.
The state’s seven-day average for new confirmed positive COVID-19 tests is now 711 — down 31% from a week ago and 76% from a month ago.
There were 810 COVID-19 patients hospitalized across the state as of Monday night — the lowest number since Oct. 19. Overall, coronavirus hospitalizations are down 79% since the state’s second-wave peak of 3,873 patients on Dec. 22.
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