A Thursday vote in the state Assembly was canceled for a bill that would have let Gov. Phil Murphy’s COVID-19 public health emergency expire next month, in return for keeping in place many of the broad powers he’s employed these past 14 months to contain the pandemic.
Murphy announced May 14 that such a bill would move forward and he, in turn, would lift the state’s public health emergency. The legislation and that agreement have the sign-off from Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, both the most powerful lawmakers in their respective chambers.
That came days ahead of New Jersey’s May 19 reopenings, including removing capacity restrictions for indoor businesses though masks are still required and loosening outdoor gathering limits, which Murphy said have been the “most aggressive” since the start of the pandemic.
The proposal, Assembly Bill 5777, would have kept in place 14 separate executive orders Murphy signed since the onset of the pandemic. But Coughlin, in a May 20 statement, said he would postpone the Thursday vote following discussions “with legislative colleagues, advocates and other interest parties … in order to refine it so that it is the fairest and most responsible bill possible.”
“I am committed to ending the public health emergency,” the Assembly Speaker continued. “This is extremely important legislation that we must get right.”
Alyana Alfaro, the governor’s press secretary, said in a written statement that the governor would “continue to work with legislative leadership” on the bill.
“Gov. Murphy believes that the state must move beyond the Public Health Emergency responsibly, and in a way that ensures the Administration retains necessary tools to manage recovery and vaccination efforts, as well as the continued threat to public health,” she continued.
Republicans have panned the measure, saying it does little, if anything to actually end the public health emergency given the broad powers Murphy would still have at his disposal through the end of 2021.
“Every citizen must know that if we’re going to keep the three branches of government as they exist, then they all should be aware of what I believe is a power-grab,” Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick, R-21st District, said in a virtually-held press conference less than an hour after Coughlin’s decision. “We have to be careful about the loss of our constitutional system by granting unilateral powers to the governor of our state.”
The powers that would be kept in place under the version of the bill that was pulled from a vote include the moratorium for evictions and utility shut-offs, hospital data-sharing on COVID-19 numbers, face-covering mandates, heightened COVID-19 workplace safety standards, and vaccines.
Restaurants would be allowed to continue outdoor dining while towns and cities would be able to shut down streets for that purpose. Legal immunity would remain for hospitals and long-term care centers. And the governor could ramp up restrictions should there be “an increase in hospitalizations, increased spot positivity or a rate of transmission above 1.”
Under the bill, a slew of directives by the New Jersey Department of Health regarding how businesses can operate during the COVID-19 pandemic would also remain in effect without the monthly 30-day extensions.
That department and any other would have the authority to issue orders and other directives granted under the state’s emergency health powers act in a bid to respond to how the virus crops up any time through the end of the year.
The legislation makes clear that a repeal of the public health emergency “shall in no way diminish, limit or impair the powers of the governor” during the pandemic.