Lawmakers on May 18 continued to move ahead a bill that would let Gov. Phil Murphy’s COVID-19 public health order expire next month, but keep in place many of the broad powers he’s employed these past 14 months to contain the pandemic.
The proposed Assembly Bill 5777 keeps in place 14 separate executive orders Murphy signed since the onset of the pandemic. It was approved by a 7-3 vote at the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, after being introduced at the very meeting.
Murphy announced May 14 that such a bill would move forward and he in turn would lift the 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.
Tuesday’s approval of the bill and the planned expiration of this last 30-day COVID-19 public health order in mid-June come as the state ramps up its reopening timeline following a slowdown in the pandemic’s spread.
Starting May 19, New Jersey embarks on what Murphy’s described as the “most aggressive” reopening steps thus far amid the pandemic. Indoor businesses no longer are bound by capacity restrictions and instead need to just enforce 6-foot social distancing. Outdoor gathering limits are also being loosened.
But indoor masks are still required, making New Jersey a national outlier following federal guidance saying vaccinated people do not have to wear them indoors.
The bill keeps in effect until Jan. 1, 2022, a variety of powers granted to the governor under executive order – all of which would expire if the governor did not extend the public health emergency.
They 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 can 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.
“Removing those powers would potentially leave future New Jerseyans at great risk,” Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-7th District, said on Tuesday. “This bill is threading the needle, removing those things that can be removed while preserving authorities which may very well be needed in the future,” like in the event of another rebound of the pandemic.
Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor-Marin, D-29th District, who chairs the Assembly Budget Committee, cautioned that “I don’t think though, that it’s the right time for us to just say that COVID is completely over.”
Many state Republicans have decried Murphy’s slew of executive orders, and unsuccessfully put forward legislation that would rein in the constitutional authority of his executive orders.
Murphy is widely regarded as one of the nation’s most powerful state governors, given the text of the state’s constitution.
“The bill doesn’t really seem to do all that much, which is a problem,” said Assemblyman Brian Bergen, R-25th District. “It gives the governor, essentially, all the powers of having a health emergency without having a health emergency.”