Both the state Assembly and Senate are slated to hold a June 3 vote on a bill that would let Gov. Phil Murphy’s public health emergency expire within the next month, in return for keeping in place many of the broad powers he’s employed these past 14 months to contain the pandemic.
The measure was abruptly pulled for a vote in May and had drawn the ire of state Republicans for changing a few of the powers Murphy’s had at his disposal during the course of the pandemic.
Under the current proposal – introduced in both chambers on June 1 – Murphy would be able to keep in place 14 emergency powers in order to contain the pandemic and continue COVID-19 vaccination efforts. Should the bill pass both chambers, it would head directly to Murphy’s desk.
Unlike the version pulled in May, this proposal would employ legislative oversight. Of the dozens of orders Murphy signed since March last year, only 14 would stay in effect through Jan. 1, 2022. The rest would expire 30 days after Murphy signs the bill.
Proposed Assembly Bill 5820/Senate Bill 3866 was introduced in both chambers without going through the typically required committee hearings.
Murphy would not be able to order new facemask and social distancing requirements if they’re stricter than what the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have in place.
The powers that would be kept in place include the moratorium for evictions and utility shut-offs, hospital data-sharing on COVID-19 numbers, 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 through Sept. 1, rather than Jan. 1, as the original bill proposed.
The administrative order, directives and waivers enacted under the public health emergency would lapse on Jan. 11, and Murphy would have to notify lawmakers by Jan. 1, 2022, if he hopes to extend any of them for another 90 days. After that, lawmakers would need to pass a resolution codifying whatever Murphy is seeking.
Murphy’s administration would oversee vaccination efforts, testing and data collection through Jan. 11, and he could ask lawmakers for a 90-day extension.
And the governor could ramp up restrictions should there be “an increase in hospitalizations, increased spot positivity or a rate of transmission above 1.”
Amid a cratering spread in the pandemic and increased vaccination efforts, restrictions have been lifted across the board for businesses and public gatherings in the state.
Under the latest COVID-19 mandates, mask usage and social distancing are no longer required indoors for fully vaccinated people. On June 4, large venues and stadiums will be able to operate at full capacity, and employers would not be required to enforce mask usage at private offices.
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.
The NJDOH and any other department 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.
“In order to continue on the path to normalcy, we need all available resources to continue our progress in vaccinating New Jerseyans and finally beating back this pandemic,” Murphy said in a statement last month.
The legislation, he added, needs to “ensure that we have the necessary tools and flexibility to continue the fight against the pandemic”–namely funds that would otherwise need to go through a drawn-out state appropriations process.
He declined to comment on the “specifics of the bill” when asked about it during a daily COVID-19 press briefing on June 2, but said that he, Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-3rd District, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District, “had a very good level of cooperation on bringing this to a good, rightful resolution.
“We don’t want to extend these health emergencies any more than anyone else does,” Murphy said, stressing that those emergency powers need to be kept in place “if this thing makes a U-turn.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify the extent of legislative oversight the measure carries, some of the governor’s powers and restrictions under it and to include additional information about legal immunity for hospitals and long-term care centers. Additional remarks from the governor were also added, as was the fact that the legislation did not go through committee hearings before being introduced in the Assembly and Senate.