Gov. Phil Murphy will approve a bill extending some of his key COVID-19 emergency powers through the end of a year, after the measure was rushed through both chambers of the state Legislature and sent to his desk on June 3.
“Today, we take a substantial step toward restoring normalcy to our state,” reads a joint statement issued by Murphy, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District, shortly after the bill was approved.
“[N]ow is the right time to take this action, particularly as the final limits on gatherings are lifted tomorrow,” the statement continues. “With passage of this bill today and its signing tomorrow, followed by the Governor’s signing of an executive order terminating the Public Health Emergency, we will move closer to normal than at any time since March 2020.”
The bill calls for the governor’s COVID-19 public health emergency to expire in 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.
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.
Assembly Bill 5820 was approved in a 44-28 vote, while its upper house version, Senate Bill 3866, was approved in a 21-16 vote. Debate in the state Senate was drowned out by several hundred protestors urging lawmakers to vote down the bill, and chanting “kill the bill” and “Murphy is not our king.”
Under the bill, dozens of executive orders in effect since the start of the pandemic would automatically expire once this current public health emergency lapses.
The orders have touched every aspect of life in the state in a bid to halt the spread of the pandemic: mask mandates in public, limits on public and private gatherings, mandated closures and restrictions on businesses, and bans on non-essential travel.
But the legislation being sent to Murphy’s desk is meant to phase the state out of the COVID-19 pandemic and toward its economic recovery, as the pandemic wanes, infection rate drops, vaccinations are ramped up, and reopenings for businesses take effect, lifting social distancing and mask mandates.
Republican lawmakers heavily panned the bill. Assemblyman Jay Webber, R-26th District, said the measure would allow the governor to “run this state by executive fiat.”
“Today we are taking executive orders and making them law,” said Assembly Republican Leader John Bramnick, R-21st District. “Today, we’ve suspended democracy.”
Proponents contend that Murphy needs some level of emergency power to continue the vaccination efforts and respond to potential COVID-19 outbreaks in the near future.
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.
“We don’t want to extend these health emergencies any more than anyone else does,” Murphy said during a regular COVID-19 press briefing on June 2, stressing that those emergency powers need to be kept in place “if this thing makes a U-turn.”
“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.
What the bill does
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.
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.”
Should Murphy not approve the bill, he would have the option to simply continue extending the public health emergency.
“What this bill does is end something,” said retiring Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-37th District. “We in the Legislature are taking back our prerogative to end the public health emergency on this carefully prescribed list.”