The state Legislature on Thursday sent Gov. Phil Murphy a host of bills all aimed at alleviating the economic impact the coronavirus could have on businesses across New Jersey – part of a package of 24 bills and two resolutions approved Monday by the Assembly and Thursday by the state Senate.
Murphy has said that he supports many of those bills, either “in principal,” or to the extent that he may sign them.
Their passage in the Legislature comes as the federal Small Business Administration approved New Jersey’s application for “disaster” status, opening the way for thousands of state businesses to apply for loans of up to $2 million to avoid going belly up as patronage plummets.
At his daily coronavirus press conference on Thursday, the governor assured he would approve a measure – Assembly Bill 3859 – allowing him to order the suspension of any evictions and foreclosures during the coronavirus outbreak. He signed the bill and then issued such a moratorium later in the day.
Tens of thousands of businesses across New Jersey are scaling back hours in response to curfews, or closing their doors indefinitely, in a bid to promote the kind of “social distancing” that proponents argue starves the virus of an opportunity to spread to new hosts.
Murphy expanded that order to barber shops, hair and nail salons, and tattoo parlors on Thursday.
Many of the bills approved Monday in the Assembly would take some of the pressure off of business owners as they see profits drop and consider whether to scale back operations, cut hours and let go of employees.
The measures set up state financing programs for businesses hit by the outbreak, and let others delay when they must file and pay their income and sales tax.
One proposal, Assembly Bill 3845, lets the New Jersey Economic Development Authority award specialized funding to businesses only during a state of emergency, such as the one ordered by Murphy on March 9, to help keep operations running as companies see slumps in revenue.
“Providing access to loans will give small businesses an additional resource they can use to maintain their operations and pay their employees as we get through the days ahead,” reads a joint statement issued Thursday from several Assembly Democrats.
Assembly Bill 3841 would extend the filing deadline for income and corporate business taxes, while Assembly Bill 3848 would bar employers from firing workers for using sick time during a pubic health or state of emergency.
Assembly Bill 3846 creates a $20 million unemployment insurance program that would compensate workers for wages lost while in quarantine as a result of the outbreak—and for businesses that had to cover pay for any such worker.
Assembly Bill 3865 would bar grocery stores from accepting returns during the coronavirus outbreak, a move which proponents argue would discourage the rampant stockpiling of toilet paper, pasta, paper towels and other cleaning products.
One key measure that Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, introduced on March 14, but did not move forward this week, would have included months-long holidays on the sales and payroll taxes, and deferrals on property taxes.
Sweeney, in a press call with reporters following a Thursday afternoon Senate voting session, said the bill was not formally introduced early enough to comply with some of the Legislature’s parliamentary procedures.
“This is the first wave” of bills, Sweeney said. “Again, we’re moving quickly.”
A bill requiring business interruption insurance policies to cover pandemics was pulled from a Monday vote.
The measure’s sponsor, Assemblyman Roy Frieman, D-16th District, told NJBIZ that he wanted to give insurance companies more leeway with changing their policies to include pandemics.
“This is an opportunity for better companies, smarter companies to step forward,” he said. “Company A says ‘we couldn’t make you whole but we’re trying to do something, whereas Company C says ‘to hell with you’… you can guarantee going forward, people are going to drop Company C. I think it’s going to hurt the reputation for Company C.”
Still, insurance insiders were anxious about the government push.
“Business interruption insurance was never meant to cover a pandemic, it’s not what insurance was designed for,” said one industry insider, who asked not to be identified.
Michele Siekerka, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, said that Thursday’s package of bills were “not perfect,” but certainly a good start in the right direction.
“So many of our members have told us in no uncertain terms that they are reeling due to changes in consumer behavior and supply chains and they need immediate assistance for their solvency or survivability,” she said.
Sen. Vin Gopal, D-11th District, said on Thursday that he plans to introduce a bill creating a no-interest business emergency loan program of $10,000 a month.
The measure is geared toward the hospitality industry – bars, restaurants and hotels – and would be available for “immediate, non-avoidable, non-personnel costs such as rent and utilities.” The loan would last a decade and payment could be deferred for the first nine months.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 5:31 p.m. EST on March 19, 2020 to reflect Gov. Phil Murphy’s signing of Assembly Bill 3859; to include details pertaining to legislation passed by the Senate on March 19, and to include additional comments from Sens. Stephen Sweeney and Vin Gopal, and NJBIA President and CEO Michele Siekerka.