Gov. Phil Murphy said he will extend the state’s public health emergency for another 30 days – rather than let it expire on Feb. 10 – so as to keep the K-12 school mask mandate in place until March 7, with the goal of lifting the public health emergency at that time.
On Monday, he cited the “dramatic decline in our COVID numbers” – daily tests, hospitalizations, intensive care numbers, ventilator-usage and fatalities – as to why he was making the move.
“We can responsibly take this step given the continuing drop in new cases and hospitalizations from omicron and with all the evidence projecting a continued decline over the coming weeks,” he said during his Feb. 7 COVID-19 press briefing.
Even better, Murphy said, March promises warmer weather, which would lead to more people outdoors, where the virus is less contagious.
Annual traditions off limits during the pandemic – like Super Bowl gatherings, St. Patrick’s Day parades and similar gatherings – are largely safe to attend this year, Murphy stressed.
“Use your head if you’re with people indoors,” the governor said. “Have fun. No reason to ban anything.”
When extending the public health emergency last month, Murphy assured there would be no new business restrictions and that the orders had to do with health care capacity, vaccination and testing.
Murphy faced pressure from several sides – both Republicans and some Democrats – to end the public health emergencies related to COVID-19 as the pandemic nears its third year. Last week, Sen. Vin Gopal, D-11th District, said he was signing onto a Republican-led effort to limit a New Jersey governor’s emergency and public health emergencies to 60 days. Anything beyond that would require legislative approval.
Current state law allows New Jersey’s governor to extend the public health emergency every 30 days.
“As a member of the Legislature – a co-equal branch of government – it is important that there be a check and balance of power,” Gopal said in a statement.
Murphy and legislative leadership had a tentative deal in place last month to keep the governor’s emergency powers going, but he wanted 90 days while lawmakers were willing to give him only 45 days.
When Murphy announced his plans to continue the K-12 school mask mandate in January amid the omicron surge, lawmakers pulled a planned vote for the emergency powers extension.
“We were not informed of them taking this action today, and we will not move these resolutions today,” then-Senate President Stephen Sweeney said of the mask mandate, drawing applause from several members of the room.
Current Senate President Nicholas Scutari, D-22nd District, told The Star-Ledger last week that in the near future he wants to look at reining in the governor’s emergency powers, but plans to hold off until COVID-19 is brought more under control.
Murphy, when asked on Monday, declined to say whether he was involved with any such proposals, or what his emergency powers should look like in the future.
“When the dust finally settles, we [want to] do a comprehensive, independent, smart post-mortem. Part of that is clearly, did we have the right tools at our disposal, was the balance” appropriate “among the various branches of government?”
Pandemic restrictions in place starting in March 2020 had all been wielded unilaterally by Murphy, and gradually drew fatigue both from lawmakers and members of the public. Masks were required in public, and businesses had to operate with intense restrictions.
But Murphy assured last month that the current emergency declaration would not mean new mandates, restrictions on business or gathering limits, “lockdowns” or “universal mandates or passports”—as opposed to the initial state of emergency in March 2020.
The orders he plans to sign will loosen rules for health care entities, such as staffing at hospitals, in order to direct more manpower to their COVID-19 response. Hospitals have to maintain stockpiles of personal protective equipment and report those to the state government. Retired health care workers can temporarily re-enter the workforce to bolster staffing at hospitals and other medical facilities, and the state will continue to maintain its own database of residents’ COVID-19 vaccination status.
And they’re meant to bolster vaccination and booster efforts.
“We are not going to manage COVID to zero,” the governor said. “We have to learn how to live with COVID as we move from a pandemic to an endemic phase of this virus.