Gov. Phil Murphy has been facing increasing pushback from lawmakers – both Democrats and Republicans – over the speed at which he has rolled back restrictions on businesses and mass gatherings in the state as the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic slows down.
That comes ahead of Memorial Day weekend, where the entire Jersey Shore will be open for business, albeit with restrictions, following more than two months of a total state lockdown.
The lockdown has affected virtually every aspect of life in the state—face coverings are mandated; bars, hair salons, many forms of retail and dine-in restaurants are closed; many others were told to telecommute.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, said in a Wednesday afternoon statement that the governor needs to bring both GOP and Democratic legislative leaders “to the table” for lifting the shutdown.
“We should be working together in collaborative and constructive ways with all the state’s leaders participating and contributing,” said Sweeney, an oft-times foe of the governor, who’s voiced concerns that the state is moving too slowly to lift restrictions.
“Governor Murphy has done a good job in flattening the curve of coronavirus cases but we now have to take on the important challenges of how to resume activities and reopen businesses in safe and responsible ways,” the Senate President added on Wednesday.
His own comments follow calls by Sen. Dick Codey, D-27th District, a former governor and one of Murphy’s main allies in the state Legislature.
“The governor should reach out,” he told New Jersey Globe. “It’s time.”
“These statements recognize that a health care crisis discussion should not be partisan,” Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick, R-21st District said on Twitter. “Partisanship is not helpful when there is a health care crisis. Murphy should not make the decisions alone.”
Murphy has begun rolling back restrictions in recent weeks, and the majority of activities allowed are those that take place outdoors and reduce the chances of packed crowds that would afford the virus a better chance to spread to new hosts.
That’s provided a relief for beachgoers ahead of Memorial Day weekend – often considered the unofficial start of summer. Beaches and boardwalks can stay open at reduced capacity.
Combined with curbside pickup options for previously “non-essential” retailers, as well as takeout options for restaurants, tourists can “get some semblance of a new normal” at the Jersey Shore this weekend, Murphy said last week.
But Republicans in the state Legislature have been looking to reign in Murphy’s emergency powers, under which he enacted the sweeping lockdowns. Nationwide, the COVID-19 shutdown and response has fallen along party lines, with Republicans pushing for a quicker rollback o restrictions, and questioning their necessity in the first place.
One measure, Assembly Bill 4147, would require Murphy to receive an extension from the Legislature for an executive order once it hits 15 days if it was enacted under the “Civil Defense and Disaster Control Act,” under which Murphy enacted current state restrictions. A4147 was introduced in both chambers.
The bill, according to its sponsor Assemblyman Brian Bergen, R-25th District, “would allow the governor the freedom to act decisively in an emergency with executive orders, but require cooperation with the Legislature every two weeks.
“Democracy isn’t about one person’s decisions, it is about the people. We need the necessary oversight over executive flexibility,” he said in a statement.
State Republicans also want to hold legislative hearings into Murphy’s decision-making process for the shutdown orders, with Bramnick arguing that “those must be made in public and be transparent.”
Murphy has also shown skepticism of reopening plans specific to certain counties or parts of the state – or industries such as hair salons, restaurants and hotels.
Proponents argue those plans incorporate social distancing, the use of face coverings, sanitation practices, and ways to distance potential COVID-19 positive cases from staff and employees.
“We’ve got to be very careful that we are, and Judy’s and Christina and their colleagues’ input is the most important input that we have,” Murphy said at his daily COVID-19 press briefing in Trenton, of State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli and State Epidemiologist Dr. Christina Tan, respectively.
“Public health is the thing that creates economic health.”
Murphy’s reopening plans call for three stages, each with fewer restrictions. Toward the third stage, small public gatherings would be allowed, as would bars, restaurants and hair salons at limited capacity.
Large events such as concerts and sporting events could be a ways off.
Sweeney though, told the Press of Atlantic City that “his big fear is we’re going to reopen later than we should.”
“My big fear is that people will die needlessly because politicians are rushing a reopening contrary to public health guidance and data,” Murphy responded on Twitter.