Bipartisan Push to Keep NJ Economy Healthy During Coronavirus Epidemic

State lawmakers from both sides of aisle draft measures ‘on the fly’ to free up funds to businesses, especially those hard-hit by curfew and closures
Credit: NJTV News
Restaurants across New Jersey have been restricted to takeout and delivery service as a result of COVID-19 epidemic.

The strict restrictions on businesses in New Jersey and throughout the region due to the coronavirus epidemic will undoubtedly take a toll on the state economy.

Bipartisan lawmakers rushed into action Monday to try and contain the damage, advancing several pieces of newly drafted economic-relief legislation as part of a broader reaction to the coronavirus, which causes an infectious disease known as COVID-19.

Some of the bills seek to address small-business and worker stability, making available new grant funding and other assistance to those impacted by COVID-19. Also advancing during a day of “on-the-fly lawmaking” by the state Assembly was a proposed relaxing of next month’s state income-tax filing deadline and a pause on evictions and foreclosures.

Praise for rapid response

Monday’s legislative response and other recent calls for action to help sustain the state economy drew immediate praise, including from the state’s top business-lobbying groups, who say it’s a critical time for many businesses across New Jersey.

“As these plans and protections are gathered and expedited, it is critically important to recognize how the uncertainty and vulnerability of our employers impacts our overall economy in New Jersey,” said Michele Siekerka, president and chief executive of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.

Murphy signed an executive order Monday that implemented a set of severe restrictions for businesses and workers across the state. They include limiting the hours of business operation to 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for all but essential businesses, which include food stores, pharmacies, gas stations, health-care facilities and medical-supply stores. Bars and restaurants are also restricted to takeout or curbside service. In addition, some entertainment businesses, such as casinos, concert venues and nightclubs, are to be closed altogether on an indefinite basis, under the governor’s order.

Murphy, a first-term Democrat, said during an afternoon news conference in Trenton that he was ordering these measures to help the state “flatten the curve” of new infections as they continued to rise dramatically in recent days. A total of 178 confirmed coronavirus cases in New Jersey had been recorded by the state as of Monday afternoon, with two fatalities also registered thus far.

“We do not take any of these steps lightly,” Murphy said, acknowledging there would be an impact on the state economy as a result of his executive order, which also called for a statewide closure of schools starting on Wednesday.

“If we do not act, the price will only be larger,” he said.

Before Monday’s announcement of the new business restrictions, which are also being followed in several neighboring states, a survey of NJBIA members indicated 54% of those who responded had already been impacted negatively by the coronavirus outbreak. Another 39% of those responding to the poll said they would soon see a negative impact.

NJ businesses worried about virus

Meanwhile, a separate survey of members of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce found that nearly all who responded were concerned about their businesses amid the unfolding outbreak.

“The challenge our members will face going forward is managing their businesses in an environment of almost unprecedented uncertainty,” said Tom Bracken, the chamber’s president and chief executive.

Lawmakers said they were responding to concerns about the impact on businesses, including small businesses, as they advanced the emergency legislation on Monday.

Among the bills to make it out of the full Assembly on an expedited basis was a measure seeking to make grants available to New Jersey businesses through the state’s Economic Development Authority. The grants could go to businesses for things like “working capital and meeting payroll requirements,” according to the bill.

Another piece of bipartisan legislation that passed the Assembly would, pending federal action, relax state tax-filing deadlines, including for both income tax and corporate-business tax. While the measure is intended to mirror any similar moves made by the federal Internal Revenue Service, which have been under discussion in Washington, D.C., state filing deadlines could be extended without penalty until as late as June 30, which is the final day of the state’s fiscal year, according to the bill.

“Our state’s top priority is safeguarding public health, but we must also protect the financial health of our economy,” said Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union), a prime sponsor of the legislation.

In addition, lawmakers also approved a measure that would make available $20 million in state funding to help pay hourly workers and other residents who lose wages due to illness or as a result of caring for a family member who is sick or unable to attend school or daycare due to ongoing closures. The funding could also be tapped by employers whose workers are facing quarantine due to coronavirus, according to the bill.

“We would never want someone with COVID-19 to feel like they need to go to work because they have no other options, and therefore risk the health of themselves and others,” three of the bill’s sponsors said in a joint statement. They are Assemblywomen Annette Chaparro (D-Hudson), Annette Quijano (D-Union) and Shavonda Sumter (D-Passaic).

Fighting eviction during epidemic

Finally, lawmakers are also seeking to provide relief for those who could be facing eviction from their homes or apartments due to the coronavirus by giving the governor the power issue an executive order to put a moratorium on any evictions during a state of emergency such as the one he declared earlier this month in response to the outbreak. The measure would cover anyone who leases or owns a residence.

Providing eviction relief was one of many recommendations for action that was put forward by New Jersey Citizen Action, a group that advocates and assists the state’s low-income population.

“We are asking people to stay home to stop the spread of the virus,” said Beverly Brown Ruggia, an NJCA financial justice organizer. “But they will not be able to do that, or recover from the crisis if they are evicted from their homes or lose other basic necessities because they cannot pay their bills.”

Monday’s quick legislative action brought the economic-relief measures and several others out of committee and the full Assembly all in one day, speeding up a process that can take weeks under normal circumstances. Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) praised his Republican colleagues during the afternoon Assembly session for working on a cooperative basis to expedite a legislative response to the outbreak.

“This is demonstrating government is best when it works together. We have a shining example of that today,” Coughlin said.

All of the measures that were passed on Monday will need to be passed by the Senate and endorsed by Murphy to become law. Coughlin said he’s already been in communication with officials from the Senate and the governor’s office to help advance that goal.

“We want to make sure we put in place those things that are necessary to prepare for the future and to ensure the people of New Jersey that we are on their side and that they’re going to be able to conduct their lives as best they can under these challenging circumstances,” Coughlin said.

The next voting session in the upper house, where Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) has floated his own economic-relief measures in recent days, is scheduled to be held later this week.