New Jersey’s public health emergency order will expire, but Gov. Phil Murphy would still retain many of the broad powers he used to control the COVID-19 pandemic, under a bill cleared Tuesday by a key Assembly committee.
Tuesday’s formal introduction of that bill and the first votes on the COVID-19 emergency legislation came just days after Murphy issued an executive order that extended an ongoing public health emergency for another 30 days.
Murphy took that step after announcing earlier this month that he is feeling confident enough in the state’s ongoing pandemic recovery to ease many health and economic restrictions across the state beginning Wednesday.
The legislation passed by the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Tuesday calls for leaving in place more than a dozen emergency measures implemented by the governor during a public health emergency that first began more than 14 months ago when the first cases of the coronavirus were detected in New Jersey. Since then, more than 1 million New Jerseyans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, including nearly 26,000 who died as a result.
What emergency orders will remain in place?
Among the orders that would remain in effect until Jan. 1, 2022 are those related to face coverings, evictions, utility shutoffs, vaccines, rulemaking and hospital data reporting, the bill says. Other orders would expire within 30 days of the legislation being enacted, according to the text.
The measure would also leave in place orders, directives and waivers issued by the head of a state agency, as long as they were related to the governor’s original emergency order and are currently in effect. These orders would continue until the department or agency modified or revoked the measure, according to the bill.
The state Department of Health alone has issued dozens of guidance documents that direct how health care providers, businesses and schools can operate during the pandemic. The Department of Human Services Department created multiple waivers that impact behavioral health care and Medicaid coverage.
After holding votes for a long list of bills Tuesday morning, the Assembly Appropriations Committee went into a lengthy recess to await the formal introduction of the COVID-19 emergency legislation. Committee members reappeared just before 3 p.m. to finally vote on the newly introduced bill.
Threading the needle
Several Republicans faulted the legislation for not going further, but Democrats portrayed it as an appropriate threading of the needle for a state that is still seeing new cases and deaths even as it is in the midst of an ongoing mass-vaccination effort.
“This is not easy stuff. Let’s hope this gets us further down the road and we can move more rapidly and more quickly as things continue to improve,” said Committee Chair John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester).
“I think we’re all excited we see the numbers going in the right direction … I don’t think, though, that it’s the right time for us to just say that COVID is completely over,” said Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Essex).
Murphy, a first-term Democrat who faces reelection later this year, issued a statement last week that indicated a willingness to pull back on the public health emergency declaration that up until now has largely been used as the foundation for the state’s ongoing response to the pandemic.
But Murphy also said he needed to work with lawmakers to “ensure that we have the necessary tools and flexibility to continue the fight against the pandemic, including the vaccination efforts that are our highest priority.”
“By working together, we are confident that we can move to the next phase of our recovery effort,” Murphy said.
Under the current schedule, the COVID-19 emergency bill could be moved out of the full Assembly as early as Thursday. An identical version is also expected to be introduced in the Senate on Thursday, and would be on track to be moved out of the upper house by June 3, a spokesman for the Senate Majority Office said.
Pent up frustrations
Prior to the legislation’s introduction on Tuesday, many lawmakers had aired frustrations with the governor’s ongoing emergency requirements, which have expanded the reach of one of the nation’s already most powerful chief executives.
During the Assembly Appropriations Committee hearing, Republicans remained unhappy with the bill drafted by their majority Democratic counterparts.
Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso (R-Monmouth) said the legislation “doesn’t change much of anything.”
Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Morris) also portrayed the bill as continuing to concede too much power to the governor.
“It boggles my mind,” Bergen said.
“It basically gives the governor everything he wants … and keeps in place a lot of the things that are crippling our economy,” he said.
Meanwhile, at a hearing of the Assembly Budget Committee on Monday, Republicans also questioned why the governor was not adopting mask-shedding guidance for vaccinated individuals recently issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when he has previously sought to align state policy with the federal recommendations.
Murphy responded to the criticism by saying his goal, or “obsession,” remains “keeping people alive.”