New Jersey’s public health emergency could soon end — at least on paper — under revised legislation that protects some of Gov. Phil Murphy’s pandemic-related power but also gives lawmakers more say in the dwindling elements of the state’s COVID-19 response.
Democratic legislative leaders unveiled the new draft Wednesday, a day before it is scheduled for a final vote in both the Senate and Assembly. It comes during a week when New Jersey plans to start winding down some of the pandemic-related programs and takes additional steps to reopen its economy.
The legislation — first introduced in mid-May — would allow most of Murphy’s executive orders tied to the outbreak to expire within a month, while protecting about a dozen of these measures until the end of 2021. But unlike the first draft, this gives lawmakers some say over COVID-19 orders issued by state departments and agencies and ties future mask mandates and social-distancing restrictions to federal benchmarks.
“Don’t be disappointed; I will not comment on the specifics of the bill,” Murphy said Wednesday at his 200th regular pandemic news conference, events he said he plans to continue. But he praised the collaboration among his office and teams representing Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Camden).
“We’ve had a very good level of cooperation on bringing this to a good, rightful resolution,” Murphy said of the legislation, which he said would bring the public health emergency to a close while also protecting the state’s ability to scale up its response again if it needs more hospital beds, vaccination clinics or testing sites.
Executive orders gave extra power
“As I said all along, we didn’t want to extend this any more than anyone else,” Murphy said of the public health emergency, which gave his administration extra power over state operations. Maintaining the emergency required monthly executive orders, which Murphy first signed in March 2020 and extended 14 times since.
Murphy has already lifted many of the public restrictions associated with the pandemic, including mask mandates and social-distancing requirements. Other restrictions — like restaurant capacity — are slated to be relaxed Friday. But face coverings are still required on public transit, in medical facilities and in state offices that work directly with the public.
New Jersey has reported more than 1 million COVID-19 cases since March 2020, including more than 26,000 deaths. But the public health impact of the disease has diminished greatly from early this year, when nearly 7,000 new cases were being diagnosed daily. On Wednesday, Murphy announced 290 new cases had been reported and hospitals were treating just over 500 patients, a level that had not been this low since early October.
Republican lawmakers have long criticized Murphy — a first-term Democrat seeking reelection in November — for what they call a dictator-like response to the pandemic. Murphy’s Democratic allies have also grown frustrated with their limited input over the past 15 months. All seats in the Legislature are also up for election this fall.
Loud GOP criticism
When Democratic leaders introduced the initial bill to phase out the public health emergency mid-May it was approved along party lines in the Assembly Appropriations Committee the same day. Republicans claimed it didn’t go far enough and blasted the process, which they said had excluded them and input from the public.
Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Morris), one of the most outspoken critics, said the new version isn’t much of an improvement. “One thing that has been steady during this whole thing is the disregard for our due process,” he said Wednesday, noting that GOP lawmakers — who represent millions of residents in both parties — had little time to review or speak on the legislation. “We’re either ending this or we’re not. And this does neither,” he said.
The updated legislation — sponsored by Sweeney, Coughlin and Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti (D-Hudson) — maintains the same list (as in the original draft) of limited executive orders that would be allowed to continue after it is enacted, with one exception: EO No. 192, which Murphy signed in late October to provide additional workforce protections under the pandemic. While this was originally targeted for preservation, it would now be allowed to end within 30 days, like dozens of other orders.
The revised bill also takes step to reduce the criminal immunity protections the state granted to a wide range of health care-related providers, facilities and organizations at the pandemic’s start. This immunity would now sunset by September, except for protections for individuals who are administering COVID-19 vaccines.
Return to pre-pandemic staffing
The updated legislation would also terminate orders from the state Department of Health that gave health care facilities greater control over staff schedules and enabled them to operate with fewer staff during the crisis. Come September, these facilities would need to adhere to the state’s pre-pandemic staffing and overtime regulations.
That was good news to leaders at JNESO, a union that represents some 5,000 health care workers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. “We need to keep safe staffing ratios in place to make sure that there are enough qualified nurses available to give optimal care to our patients, and maintain protections for overtime shifts and vacation time,” said Douglas Placa, the union’s executive director. Placa thanked Murphy, Sweeney and Coughlin for listening to his organization’s concerns during recent negotiations on the revised bill.
When it comes to other pandemic-related orders from the health department or other state departments, the legislation now calls for these measures to cease by the end of the current legislative session on Jan. 11, 2021 — unless Murphy requests a 90-day extension and the Legislature approves. Under the initial draft, departments had ongoing control over these pandemic-related orders, which have provided hospitals flexibility in their patient capacity and altered how Medicaid can be used, among other things.
The revised bill also seeks to rein in the Murphy administration’s latitude in how it responds to Open Public Records Act requests, or OPRAs, which have frequently been delayed when state officials said they didn’t have the capacity to provide information within the statutory deadline. But the legislation would permit the state to still take its time with information directly related to COVID-19.
If passed by both houses and signed by Murphy, the bill would take effect immediately.