Will Murphy give up pandemic powers?

With Gov. Phil Murphy announcing the lifting of most pandemic related restrictions over the next two weeks, will he now give up the broad emergency powers he invoked at the start of the COVID crisis? The answer is unknown but it is not likely.

New Jersey is currently under both a state of emergency and a public health emergency. Murphy declared both on March 9, 2020, as COVID-19 cases were spiking across New Jersey. It allowed Murphy to impose sweeping restrictions and send the state into lockdown to stop the spread. Since, Murphy has used this power to control virtually every aspect of public and private life and, in the process, ground the economy to a halt.

The state of emergency is an indefinite declaration. It's main benefit is allowing the state to receive federal aid. As long as Washington continues to provide COVID relief aid, this declaration is not likely to end soon.

It does allow Murphy some enhanced executive powers, but does not go as far as the public health emergency. Under the state's Emergency Health Powers Act, Murphy's declaration grants him broad power to impose restrictions on private citizens and businesses in the interest of protecting the public health. It expires every 30 days if it is not renewed. Murphy has renewed the declaration for 14 months in a row. The last renewal was on April 15. At the time, Murphy said, "As we move to extend vaccine eligibility to all residents of our state, the need for all available resources could not be more important.”

Murphy is likely to extend the Public-Health Emergency a 15th time next week, and perhaps beyond. As he announced the lifting of restrictions on Monday, he again stressed the need for more vaccinations. Murphy and state health officials have continually warned about COVID variants. Extending the public health emergency will give Murphy continued powers to impose new restrictions if there is a spike in COVID cases in the weeks following the reopening.

That makes many businesses nervous. Last June, Murphy abruptly canceled plans to resume indoor dining after many restaurants ordered food and supplies.

If Murphy does extend the public health emergency for a 15th time next week, it would take the declaration to June 14. Another extension to mid-July. It is difficult to believe Murphy will surrender his expanded powers before then. It is also likely he will continue to extend these declarations into the Fall and justify it with concerns about COVID spikes due to summer gatherings.

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