Bill passes ending NJ health emergency, preserving some powers
TRENTON – A bill ending the COVID-19 public health emergency while extending some of Gov. Phil Murphy’s pandemic-era powers into the start of 2022 has been passed by the Legislature and will be signed into law Friday.
Lawmakers debated the bill at length, and the discussion got loud at times in the Senate, before passing it 48-12 with 14 votes to abstain in the Assembly and 21-16 in the Senate.
Shortly after its passage, Murphy said in a prepared statement issued in conjunction with Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, that he would sign the bill Friday, followed by an executive order terminating the public health emergency first declared in March 2020.
“Today, we take a substantial step toward restoring normalcy to our state and to the lives of those who call New Jersey home,” they said. “Ending New Jersey’s COVID-19 public health emergency is one of the most significant steps we have taken in our recovery efforts to date.”
Republicans said the bill doesn’t accomplish much, as Murphy could have lifted the executive orders without the Legislature’s involvement and that the bill actually grants him authority he wouldn’t have had otherwise unless the emergency remained in effect.
“We are going to give power to a man that has no respect for us, hides the facts, makes up science, and we’re going to trust him that he’s going to do the right thing with that power?” said Assemblyman Erik Peterson, R-Hunterdon. “I don’t trust him. I don’t believe him.”
“It’s crazy to think that I would vote to allow this man and his capricious and arbitrary behavior to continue to have any more power than he should,” said Sen. Michael Doherty, R-Warren.
“There’s an old saying: Day late and a dollar short. This bill is a lot of days late and a lot of dollars short,” said Assemblyman Jay Webber, R-Morris. “The public health emergency ended a long time ago. We have serious public health issues to deal with, but the public health emergency expired a long time ago.”
The bill terminates all but 13 of Murphy’s COVID-related executive orders, plus the most recent rules about masking and social distancing, which can stay in effect until Jan. 1. If he feels it’s needed, Murphy can ask the Legislature to approve a 90-day extension in early January.
“What we’re doing here is ending something that the governor could continue to do every 30 days. We’re ending the health care emergency,” Sweeney said. “And I’ll be honest with you. I don’t want to be responsible for vaccines. I don’t think the Legislature should be responsible for testing and vaccines.”
Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti, D-Hudson, said the bill ends 108 executive orders related to the pandemic and “offers a reasonable and pragmatic approach to ending the health emergency.”
“What this bill does is give a definitive ending to the public health emergency as well as provide a pathway to handling those remaining 12 executive orders,” said Chiaravalloti, who said that although the bill allows an eviction moratorium to remain in place until the start of 2022, separate legislation is in development that would end it sooner.
Mitigation measures such as masking cannot be stricter than the recommendations of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, unless there is a substantial increase in hospitalizations or positivity rates on COVID tests or the rate of transmission goes above 1.
Assemblyman Hal Wirths called the bill “a charade” and was among a long line of Republicans who criticized the process for considering it, which skipped committee hearings where the public could have its say.
“Democracy died today down here,” Wirths said. “We’re rushing through a bill to give tremendous power to the governor that he has anyway and he could take at any time, and we said to people, ‘The only way you can be heard is we’re going to put police barricades and we’re going to push you away from the Statehouse.’”
“The biggest complaint about these executive orders has been that the public never had a seat at the table as the decisions were being made,” said Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, R-Union. “This is what enrages my constituents, and this is what enrages many of your constituents. They don’t feel that their voices are being heard.”
Hundreds of people protested outside the Statehouse, and could be heard on the Senate floor, at times chanting “kill the bill” and hoisting signs criticizing Murphy over keeping a mandate for masks in schools in place for now.
Amy Rozen, 51, of Rockaway, was among the crowd at the rally. She said she was a progressive Democrat but wouldn't support Murphy this year because of what she cast as his mishandling of the outbreak. She also echoed Republican concerns that the measure moved too fast without giving people enough time to review it.
“They didn’t leave any time for public comments or even for the legislators even to understand. It’s been rammed through. The people of New Jersey are not going to stand for that,” Rozen said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.