Gov. Phil Murphy signs into law a bill setting up a recreational marijuana marketplace on Feb. 22. | Edwin J. Torres/New Jersey Governor's Office via AP
Democratic leaders on Wednesday introduced a new version of legislation that would terminate New Jersey’s public health emergency and limit Gov. Phil Murphy’s ability to impose Covid-19 restrictions that go beyond what federal health officials have recommended.
The new bill, NJ A5820 (20R)/NJ S3820 (20R), has been fast-tracked for a vote Thursday in both houses, less than two weeks after Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin shelved a previous measure that would have left nearly all of Murphy’s emergency powers in effect and intact.
New Jersey has been operating under a public health emergency for almost all of the pandemic. The emergency powers at Murphy’s disposal provided him with sweeping control over day-to-day life in the state, which increasingly became a political target for Republicans who have accused the governor of acting arbitrarily and capriciously in his slow unwinding of Covid-19 restrictions.
While the administration is hardly kicking up a fuss over the latest draft, which was introduced by Coughlin and Assemblymember Nicholas Chiaravalloti (D-Hudson) in the Assembly and Senate President Steve Sweeney in the upper house, lawmakers included a few changes to relax Murphy’s grip over the state as it recovers from a pandemic that has killed more than 26,000 residents.
The bill specifically nixes Executive Order 192, signed last October, which had set social distancing and mask requirements at workplaces (Murphy has already issued directives lifting those restrictions in most indoor public settings, including private workplaces).
Waivers that allowed officials to delay the release of open public records would be eliminated — though, notably, not for pandemic-related data or materials — and a controversial liability shield that was extended to health care providers, including long-term care facilities, would expire Sept. 1. After that date, protections from civil claims would only be extended to individuals who administer Covid-19 vaccines and tests.
Just as importantly, the bill also specifies that subsequent Covid-19 public health protocols issued by the governor can’t go beyond what’s been recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unless there are “substantial” spikes in the number of hospitalizations and spot positivity, or if the rate of transmission exceeds 1.0. That provision appears intended to preclude a repeat of what happened after Murphy delayed lifting a mandate on indoor face coverings even after the CDC said they were no longer necessary for vaccinated Americans in most settings.
Murphy’s office declined to comment.
Most of the 140-odd orders Murphy has issued throughout the public health emergency would expire 30 days after the bill’s signed into law, though 14 would remain in effect through Jan. 11, 2022. Those include moratoriums on evictions and utility shutoffs, hospital reporting of health care data, clinical licensures and a suspension of typical rulemaking processes.
Murphy would still have the power to revoke or modify those orders prior to then but, if he wants to extend them, that extension will be capped at 90 days and only at the discretion of the Legislature.
While Murphy announced an agreement with the Legislature’s top Democrats to end the public health emergency last month, lawmakers from both parties blanched over provisions in a draft bill that would have maintained the status quo.
The situation was further inflamed after Murphy refused to lift the indoor mask order, something that upset Republicans and Democrats alike. Coughlin postponed the vote after Democrats, advocates and other “interested parties” balked.
Republicans, in particular, had been furious the earlier bill appeared to codify gubernatorial powers that essentially excised lawmakers from their role in government through much of the pandemic. It’s unlikely the latest version will do anything to change their minds.
“It’s a terrible situation for the public, no public debate, no public discussion,” Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick said in an interview. “What kind of democracy do we have when you have to rush a bill through that covers multiple topics, and the public can’t be heard?”