TRENTON – Senate and Assembly committees Thursday endorsed a 45-day extension of emergency powers exercised by Gov. Phil Murphy since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.

Murphy over the weekend requested a 90-day extension for some administrative orders, directives and waivers because otherwise, under a law he signed last June 2021 ending the public health emergency, they will expire next Tuesday.

Democratic legislative leaders ultimately agreed to a scaled-back extension that, if approved Monday by the full Legislature and signed by Murphy, will mean the rules expire Feb. 25 – unless they’re extended again.

Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-Burlington, director of the Burlington County Health Department, said the extension is appropriate given that COVID infection rates right now are worse than ever, averaging over 30,000 a day, with 5,600 hospitalized and more than 100 additional deaths confirmed Thursday.

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“This is not a hurricane. This is not a tornado. This is a pandemic, and they last longer than anybody would like. But if we don’t address them, they’re going to last even longer,” Conaway said. “So, I’m for the appropriate extension of authority so we can try to get past this thing sooner rather than later.”

Assemblyman Jay Webber, R-Morris, said the pandemic is important but no longer an emergency after nearly two years.

“The people in the state of New Jersey are sick and tired of having one person be able to control whether they can open their stores or not, or whether they have to wear a mask somewhere or not, or whether their children have to wear masks in school, whether their children might have to be vaccinated or not, whether they can go to a park, whether they can sit for graduation,” Webber said.

Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, said he hopes a 45-day extension is long enough – though he won’t be helping decide that, as his term in the Legislature ends Tuesday.

“All retail that wants to be open in New Jersey now is open. All schools that want to be open and can be open, unless they’ve got a heavy virus load, are open,” Burzichelli said. “Is there some inconvenience of masks? Some consider it an inconvenience. Others consider it to be a safeguard. But I think that lessons have been learned from the early days of the pandemic as to where we are now and how we’re handling this.”

Jennifer Mancuso, executive director of the Fair Share Hospitals Collaborative, said hospitals “face an absolutely crisis level of staffing right now” that’s worse than the early days of the pandemic, between burnout, retirements, resignations and illnesses. She said they need the waivers in the bill to continue.

“I can assure you unequivocally that we will not be out of our staffing shortages and workforce staffing crisis in 45 days,” Mancuso said.

FULL COPY: Read the resolution by clicking here

The extension was approved by the Senate health and Assembly appropriations committees in party-line votes, with Democrats for it and Republicans opposed. It was added to the committee agendas without public notice in advance and still wasn’t available online hours after the vote.

It is a package of two pieces of legislation: S4313/A6261, which amends the June law to make the extension 45 days rather than 90 days, and SCR165/ACR223, which lists the details of the extension.

Assemblyman Brian Bergen, R-Morris, said the Legislature keeps punting rather than address the root of the problem with Murphy’s emergency powers. He said the bill gives “carte blanche unilateral authority for another extended period of time.”

He said he appreciates that the extension lasts 45 days rather than the requested 90 days but comes with an option to extend it another 45 days after that.

“Which I have no doubt you guys will do anyway,” Bergen said. “In an attempt to feel like you’re doing something, you’re not really doing anything. And it’s just embarrassing that we have subjugated our authority to the governor for so long and continue to do so. It’s not the way government is supposed to work. It’s embarrassing.”

Among the opponents was Assemblyman Kevin Rooney, R-Bergen, who said he tested positive for COVID-19 a week ago and continues to test positive. The committee meeting was virtual, held via Zoom, so he was able to take part.

“This is a serious pandemic, but I don’t agree with granting extensions to the governor’s powers,” Rooney said. “It’s gone on for way too long.”

Rooney said he has gotten both vaccine shots and a booster but caught the virus anyway, as has most of his family. He said that shows the shortcomings of the Statehouse’s vaccine-or-test policy for access and that a better approach would be to test everyone as they enter the building.

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