Gov. Murphy declares public health emergency, allowing him to mandate masks in NJ schools
Gov. Phil Murphy announces the reinstatement of the public health emergency to respond to the Omicron COVID wave. NorthJersey.com
Gov. Phil Murphy on Tuesday once again declared a public health emergency in the COVID-19 pandemic after fellow Democrats in the Legislature refused to renew his authority to impose a mask mandate in schools.
Murphy's executive order came several hours before the powers he negotiated last June with lawmakers expired, which would have left masking decisions to local school districts. His reinstatement of the public health emergency also comes on another day when New Jersey reported more than 6,000 hospitalizations linked to COVID-19, according to the Department of Health.
"COVID-19 remains a significant threat to our State and we must commit every resource available to beating back the wave caused by the omicron variant,” Murphy said in a statement.
“While we hope to return to a state of normalcy as soon as possible, the step I am taking today is a commonsense measure that will protect the safety and well-being of all New Jersey residents while allowing state government to respond to the continuing threat that COVID-19 poses to our daily lives.”
Murphy struck a similar note of optimism in June, when he reached a deal with the Legislature to end the public health emergency and said doing so was "a clear and decisive step on the path toward normalcy."
In that agreement, he retained some of his authority, such as the ability to set social restrictions and require face masks in other public settings.
But his order requiring masks in schools was set to expire at midnight Tuesday. Under the public health emergency, Murphy is broadly empowered to manage the pandemic as he did in its earliest days when certain businesses were shuttered and indoor dining was banned.
He insisted in a video message that he would not order the sorts of drastic steps he did at the beginning of the pandemic, such as business restrictions, lockdowns and gathering limits.
"In fact, in your day-to-day life, this step won’t have any new impact at all," he said.
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Murphy asked lawmakers last week to renew his authority for another 90 days. They initially agreed to giving much of it back for 45 days but declined to give him the ability to renew the statewide mask mandate at schools and day care centers.
Then, hours after Murphy insisted that the mask requirement would remain, outgoing Senate President Stephen Sweeney scrapped plans for a vote re-empowering the governor at all, saying it was "disrespectful" of the governor not to consult him before the announcement.
The public health emergency lasts for 30 days unless it's renewed by the governor. Murphy's office said he would re-evaluate the state's COVID-19 metrics — which have been elements such as hospitalizations and transmission rates — next month "to determine if an extension will be needed."
Murphy also signed a separate executive order keeping other measures in effect, including vaccine-or-test requirements for child care staff and state workers and daily reporting of hospital protective equipment and bed inventory.
Republicans, who have been critical of Murphy's pandemic management, said the emergency declaration is a "giant leap backward" done without consultation of the Legislature.
"Gov. Murphy’s decision both circumvents legislative oversight and breaks his deal with his own party’s leadership," Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, said in a statement. "We need to give people hope that life is returning to normal, not returning to one man’s rule by executive order."
Dustin Racioppi is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited access to his work covering New Jersey’s governor and political power structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.