New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton/photo by Carmen Natale New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton/photo by Carmen Natale

This report was updated this morning, Monday, March 23.

On Thursday the New Jersey Senate swiftly approved 28 bills that make up the “COVID-19 Emergency Response Package,” just days after the Assembly approved identical measures to help the public, schools, local governments and state agencies respond to the novel coronavirus crisis.

The bills went to Gov. Phil Murphy, who began signing them.

Just before 5 p.m. Thursday, he announced he had signed A-3859/S-2276, which provides the governor the authority to issue an executive order declaring a moratorium on removing individuals from their homes pursuant to an eviction or foreclosure proceeding. The governor then immediately signed Executive Order No. 106, which imposes such a moratorium.

“This move will ensure that no renter or homeowner is removed from their residence while this Order is in effect,” Murphy said in a statement. “These actions come a day after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac would be suspending all foreclosures and evictions for at least 60 days.”

“This outbreak affects all of us and we are all in this together,” Murphy said. “The steps I am outlining today will help those who are suffering financial harm through no fault of their own continue to stay afloat. They will also bolster public health by ensuring that residents facing eviction or foreclosure can stay in their homes, protecting them against increased risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19.”

Murphy would sign at least three others by late evening Thursday and at least 16 bills on Friday, according to announcements from his office.

As of Tuesday March 24, COVID-19 had claimed the lives of 44 New Jerseyans, with 3,675 confirmed cases for the disease, according to the governor, who put in place new mandates over the weekend. New Jersey, considered the most densely populated state in the country,  was second only to New York in total number of coronavirus cases.

By mid-afternoon Saturday, Murphy  issued a stay-at-home order for nearly all of the state’s 9 million residents in the fight against the disease’s spread, mirroring similar mandates in neighboring New York and Pennsylvania and other states.

“We’re at war,” Murphy said in announcing his latest Executive Order that calls on all residents to stay home and all nonessential businesses to close indefinitely, effective 9 p.m. Saturday.  All gatherings including weddings, in-person services and parties, are canceled until further notice. Businesses considered “essential,” such as grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, among others, are to remain open, said Murphy.

The state has established a website, covid19.nj.gov, launched on Saturday for residents to stay updated on all coronavirus developments, the state’s response and provides resources for assistance.

On Sunday, Murphy announced the opening of a COVID-19 Community-Based Testing Site at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel. Starting Monday, March 23, the drive-thru testing center will be open seven days a week, beginning at 8 a.m., until supplies last.

The frenetic pace of executive orders and mandates was matched by the level of activity last Thursday at the Statehouse. Senate President Steven Sweeney, D-Gloucester, thanked 34 of the 40 senators for showing up for the voting session, four more than was needed to pass the emergency package with a three-fourths majority. The Assembly approved it on Monday.

“No hugs today,” Sweeney joked as lawmakers settled in for what would take just an hour and 15-minutes, not much time in Trenton to move through more than two dozen bills.

Among the bills was S-2304, which Sweeney sponsored and introduced. This bill would provide earned sick leave, family temporary disability leave, temporary disability leave or family leave, as appropriate, for employees if they are unable to work during a state of emergency as determined by a physician or public health official. An Assembly version of S-2304 has yet to be introduced.

On March 16 the Assembly took up 29 coronavirus-related bills. All but one of those measures, A-3844, made it out of the Assembly floor and therefore was not voted on Thursday. (A-3844 would address businesses interrupted by the coronavirus and what insurance would cover.)

The rest—all identical to the Assembly bills and substituted in as their Senate versions—sailed through with no debate on Thursday.

“Working in a swift, bipartisan fashion to make sure help gets to New Jersey families as soon as possible, the Senate passed numerous measures to tackle the coronavirus pandemic that continues to spread at a rapid rate,” said Sen. Steven Oroho, R-Sussex, in a statement following the Senate vote.

The measures include help for residents to cope, get medicine or financial assistance, as well as struggling businesses to stay afloat, and students to adjust to online learning during the crisis.

The Senate voted 34-0 on each of the following bills:

• A-3095/S-1982: would give county clerks an extra week to prepare and send mail-in ballots to voters expected to be used during the 2020 primary election;

• A-3813/S-2292: would allow remote learning to apply to the 180-day instruction requirement for school districts during extended emergency school closures;

• A-3840/S-2281: would require school districts to provide meals to students enrolled in the free or reduced-price meal program during COVID-19 school closings;

• A-3841/S-2300: would automatically extend the deadline to file a gross income tax or corporation business tax return if the federal government extends the filing or payment due date for federal returns.

• A-3842/S-2282: would address the digital divide and allocate funds to expand access to laptops, tablets, hot spot devices and other technology for students to use at home or school.

• A-3843/S-2283: would require health insurance and Medicaid to cover testing for COVID-19, telehealth and telemedicine services, without cost-sharing requirements.

• A-3845/S-2284: would authorize the New Jersey Economic Development Authority to provide grants during periods of emergency declared by the governor;

• A-3846/S-2293: would create and allocate $20 million for the “Temporary Lost Wage Unemployment Program” to allow those affected by the coronavirus to recoup wages lost and assist employers to pay workers who are under quarantine;

• A-3848/S-2301: would prohibit an employer from terminating, or refusing to reinstate, an employee who takes time off from work at the recommendation of a medical professional due to an infectious disease;

• A-3849/S-2302: would allow a flexible deadline—up to seven days—to respond to requests under the Open Public Records Act;

• A-3850/S-2294: would allow a public body to conduct meetings electronically during a statewide or local emergency for the continuing operation of government;

• A-3851/S-2295: would permit the extension of deadlines for adopting county and municipal budgets when the governor has declared a public health emergency;

• A-3852/S-2296: allows the conduct of state business and legislative sessions at locations other than Trenton during periods of emergency, as determined by the governor or the Legislature;

• A-3854/S-2286: would authorize all licensed health care facilities and clinical laboratories to collect specimens to test for COVID-19 during the public health emergency;

• A-3855/S-2287: would require the statewide 2-1-1 system and all executive branch departments to prominently display information on food access programs and resources on their websites and social media during a declared public health emergency;

• A-3856/S-2297: would appropriate $10 million for health care and residential facility sanitation due to the COVID-19 outbreak;

• A-3857/S-2275: would appropriate $15 million for grants to food banks to help families in need;

• A-3858/S-2288: would direct the Commissioner of Human Services to issue supplemental cash assistance payments to eligible recipients of the Work First New Jersey Program during a public health emergency;

• A-3860/S-2289: authorizes any health care practitioner to provide and bill for services using telemedicine and telehealth during the COVID-19 public health emergency;

• A-3861/S-2290: would permit corporations to hold shareholder meetings in part or solely by means of remote communications during a state of emergency;

• A-3862/S-2298: allows professional or occupational licensing boards to grant licenses, certificates of registration and certifications on an expedited basis to individuals who hold a corresponding credential, during a state of emergency or a public health emergency;

• A-3864/S-2299: would allow notaries public to perform certain notarial acts remotely, using communication technology;

• A-3865/S-2291: would prohibit retail food stores from accepting the return of any groceries and other food products purchased during, and for 30 days following, a state of emergency in response to COVID-19;

As of late Friday night, Murphy had signed the vast majority of the bills into law.

• Two resolutions urge or ask assistance from the state and federal government. They are not binding like the other bills: ACR-165/SCR-109 would urge the Department of Human Services to apply for any federal waivers available to facilitate and increase access to SNAP benefits during the COVID-19 outbreak; while AJR-158/SJR-77 urges the Federal Communications Commission to take temporary measures to secure broadband access for those affected by the COVID-19 public health emergency.

The normally crowded corridors on a voting session day in Trenton were largely empty last week. Both voting sessions were livestreamed on the Office of Legislative Services website.

Sweeney recently announced that the public was no longer permitted to attend committee hearings due to public safety and health concerns. Sweeney, a South Jersey Democrat, also said committee meetings and voting sessions were being severely curtailed by both houses to focus only on timely and vital legislation to limit the number of people in the Statehouse at once.

Even Thursday’s Senate voting session, held in the larger Assembly chambers instead of the more compact Senate, captured the sense of high alert and caution to “social distance” from others as the pandemic claims more victims.

Eight Senate committee hearings set for Monday, March 23, and voting sessions by both houses for Monday and Thursday this week, have all been cancelled.

Before taking up the coronavirus bills, the Senate also confirmed a pair of renominations to Superior Court and four members of the State Parole Board.

The six renominations were approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier in the day. Each received a unanimous 9-0 vote.

Maritza Berdote of Towaco and Kathleen Sheedy of Cream Ridge were both confirmed by the Senate for another seven-year term as Superior Court judges.

“I accept fax and email,” Sheedy told the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier during her brief remarks in person. “Being a Superior Court judge has been the hardest and most rewarding experience of my life. I love my job.”

Four were confirmed via video teleconference for another six-year term on the State Parole Board. They are: Robert Balicki of Millville, Thomas Haaf of Pilesgrove, James Jefferson of Woodbury, and Clarence Taylor of Voorhees.

But after the legislative agenda concluded last Thursday, the impact of COVID-19 ensnarled even more businesses.

Just after 7 p.m., Gov. Murphy added personal care establishments, including barber shops, hair salons, spas, nail and eyelash salons, tattoo parlors, among others – and social clubs – to the list of closures. Two days earlier, Murphy ordered all indoor portions of retail shopping malls and all indoor and outdoor places of amusement across the state shut down, effective 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Meanwhile, all casinos, concert venues, nightclubs, racetracks, gyms, fitness centers and classes, movie theaters, and performing arts centers were closed as of 8 p.m. March 16, and were to remain closed as long as this order remains in effect.

All other nonessential retail, recreational, and entertainment businesses must cease daily operations between hours of 8 p.m. and 5 a.m., starting March 16. All restaurants, with or without a liquor or limited brewery license, are limited to offering delivery or takeout services.