NJ Legislature passes package of bills relating to COVID-19

Photo by David VanDeventer
A man takes his dog out on the walking path that circles Rahway River Park along St. Georges Avenue in Rahway. In addition to staying away from other walkers — a social-distancing practice — he wisely wears a face mask.

TRENTON, NJ — In an effort to help New Jersey address the COVID-19 pandemic now and in the future, the state Assembly and Senate passed a package of bills that addresses a variety of topics, from health care to allowing municipalities to hold online council meetings. A total of 27 bills were passed in the Assembly on March 16 and the Senate on March 19.

“This is an international health care crisis that will have consequences that extend to many other aspects of our lives in New Jersey. The immediate threat is to the health and safety of residents in communities throughout the state, but it also threatens to have an impact on everything from education, medical care, public services, jobs, the economy, and the finances of individuals and families. This is a time when government is needed more than ever,” Senate President Steve Sweeney said in a press release announcing the passage of the bills. “We won’t be able to solve it overnight and we can’t prevent all the negative effects from happening, but there are actions we can take to contain the spread of the virus, to care for those who become infected and to help those who are impacted. These bills will help.”

One of the 27 bills, S-2292, allows online learning to be counted toward the 180-day instruction requirement for school districts during an extended emergency school closure. State Sen. Richard Codey talked about the need for the bill in a phone interview on March 19.

“What a big question right now is, are the kids ever going back to school?” he said. “I think at this point, we don’t know yet. I think it’s safe to say that colleges aren’t. Just like everyone else, schools are flying by the seat of their pants. This is all new to everyone.”

Two other school-related bills were passed. One, S-2281, requires school districts to provide meals to students enrolled in free or reduced-price lunch programs during closures related to COVID-19. The other, S-2282, allocates funds to expand access to laptops, tablets, Wi-Fi hot spot devices and other technology for students to use at home or at school, aiming to close the digital divide and give students the technology they need to learn at home.

Similar to the school technology bill, SJR-77 is a bill encouraging the Federal Communications Commission to take temporary measures to secure internet access to those affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Several of the bills passed aim to help with the economic uncertainty the state is facing, with all nonessential businesses closed for the duration of the health crisis. Bill S-2293 created the Temporary Lost Wage Unemployment Program, which allows those affected by the virus to recoup lost wages and assists employers in paying workers who are under quarantine. According to the press release, $20 million was appropriated for the program.

“If there’s a business with 5,000 employees that has to close, then all the businesses surrounding that business that rely on them are affected,” Codey said, explaining the chain reaction of companies closing their doors due to the virus. “Your usual routine can’t be the same.”

He said New Jersey lawmakers are still waiting on a federal aid package for economic fallout. Assemblyman John McKeon said the same thing in a phone interview on March 19.

“I’m sure the governor is in constant contact with people in Washington,” McKeon said. “So we’ll see how it applies to the country and how it applies to businesses in New Jersey.”

Under bill S-2304, employees “will be eligible for earned sick leave, family temporary disability leave, temporary disability leave or family leave if they are unable to work during a state of emergency because a physician or public health authority has determined they should quarantine to protect the health of others.”

Bill S-2284 authorizes the New Jersey Economic Development Authority to provide grants during a period of time declared an emergency by the governor, including the coronavirus pandemic, for the duration of the economic disruptions caused by the emergency. Bill S-2301 prohibits an employer from terminating or refusing to reinstate an employee who takes time off due to an infectious disease. Another bill, S-2283, requires health insurance and Medicaid to cover testing for COVID-19 telehealth and telemedicine services, without cost-sharing requirements, during the state of emergency. Both Codey and McKeon said they wanted to make sure those who need health insurance coverage have it.

Normally, voting bodies such as municipal councils and boards of education would not be allowed to conduct meetings online, but bill S-2294 allows this to happen. However, business conducted electronically should be limited to “matters necessary for the continuing operation of government or related to the applicable declarations of emergency.”

Bill S-1982 gives county clerks an extra week to prepare and send mail-in ballots to voters, helping the clerks handle the large number of mail-in ballots that are expected to be used in 2020 elections. New Jersey’s presidential primary is scheduled for June 2; no decision has been made yet as to whether it will be postponed. McKeon still encouraged citizens to vote by mail if they can.

“We’re encouraging everyone to vote by mail,” he said. “There’s no better time to do that than now. If it’s May and this is still happening, maybe we suspend the primary for 30 days. If circumstances change, we’ll adapt.”

Two other bills appropriated a combined $25 million. S-2297 gives $10 million to health care and residential facility sanitation due to COVID-19. Nursing homes, senior centers, long-term–care facilities and homeless shelters are all eligible. The other $15 million appropriated is for grants for the Community FoodBank of New Jersey in Hillside, the Food Bank of South Jersey in Pennsauken, and Fulfill in Neptune City.

“I am proud of the work we are doing to ensure a global approach to the public health crisis we are facing. It is important we are taking into account both the short-term and long-term impact, while remaining flexible enough to address the challenges that continue to arise,” Senate President Pro Tempore M. Teresa Ruiz said in the press release. “Whether it be planning how to distribute meals to schoolchildren, addressing the digital divide or safeguarding our small businesses, every step of the way we are learning to better care for the people of New Jersey going forward.”

Bill S-2295 gives counties and municipalities a deadline extension for adopting their annual budgets during a public health emergency, a state of emergency or both. Codey said he does not expect the state budget to be passed on its normal deadline.

“We’re in uncharted waters,” he said. “You’ve got to follow the orders of the president and of the governor and protect yourself, your family and your friends. Do what’s right.”

McKeon said the state Legislature will adapt as the pandemic progresses.

“It’s a work in progress. What we did on Monday was the best we know to do now. Whatever the circumstances are, we’ll adapt,” he said. “If we need more extreme measures, we’ll take them. This is a different kind of enemy, so we have to make sure our laws adapt. I would hope that by July this will be a bad memory.”