N.J. Assembly to require negative COVID tests after Republicans protested vaccine policy

Published: Jan. 07, 2022

All members and staffers of the New Jersey Assembly will now be required to show a recent negative COVID-19 test result, regardless of their vaccination status, to attend the final two days of the current legislative session next week in Trenton, the chamber‘s leader announced Friday.

The move comes after a group of Republican members of the Democratic-controlled Assembly upended and prolonged two voting days last month with dramatic protests of the Statehouse’s vaccine policy, which requires all people to present either proof of vaccination or a recent negative test to enter the building.

The new plan is an apparent attempt to avoid another showdown as lawmakers gather Monday and Tuesday to end the state’s two-year legislative session.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, a Democrat who has criticized the Republicans for their opposition, said the goal is to make “next week as safe as possible” as New Jersey faces a new surge in the pandemic driven by the omicron variant.

”The pandemic has challenged us all,” Coughlin, D-Middlesex, said. “But I will not compromise when it comes to the health and safety of members of the legislature and the public while conducting the people’s business.”

Under the new plan, all Assembly members and staffers must present a negative test taken after noon on Saturday in order to enter the Assembly chamber Monday, when legislators will consider dozens of bills in the last voting day of this legislative session.

The setup also applies to Assembly members and staffers who attend the state Legislature’s reorganization ceremony at the Trenton War Memorial on Tuesday, when new lawmakers are sworn in and the next legislative calendar begins.

The change does not apply to the state Senate, the Democratic-controlled upper house of the Legislature, which is expected to keep operating under the existing Statehouse vaccine policy. Senate Republicans have vocally opposed the vaccine rules but have not defied it the way some Assembly Republicans have.

Assemblyman Brian Bergen, R-Morris, one of the GOP lawmakers who has protested the policy, said the new lower house’s new rules are “fantastic.”

“This is what Republicans have been asking for: a policy that protects public health without overstepping authority and violating rights,” Bergen said. “I’m glad we can move forward.”

Under the new Assembly plan, those who test positive or can’t attend can participate via phone.

There will be a rapid test site at the Statehouse on Monday and Tuesday for those who can’t get tested beforehand. Members of the press covering the session and meeting in person will also have to test negative. The session and reorganization meeting will be closed to the public, though there will be a livestream.

Assembly Democrats said the state Department of Health will provide the tests.

The plan comes despite a heavy demand for testing across New Jersey, with many people unable to obtain rapid tests at stores or waiting in line for hours to get tested at sites.

The State Capitol Joint Management Commission approved the Statehouse’s vaccine policy last month, and both Coughlin and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, instituted their own similar rules as a number of Republicans protested.

Lawmakers who don’t want to show proof of vaccination have been offered on-site testing and been allowed to vote remotely if they still refuse to comply.

But Republican leaders of the Senate and Assembly filed a lawsuit claiming the policy violates the state Constitution. A judge rejected their request to halt the policy while the case is pending.

Meanwhile, a handful of Assembly Republicans publicly defied the policy before a Dec. 2 voting session, walking past State Police troopers without complying and refusing to leave the chamber as Democratic leaders unsuccessfully sought to eject them.

Two weeks later, on Dec. 20, some of the same Republicans once again challenged the policy, but troopers blocked them from entering the building that time. Still, the lawmakers proceeded to stage a filibuster of sorts as they voted remotely that afternoon, helping drag the session out to 11 hours by commenting on nearly every bill.

The lawmakers argued the vaccine policy is not only unconstitutional but also discriminatory because vaccinated people can still carry the coronavirus. They suggested a safer plan would be to test everyone.

Democrats have lambasted the Republicans, saying they’re defying a legitimate public-health policy. Coughlin called their first protest a “stunt” in which they declined to display “common decency or humanity” and their second protest a “desperate” attempt to “delay important policy.”

Assemblyman Jay Webber, R-Morris, said Friday the Assembly’s new testing policy is a “vindication” of the protests.

”I’m looking forward to going down there Monday and operating under a non-discriminatory policy,” Webber said.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-01-08 01:56:43 -0800