COVID vaccine or negative test required to enter NJ Statehouse
TRENTON – Anyone entering the Statehouse and its annex for legislative business will have to present proof they’re fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or a recent negative PCR test, under a policy enacted Tuesday.
The policy was approved by the State Capitol Joint Management Commission, which includes officials from the executive and legislative branches and oversees the Statehouse complex. The vote was 5-2, with its two Republican legislative staff appointees opposed.
Christine Shipley, executive director of the Senate Republican office, said the testing requirement is unworkable, given issues in having access to tests and the wait for results, combined with the typical revisions to committee agendas that are made on short notice.
“We believe it will be impossible for the public to comply,” Shipley said. “Therefore, we think it’s an exclusionary policy that will deny the opportunity for unvaccinated people to effectively participate in the legislative process.”
Kevin Drennan, executive director of the Senate Democrats’ office and chairman of the commission, said legislative leaders sought the change because committee hearings and voting sessions will start drawing audiences to the Statehouse after the election.
“This was an initiated action by the Legislature based on the fact that we have those hearings going on and more out in public going in,” Drennan said.
The policy applies on committee days, voting sessions, quorum calls and for any other meetings and gatherings. The negative test must have been conducted within the prior 72 hours. People also have to undergo a temperature screening, as has been required for a year now, and must wear masks in public areas.
The policy takes effect Dec. 1, which means it won’t be in place for the first round of post-election, lame-duck session committee hearings on Nov. 8 and 15. But it will by the time of the next full voting sessions on Dec. 2.
Capacity in the Senate and Assembly galleries will be limited to one-third of the seats. In committee rooms, every other chair will be unavailable – either marked as such or turned around.
The rule says participants in school tours don't have to show proof at the door but that schools must certify that all people attending the tour or fully vaccinated or have a negative COVID test within the last 72 hours.
Many of the school kids who tour the Statehouse are in the fourth grade, making them around 9 or 10 years old and not currently eligible for COVID vaccines. That is likely to change soon, and it's not clear when schools will restart class trips to the capital.
Lawmakers aren’t exempted, but Drennan said the health and safety access policy does not automatically block lawmakers.
“In the event that there’s a member of the Legislature who is not in compliance, the presiding officer will be notified, as the presiding officers will make those decisions … on how they participate, not this body nor this policy,” Drennan said.
Shipley said lawmakers shouldn’t have to rely on the good faith of Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, or Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, for guaranteed access to the Statehouse.
Mark Duffy, executive director of the Assembly Republican office, said it was inappropriate for executive-branch officials on the panel to vote on rules for operating the Legislature.
“It’s interesting that this resolution purposely or by design carved out the Governor’s Office facility,” Duffy said.
The Governor’s Office is currently down the West State Street, relocated until 2023 due to renovations. It doesn’t have a vaccine-or-test rule for visitors – but it’s open by appointment only, not to the general public like the Statehouse.
The Governor’s Office, like all state offices because of an executive order issued by Gov. Phil Murphy, does require its employees to be fully vaccinated or be tested once or twice a week.
New Jersey State Police Lt. Jaclyn Jiras wondered whether the policy is within the scope of enforcement for its security guards and said she’d run it by the chain of command.
“I’m not sure if this is something that’s within our scope of ability to enforce because this is a health-related issue. It’s not a security-related issue,” Jiras said.
Drennan said it’s about checking for a document – a vaccine card or negative PCR test.
“They’re just providing it. If they don’t have the documentation, just like if they didn’t have an ID and we turn them away, that’s the policy,” Drennan said. “They’re not making a health decision. They’re making a determination whether or not they have the appropriate documentation to enter the building.”
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at email@example.com.