TRENTON — People who don’t properly wear a mask over their nose and mouth in stores in New Jersey could be fined as much as $500 for violating Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive orders declaring a coronavirus public health emergency, under a bill endorsed Thursday by an Assembly committee.

“Our state simply cannot allow people to continue to flout the rules in public spaces,” said Assemblyman Joe Danielsen D-Somerset, one of the bill’s primary sponsors. “By ignoring mask mandates and strolling into a store without one, these individuals are willfully putting lives at risk.”

The bill, A4453, wasn’t listed on the original Assembly Appropriations Committee agenda but was “waived on” at the start of the meeting. In fact, the bill started the morning in the Assembly Judiciary Committee but was transferred. The deadline to sign up to testify at the remote hearing was 3 p.m. Wednesday, so nobody from the public was able to testify on the bill.

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But that didn’t prevent lawmakers from having a lively 14-minute debate in which Republicans teed off on the idea.

“It is ludicrous that we’re taking this on. It’s ludicrous that we’re putting the public through this,” said Assemblyman Brian Bergen, R-Morris.

“Once again, we are going after not only businesses but the liberties of our residents,” said Assemblyman Kevin Rooney, R-Bergen. “I’m an adamant no on this bill, and I think there are better things that we could be addressing in this Legislature.”

Assemblyman Antwan McClellan, R-Cape May, said the proposed law would put police in harm’s way and that it would be better to have businesses refuse to serve someone without a mask and only call law enforcement if things get tense.

“With the issues and concerns with the combativeness of law enforcement that we have now, do we really want to put our law enforcement officers in a position where they’re coming to write a ticket for a mask?” McClellan said.

Fines could range from $50 to $500 if masks aren't worn in stores and other retail establishments with signs posted requiring them. The original proposal was amended to remove references to the offense of trespass and petty disorderly offense, which carries penalties of up to six months in jail, a fine of up to $1,000 and $158 in other fees.

Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-Burlington, said people “misunderstand the very important role that masks play” in taming a pandemic.

“Masks, as they have been since the Middle Ages, are a very effective way of reducing the spread of this disease, which is deadly and which has inflicted cost on our society,” he said.

Conaway is director of the Burlington County Health Department, which he said “gets complaints about this every day” from people who are in stores where people don’t wear masks or don’t do it properly. He said store owners are caught in a bind because they can’t tell people it’s against the law.

“This legislation to my mind provides clarity, helps the store owner to protect his establishment, his employees and the customers who will want to patronize that establishment,” Conaway said. “It’s overdue in my opinion.”

Assemblyman Jay Webber, R-Morris, said he’d hoped for months that Democrats would get move involved in responding to New Jersey’s “perpetual state of emergency” – until it took up this bill, which he said is the wrong way to go “as the emergency is ending.”

“Apparently the Democratic majority wants to go even further than the governor has and is as obsessed apparently with governing every aspect of New Jersyans’ lives, in every way,” Webber said.

“At some point, the leaders of this state have to trust New Jerseyans to do the right thing, even when there is a virus kind of racking the state,” he said.

Some Democrats questioned the bill, even as they voted for it.

“I am a bit concerned about this bill. I’m going to support the bill to release it from committee today, but I have concerns,” said Assemblywoman Gabriela Mosquera, D-Gloucester. “We can’t be legislating this. This is the realm of ridiculousness.”

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