TRENTON, N.J. — Disorder and confusion erupted outside the New Jersey Assembly as several Republican lawmakers defied a new requirement to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test and were blocked – albeit briefly – by state troopers from entering the ornate chamber Thursday.
Ahead of an expected voting session, at least 10 Republicans strode toward the chamber on the first day the virus requirement was in effect. They were halted at the chamber door by uniformed troopers for about 10 minutes before entering without showing any vaccination proof or a negative test. Troopers stationed at the doorway declined to provide an explanation.
“You have no right to stop us,” Assembly member Erik Peterson said. “You see this? You see this, folks? Denying us entry into our house.”
“This is America,” Assembly member Hal Wirths added. Lawmakers compared the situation to something that might happen in a dictatorship.
A handful of the GOP lawmakers cleared the doorway after Assembly member Brian Bergen asked troopers, “I can go 30 feet that way, 30 feet that way, but not that way?” signaling toward the chamber.
Moments later, some other Assembly members – who had earlier declined to show show vaccination cards or a negative test – walked into the room unblocked. An email seeking an explanation was sent to the state police. Troopers stationed at the doorway declined to provide an explanation.
Legislators who don’t follow the protocol were not to be permitted into the legislative chambers, according to Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin’s spokesperson Kevin McArdle, who added that leaders have spoken with state police and the attorney general’s office. Coughlin is a Democrat.
The display unfolded during the first voting session of the lame duck period, the timeframe between November’s election and the start of the new Legislature in January. It was also the first time lawmakers gathered to vote since the requirement that anyone entering the statehouse complex show a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination was implemented.
Tables with officials checking documents were set up at entrances around the complex, poster boards announcing the new policy stood on easels and state troopers milled around the building as well.
Some Republicans who flouted the rule said it was unenforceable and contending it ran afoul of the state constitution.
“It’s unfair and completely discriminatory policy. They’re essentially creating two classes of people, vaccinated and unvaccinated,” Bergen said.
But others reluctantly abided by it. GOP state Sen. Holly Schepisi offered her vaccination card to troopers stationed outside the Senate chambers.
“I know you’re just doing your job,” she said before calling the requirement a derogatory term.
Republicans are also seeking a court injunction against the requirement. The incoming leaders of the Assembly and Senate minority caucuses in the new sessions sued to block the order laid out in a November resolution from the joint commission.
“The policy set forth in the Resolution constitutes unprecedented overreach by a state agency,” the lawsuit contends.
Kevin Drennan, the chair of the commission, declined through a spokesperson to comment on the suit.
Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy has instituted similar requirements for state workers. On Monday, he decried the GOP’s opposition to the statehouse rule as “reckless.”
The disagreement comes as congressional Republicans opposed to President Joe Biden’s vaccination rules in Congress are poised to stall a must-pass funding bill. The Biden administration has pursued vaccine requirements on several groups of workers, but the effort is facing one setback after another in legal cases.