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State troopers check vaccination status outside the statehouse annex on December 6, 2021. (Photo: Jennifer Peacock/Assembly Republican Office).

State police successfully enforce vax mandate on second try

In-person Senate session proceeds peacefully while Assembly switched to remote

By Joey Fox, December 06 2021 4:08 pm

Following last week’s fireworks over the state capitol complex’s vaccine-or-testing mandate, the statehouse conducted affairs in relative peace today. Most Republican senators complied with the mandate, while Assembly committee hearings were conducted entirely remotely.

But the muted proceedings masked significant turmoil beneath the surface. The state police changed their strategy for implementing the mandate twice over the weekend, and were unexpectedly joined today by the National Guard, though a spokesperson for the governor’s office said that the guardsmen were only there to help set up a testing site.

National Guardsmen and state police officers deconstruct a testing site outsite the capitol complex on December 6, 2021. (Photo: Jennifer Peacock/Assembly Republican Office).

Last Thursday, the first day of the legislative session that occurred after the mandate went into effect, the capitol complex hosted a standoff between Assembly Republicans and state police officers that lasted several hours. After refusing to comply with the mandate and declaring it “tyranny,” most of the Assembly Republican caucus camped out in the Assembly chambers until Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-South Amboy) relented and held a shortened voting session.

The mandate, which originally applied to the capitol complex at-large and then switched to only applying to the Senate and Assembly chambers, changed again on Saturday. First, statehouse operations building manager Steven Pietrzak announced that the mandate would be enforced in the statehouse garage; then, only a few hours later, that policy was ditched in favor of checking vaccination at the statehouse’s five entry points.

State troopers did indeed follow through on the updated policy, with between three and five troopers posted outside the main entrance throughout the day and others distributed at other entrances. There have been reports that some officers were reassigned after last week’s debacle, but the state police has not responded to a request for comment confirming or denying such rumors.

But, at least in the Assembly, the new procedures were a moot point anyways, as Coughlin announced on Friday that all Assembly proceedings this week would be shifted online. It’s not yet clear how the Assembly will proceed when the next full voting session arrives on December 16; Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Denville), one of the ringleaders of the opposition to the mandate, said last week that he has no plan to relent.

In the Senate, which witnessed some objections but no real chaos last week over the vaccine policy, six committee hearings proceeded today without incident. Asked whether his colleagues have any intention to protest the mandate more forcefully, soon-to-be Senate Minority Leader Steven Oroho (R-Franklin) declined to answer.

State Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Montville), however, decided he will wage a lonely campaign against the mandate anyways. He plans to spend Thursday voting remotely from outside the Paramus Veterans Home, in an attempt to refocus attention away from the vaccine mandate and towards Covid deaths in nursing and veterans homes.

“There seems to have been no concern when the state forced the Covid virus into nursing homes, prohibited testing and watched how it spread, killing frail and elderly residents,” he said. “Now we see the opposite, a pseudo-science being applied to duly elected officials and preventing them from doing the people’s business.”

This story was updated at 4:21 p.m. with a correction: State Sen. Joe Pennacchio did not vote remotely today, but will instead do so on Thursday.

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