COVID-19 has forced Massachusetts residents to communicate over video conferencing technology, rely on takeout and highlight weaknesses in the state’s health care system. But with the pandemic not quite over, lawmakers are under pressure over the next eight days to expand a handful of emergency laws and policies to cushion the local economy’s return to life in person.
Although most pandemic restrictions on businesses and the general public have already ended, Governor Charlie Baker has decided to officially end the Commonwealth State of Emergency on June 15. When that happens, many of the protections and policies put in place to coincide with the emergency ordinance will end, including some that the governor and lawmakers might like to see stayed a bit longer. If lawmakers do not get a bill extending the provisions to Baker in time, there could be a gap in services, programs, and permissions that could seriously disrupt newly recovered businesses.
Baker launched the campaign to expand pandemic provisions by tabling a bill with three simple goals: allow local government agencies to meet virtually, expand outdoor dining, and protect patients from healthcare costs. linked to COVID. After calling for a full list of all emergency rules expiring on June 15, the Senate set to work to rewrite the Baker Bill while the House tasked five senior leaders to lead a parallel effort to develop designs.
“As the Baker administration has tabled a nominal bill in the Senate to extend three measures related to COVID, the House recognizes that we are eager to start our own process,” wrote Mariano spokeswoman Ana Vivas, in a press release announcing the task force.
The House and Senate are now scrambling to put in place a set of legislative-favored proposals that may exceed the June 15 deadline. Here’s a look at some of the emergency pandemic policies seen as likely to be expanded, and what some advocates want to see become permanent.
COCKTAILS TO TAKE AWAY
The most discussed emergency rule put in place to stem the economic impact of the pandemic on restaurants was the one that allowed restaurants to pack beer, wine and cocktails with take out orders, which was banned in the Massachusetts Puritan before the pandemic.
“It is not because the state of emergency will soon be lifted that these restaurants will not continue to experience difficulties,” Senator Diana DiZoglio, the sponsor of the measure of take-out cocktails, told GBH News.
Maintaining the take-out liquor offering is popular with restaurant owners and patrons alike, but the influential liquor store lobby, which is made up of a powerful partnership between big retailers and small mom stores and pop, could win to get things back to normal after June 15.
DELIVERY COSTS TO THE RESTAURANT
Another temporary boon for restaurant owners has been the 15% cap by lawmakers on fees charged by delivery services like Uber Eats, DoorDash and Grubhub. Lawmakers heard loud and clear in 2020 that the newly popular delivery services were falling so behind that it made little sense for restaurants to maintain a delivery option.
“It is really disappointing to know that this happened in the first place and it is unacceptable that it will happen again,” DiZoglio said of what she called the “price hike” of the industry. delivery applications.
With dining rooms reopened at 100% capacity, restaurants are under less financial pressure to rely on delivery orders. The pandemic has shown there is an appetite among diners to adopt high-end meals at home, but the artificially low prices capped by emergency law may have something to do with the popularity of the delivery.
VIRTUAL PUBLIC MEETINGS
Baker’s bill would allow town halls to operate virtually until September 1, which would allow them to complete their budgeting and meeting season without worrying about in-person gatherings in town halls.
Baker has expressed the wish that lawmakers decide on the permanent future of online access to meetings after the summer, but government responsibility groups like the ACLU, Common Cause Massachusetts and MASSPIRG want to go much further and make remote access to view and participate in all permanent public meetings, which would require an overhaul of the law on public meetings.
Baker’s legislation also allows towns and villages to grant alfresco dining permits to restaurants until November 29, extending the option of alfresco dining (at least for those who will endure colder weather) well after Thanksgiving. The popularity of outdoor dining in the wake of the pandemic, and the investment many restaurants have already made to improve and expand patios and other spaces, means this change is likely permanent.
COVID HEALTH CARE
To comply with the state’s pandemic policy that most COVID-19 healthcare should be essentially free for patients, Baker wants to extend protections to people on treatment for the virus or facing medical bills for treatment that ‘they have already received. His bill would protect patients from charges beyond their insurance coverage for emergency and hospital services related to COVID-19. Lawmakers tend to like such protections and may want to go further when finalizing their own plan to expand pandemic policy.