Massachusetts recreational marijuana shops will be allowed to reopen on May 25 after a two-month mandated closure due to the coronavirus pandemic, state officials announced Monday.
Like other retailers during the first phase of the state’s new reopening plan, cannabis stores at first will only be permitted to conduct walk-up or curbside sales, with no customers allowed inside. Eventually, if the state makes enough progress fighting COVID-19, limited numbers of shoppers could enter.
Marijuana growing, processing, and testing facilities can resume operations this week, the state Cannabis Control Commission said in an order released Monday evening, though managers must first write a plan for implementing various safety measures meant to prevent the spread of the disease.
Governor Charlie Baker in March deemed recreational marijuana stores “nonessential,” breaking with officials in other states where the drug is legal. However, he permitted medical cannabis dispensaries to remain open, with state regulators encouraging them to conduct sales via curbside pickup to limit contact between employees and patients.
The shutdown prompted howls of protest from the industry, which argued many recreational consumers use marijuana for medical reasons, and that heavily-regulated pot businesses could easily implement social distancing measures. Municipal officials in cities and towns that host marijuana facilities also complained, saying the heavily-taxed companies generate much-needed revenue.
Baker had argued that reopening recreational marijuana shops during the initial surge of coronavirus cases was a “nonstarter” because they threatened to draw numerous visitors from other states at a time when people are being encouraged to stay at home and not travel. (Massachusetts is the only state in the Northeast with recreational marijuana stores.) His administration has also suggested that restricting sales only to in-state residents could invite legal challenges.
During a press conference Monday, Baker said he still has concerns about out-of-state recreational customers, but that requiring curbside pickup will add a degree of safety.
“If you’re gonna do curbside, it makes sense to do curbside for everybody,” he said. “The whole point behind curbside is it doesn’t require people to go inside and stand around, and there’s plenty of evidence at this point that inside spaces with a long period of time in which people are there, especially if they don’t have the ability to socially distance, is probably the biggest and most significant opportunity for spread.”
Each portion of Baker’s four-phase reopening plan is expected to last a minimum of three weeks, though they could be extended depending on trends in coronavirus cases and death counts.
Businesses that choose to reopen this month are required to have employees wear face coverings and maintain social distancing “to the greatest extent possible,” according to a report released Monday by the governor’s Reopening Advisory Board. Companies are also expected to regularly sanitize high-touch areas, put other hygiene protocols into place, and create a response plan for employees who contract COVID-19.
Before a business reopens, it will be required to complete a COVID-19 Control Plan, which must be available at the business during any inspection. The plan does not need to be submitted to the state for approval.
Marijuana industry groups cheered Monday’s announcement, noting their sector before the shutdown employed more than 8,000 workers and had generated more than $120 million in state and local taxes.
“We appreciate this gesture of confidence by the [Baker] administration and believe it is reflective of our industry’s commitment to workplace and consumer safety, as well as our history of compliance and significant regulatory oversight,” the Commonwealth Dispensary Association said in a statement.
Local marijuana business owners have been worried for weeks that the temporary shutdown could force them to close permanently. Unlike most companies, cannabis firms are not eligible for federal aid because marijuana is still federally illegal; even businesses that work “indirectly” with the cannabis industry are ineligible, the federal government said last month.
A bill is being considered in the Massachusetts Legislature that would provide financial assistance to businesses that can’t receive federal aid, such as marijuana companies, chambers of commerce, and certain other nonprofits.
A group of marijuana companies and a consumer sued Baker in early April over the shutdown, arguing during a virtual hearing that Massachusetts could easily address Baker’s concern about out-of-state customers by limiting marijuana sales to Massachusetts residents. Cannabis Commissioner Shaleen Title separately made a similar argument, noting that social distancing in line, curbside pickup, and enhanced cleaning and sanitation efforts would make the stores safe to reopen.
But a state judge ruled that Baker had “a rational basis” for closing recreational marijuana stores, even while keeping medical dispensaries and liquor stores open.
In the weeks since recreational marijuana stores closed, Massachusetts residents have been signing up for medical marijuana cards in droves, particularly after the Cannabis Control Commission temporarily allowed new patients to get certified via phone. From March 23 to April 21, medical marijuana card registrations spiked 245 percent.
Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.