Governor Charlie Baker is ending the state of emergency in Massachusetts. Now, the Legislature has to decide what aspects of pandemic-era life they want to keep from it.
Faced with a suddenly ticking clock, state lawmakers are being pressed to extend, or make permanent, a host of COVID-related rules governing sidewalk lunches, to-go margaritas, and virtual town council meetings before Baker lifts his emergency declaration on June 15.
Their ability to pass a string of new laws in four weeks — and on short notice — is a test for a 200-member legislative body not typically known for nimbleness. “We all know that our Legislature loves waiting until the last minute,” Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber, quipped in the group’s morning newsletter Tuesday.
Yet, whatever action lawmakers take, it will be crucial in determining what life will look like in Massachusetts for the months and perhaps years ahead. Their decisions will guide the state into the next phase when public health restrictions will be gone but many remain eager to keep some vestiges of pandemic life.
“There’s no such thing as an easy transition when suddenly the emergency order is lifted,” said Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents cities and towns. “They’ve adjusted to the new world, and it’s not even possible to go back to the old world.”
Baker issued more than 60 orders, plus various amendments, since he announced the state of emergency in March 2020, creating a set of ever-shifting rules that governed businesses and local governments for months.
Baker’s surprise announcement Monday that he’s ending them created a new challenge. The shift caught lawmakers off-guard, and Senate President Karen E. Spilka and House Speaker Ronald Mariano have requested the Baker administration send them a list of orders impacted by his decision. Aides to both Democrats said they intend to work with the Republican governor to “provide a seamless transition out of the State of Emergency and back to a ‘new normal.’”
A Baker adviser said Tuesday the administration has not taken a position on what orders it believes should remain.
Mariano is urging advocates and others to contact lawmakers with their input on the “time-sensitive measures,” suggesting the Legislature may have to move quickly on bills without typical public hearings.
“The condensed timeframe in which the Baker Administration plans to end the State of Emergency impacts the Legislature’s ability and responsibility, as a deliberate body, to engage in a public process and hear from all stakeholders on the expiring executive orders and emergency regulations,” the Quincy Democrat said in a statement to The Boston Globe.
What the Legislature will ultimately keep is the question. As warm weather settles in, many municipal officials and restaurant owners want to keep the flexibility restaurants have enjoyed since last year in expanding outdoors onto sidewalks, parking lots, and streets to create al fresco dining spots.
But any approvals restaurants won under the order would end 60 days after the state of emergency is lifted — or in this case in mid-August during the height of the summer season. Senator Nick Collins, a South Boston Democrat, filed an amendment in the Senate budget to extend it for another year.
“Outdoor dining, without question, was the only silver lining in the pandemic for restaurants,” said Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. He said Baker and state lawmakers have repeatedly sought to help restaurants since last year, adding: “I suspect they’re going to want to make sure they don’t leave us in the lurch here.”
Restaurateurs are also pressing legislative leaders to extend rules allowing eateries to offer to-go cocktails. That option, nonexistent before COVID-19, has been a small lifeline for businesses struggling to get customers in the door, advocates said, but it’s faced opposition from package store owners who say the option could erode their own businesses.
Simultaneously, some legislators want to extend a law capping the fees restaurants pay delivery apps, such as Grubhub or DoorDash, at 15 percent, which ends when the state of emergency does.
“If it wasn’t allowed to price gouge the pandemic, it shouldn’t be allowed after the pandemic,” said state Senator Diana DiZoglio, a Methuen Democrat who’s filed an amendment to the Senate budget to extend the measure by two years.
The Senate is slated to debate its budget proposal next week, and the House last month passed its own. But the hulking spending plan, while often a vehicle for passing policy, may not be viable for extending a variety of pandemic-era laws.
Lawmakers typically don’t reach an agreement on the budget until the summer, and for the last decade, they’ve continually relied on interim spending plans to keep state government funded in the new fiscal year that starts in July while they hash out a deal. That likely puts its passage well beyond the June 15 expiration.
“Whether we act quickly or not relies essentially on the Senate president’s office and the speaker’s office allowing these provisions to come to the floor,” DiZoglio said.
A spokesman for Spilka said her office will review Baker’s orders, and that the chamber has been focused on postpandemic policy, including with the creation a special committee to make recommendations. “The Senate has been intentional in laying a foundation for our postpandemic future,” spokesman Antonio Caban said.
Municipal leaders are also urging the Legislature to keep parts of one of Baker’s first emergency actions easing the state’s open meeting law to allow local boards, state commissions, and other committees to meet virtually.
Some city and town halls still remain partially shuttered to the public, and others have repurposed conference rooms that before COVID-19 hosted regular meetings but now function as office space to give staff extra distance, said Beckwith, of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
In Boston, some city councilors are already pushing to make remote participation permanent, arguing it gives those with disabilities better access to city meetings. While the Legislature is not bound by the open meeting law — and will continue to operate remotely for now — the vast majority of local and state bodies would be legally forced to meet in person again without a new law allowing for the virtual option.
“I don’t think we should go back as a state to a time prepandemic when people may have had to take off work or to obtain costly child care” to attend a public meeting, said Kade Crockford, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts’ Technology for Liberty program.
A host of other rules and laws also face expiration, though to date, the debate over keeping them has been less intense.
The Legislature in April 2020 passed a law allowing notaries public to remotely perform work central to estate planning and mortgages, but only until three business days after the state of emergency ends.
Health insurers are supposed to set the same rates for virtual or in-person visits on a number of services, but only for 90 days after the emergency declaration lifts. The same goes for a law waiving the one-week waiting period for anyone filing an unemployment benefits claim.