The Massachusetts Senate is moving legislation that would extend a series of pandemic-era rules into next year and beyond, including allowing expanded mail-in voting until December, letting restaurants sell to-go cocktails until March 2022, and keeping certain eviction protections until January 2023.
Lawmakers need to move fast. Governor Charlie Baker plans to lift Massachusetts’ COVID-19 state of emergency on June 15, a move that will eventually end a string of orders meant to ease the rules on businesses as they tried to navigate the virus.
The Senate bill — which the Senate plans to debate Thursday — would cover a lot of ground, according to a summary released by the chamber’s budget committee on Tuesday.
Restaurants would be allowed to sell to-go alcohol until March 1, 2022, an initiative the industry pushed hard to retain amid opposition from package and liquor stores.
A city or town could seek to keep expanded outdoor table service until April 1, ensuring restaurants keep the added flexibility of moving tables into parking lots, spaces, and other areas. Without this legislative change, any approvals restaurants won under Baker’s emergency order would end 60 days after the state of emergency is lifted, or in mid-August during the height of the summer season.
The Senate bill, however, does not include everything restaurants wanted. It does not include language extending 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, though it’s likely lawmakers would seek to add it during their floor debate.
Select boards, town councils, state-level boards, and other public bodies could also continue to have remote meetings until April 1 under the Senate bill.
The bill would also set Dec. 15 as the end-date for a variety of rules: Town meetings can be held with remote participation until then, and any eligible voter can cast early mail-in ballots for a state or local election until the same date.
Notaries public could also continue to remotely perform work central for estate planning, mortgages, and more until mid-December. Health insurers would also be required to reimburse payments at the same rate for in-network providers for telehealth services as they would for in-person visits until then.
The legislation seeks to keep in place protections against evictions, including requiring landlords to notify state housing officials of any notice to quit because of nonpayment until January 2023.
Courts would be required until April 2022 to continue an eviction, if it’s based only on nonpayment, including if it’s due to a COVID-related financial hardship, or if the defendant has a pending application for rental assistance.
Baker’s decision to end the state of emergency, announced last month, caught many on Beacon Hill off guard, and prompted legislators to start a fast-moving process to identify how best to transition the state from the depths of the pandemic.
The Senate is also seeking to require Baker give the Legislature 45-day notice of when he plans to end any outstanding public health orders or the public health emergency.
After the Senate vote on Thursday, the bill would move to the House, where representatives could change or add parts of it, and then have to reconcile any differences with senators before sending the package to Baker’s desk. If so, that process would likely extend past the state of emergency’s expiration next week.
Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.