Legislative leaders rushed Monday to extend a long list of pandemic-era rules and relief measures but were unable to finish their work before time ran out and Governor Charlie Baker’s state of emergency expired at the stroke of midnight.
The Senate had adopted a bill last week that would extend a range of provisions that were tied to the state of emergency, from virtual notarizations to allowing restaurants to sell “cocktails-to-go.” On Monday, the House Ways and Means Committee advanced its own version, with a full House debate planned on Tuesday.
While leaders of the two chambers agree on most key issues, there are also points of contention.
For example, the House would allow 15 percent caps on meal delivery commissions for the likes of Grubhub and DoorDash to continue until the end of the year, while the Senate chose last week to let those caps expire. And the Senate adopted rules that would continue certain telehealth reimbursements at a higher level through Dec. 15, while the House bill as of Monday left that out.
The biggest uncertainty may be around timing.
If the Senate simply goes along with the new changes from the House, the bill could move quickly to final passage and to Baker’s desk for his signature, possibly by the end of the day on Tuesday. If House and Senate leaders instead appoint a conference committee to resolve their differences, that process could take days, if not weeks. A spokeswoman for Senate President Karen Spilka said the leadership is well aware of the pressing need and hopes to swiftly resolve these issues on Tuesday.
For many who are waiting, from anxious restaurateurs to perplexed municipal officials, time is of the essence.
“I expect the Legislature is going to act quickly,” said Lizzi Weyant, director of government affairs for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. “There’s a stomach-churning sense of uncertainty until that happens.”
The three state-of-emergency provisions put in place to help restaurants through the COVID-19 pandemic prompted considerable lobbying this spring.
Restaurants pushed to extend caps on meal delivery companies, expedited permits for outdoor dining, and sales of beer, wine and cocktails for off-premises drinking. DoorDash and Grubhub called for an end to the commission caps, while the state package store association and a prominent nonprofit that focuses on fighting alcohol addiction lobbied lawmakers to put a cork in “cocktails-to-go.”
Without legislative action, some of these rules will end faster than others. Expanded outdoor dining expires in 60 days, while cocktails-to-go and third-party delivery-fee caps expired on Tuesday. Both the House and Senate bills would allow outdoor dining to continue in its current form through April of next year. The Senate bill continues cocktails-to-go until March 1, 2022, while the House bill would extend the option further, through July 31 of next year.
Delivery-fee caps remain contentious. Chef Jody Adams said she was happy to see the House plan emerge at the eleventh hour that would extend them through the end of December, to buy time for a permanent solution for the restaurant sector. The battered industry simply needs more time to recover from the financial ravages of COVID-19, she said, and without the caps she worries delivery commissions could shoot up to 30 percent or more almost overnight.
“I think it will make an enormous difference in giving us a chance to have some kind of dialogue,” said Adams, who plans to continue running her Boston and Cambridge restaurants as if these measures will be extended. “Just because it’s been deemed that there isn’t a public health emergency doesn’t mean there isn’t an economic emergency or a business health emergency.”
It’s not just the restaurant industry that is waiting and wondering. Municipal leaders urgently need an extension for their ability to continue to hold meetings that don’t require in-person quorums, after losing the ability to do so at the end of the day Monday. The House and Senate bills would extend open-meeting flexibility for remote log-ins until April 1, 2022.
“We really hope the gap is hours,” said Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. “If the gap is days, it will create significant disruption.”
Meanwhile, housing advocates have pushed to extend a raft of tenant protections, such as temporary delays of eviction cases for people who have applied for emergency rental assistance. Language to do so is in both the House and Senate versions.
“It’s really frustrating that this seems to be the same story over and over again, that the Legislature does things at the last minute,” said Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber. “Why do this to businesses? Why do this to anybody?”