Outdoor dining, remote meetings may outlast emergency

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday proposed keeping some pandemic-era policies such as remote public meetings and expanded outdoor dining in place beyond the state of emergency’s end scheduled for June 15.

Many practices that have become common during the COVID era are set to expire soon after Baker lifts the state of emergency, putting pressure on Beacon Hill to intervene and retain measures that in some cases are widely popular.

Baker’s office announced he will file legislation targeting three specific issues for extensions of several months: public bodies meeting remotely on platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom, special permits for outdoor dining, and a ban on medical providers billing patients for COVID-related care above the costs paid by insurers. He also forecast additional debate on permanent reforms.

All three of those issues are tied to Baker-issued executive orders that are poised to expire in the wake of the emergency’s end, as are other provisions the governor did not target in his latest proposal such as to-go cocktails.

“Massachusetts is leading the nation in the vaccination effort and that progress is enabling the Commonwealth to return to normal,” Baker said in a statement. “These temporary measures will help businesses and residents in this transition period, and I look forward to working on these and other issues in the week ahead with our partners in the Legislature.”

In a March 2020 executive order, Baker gave local and state bodies such as local boards the ability to meet quorum requirements remotely so long as they ensured the public could access deliberations.

The legislation he announced Tuesday would extend that ability until Sept. 1. Baker’s office said that “will allow additional time to consider possible permanent changes to the open meeting law to provide for greater flexibility in conducting open meetings through reliance on electronic streaming and similar measures.”

In addition to aiding in the fight against COVID-19, the sudden onset of widespread remote public meetings has turned into a major transparency improvement across different levels of government. Streamed meetings have enabled anyone interested to more easily follow government deliberations and offer testimony at public hearings without taking time off from work or traveling long distances to attend in-person gatherings.

In a letter to lawmakers on Monday, Massachusetts Municipal Association Executive Director Geoffrey Beckwith said pandemic rules had facilitated “innovative approaches to governance and service delivery” that should be retained. He asked lawmakers to make permanent the special rules that allowed the option of remote meetings and remote public participation.

“Remote meetings have engaged more residents than ever before and have significantly increased transparency and insight into government operations and decision-making,” Beckwith wrote. “Communities do not want to snap back to the overly confining pre-pandemic rules, and many are not in a position to do so quickly.”

Rep. Denise Garlick of Needham and Sen. Jason Lewis of Winchester filed legislation (H 3152 / S 2082) that would permanently require all public meetings to offer “adequate, alternative means of public access” such as audio or video conferencing. Their proposal has the support of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

“Governor Baker is right to propose extending virtual participation options for public meetings until September,” ACLUM Executive Director Carol Rose said in a statement. “But as the state begins to reopen, access to public meetings should never again depend on a person’s physical mobility, access to transportation, or work and family obligations. People are more likely to be civically engaged if they are able to participate in public meetings remotely — and local democracy works best when all of us are able to engage.”

Baker’s bill would also empower municipalities to extend through Nov. 29 special permits they have awarded during the pandemic to restaurants that launched or expanded outdoor dining and alcohol service.

Without intervention, those permits are set to expire 60 days after the state of emergency ends, which would force many restaurants to reshape their operations amid the busy summer season.

His bill leaves untouched several other forms of pandemic-era restaurant relief that industry leaders and smaller restaurateurs want to see extended, including permission to sell beer, wine and cocktails with to-go food orders and a 15 percent cap on the fees they pay to delivery apps such as Grubhub and DoorDash. Those provisions were created in legislation and not through executive orders.

The longest extension in Baker’s bill targets patient protections he implemented via executive order and would run through the end of the year. Under Baker’s legislation, medical providers would remain prohibited from billing patients for COVID-related emergency and inpatient care at rates higher than insurers paid until Jan. 1, 2022.

Baker announced last week that his administration will lift all remaining COVID-19 restrictions on May 29 and lift the state of emergency on June 15.

Lawmakers must act soon to avoid the lapse of pandemic-era policies they wish to keep in place. In the wake of Baker’s announcement, legislative leaders requested and received from the governor a list of policies affected by the decision, but they have not yet indicated which they want to extend or when they would take action.

As part of his Tuesday announcement, his office said that before June 15, the administration “plans to take additional steps that will permit the continuation of targeted public health measures beyond the end of the State of Emergency, including the mask requirements announced last week.”

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