Pandemic policy extensions up against time crunch

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – Legislation to keep remote public meetings, eviction protections, health care flexibilities and an assortment of other pandemic policy adjustments on the books past next week cleared the Senate on Thursday, leaving a tight window for action from the House and Gov. Charlie Baker.

The Senate’s bill (S 2467) proposes months-long extensions for a series of measures that would otherwise expire on or after next Tuesday, when the COVID-19 state of emergency that Baker declared in March 2020 ends.

Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues said the extensions will allow lawmakers to conduct a broader debate over which policies best serve the state’s evolving needs and should be pursued on a more permanent basis.

The bill continues the authorization for virtual meetings by public bodies, mail-in voting in municipal and state elections and to-go alcohol sales by restaurants. Representative town meetings, nonprofit member meetings, reverse-mortgage counseling and notary services would also be able to continue via remote means.

If signed into law, the bill would preserve current protections against evictions and unexpected costs for COVID-19 care. It proposes to extend work flexibility for physician assistants and permit nursing students in their last semester and unlicensed nursing school graduates to practice in certain settings, and includes language around license reciprocity for health care providers from other states.

While some of the bill’s provisions wouldn’t come into play immediately — mail-in voting, for instance, would be most relevant to municipal elections scheduled for the fall — others are time-sensitive.

“Welp, @massmunicipal just sent an email saying that online meetings of public bodies end at 12:01am on Tuesday,” Somerville City Councilor J.T. Scott tweeted while the Senate was in session, referencing the Massachusetts Municipal Association. “I guess I’ll be seeing you at City Hall next week!”

Introducing her amendment extending an order allowing physician assistants to designate a new supervising physician without filing state paperwork, Senate President Emerita Harriette Chandler warned that not doing so could leave clinics for COVID-19 testing, vaccination and other services short-staffed. The Worcester Democrat said the loosened restrictions have allowed PAs to be swiftly deployed to such settings.

To head to Baker, the bill needs to pass the House, where the next session is scheduled for Monday, the day before the emergency ends.

A House spokesperson said earlier this week that once that branch receives the Senate bill, representatives “will work expeditiously to get a final product to the Governor’s desk,” taking into account both the Senate language and the recommendations of a House leadership working group on pandemic policies.

Before passing the bill, the Senate also agreed to a Sen. Patricia Jehlen amendment that she said would require the Department of Unemployment Assistance to continue providing benefits to people who can’t secure care for their children or other dependents, leaving them unable to return to work.

Jehlen said a “dire situation” exists in the child care industry, especially in Western Massachusetts, where almost 20 percent of providers have not reopened.

Statewide, she said, 90 percent of child care providers were open as of June 6, representing a loss of more than 20,000 placements since before the pandemic. Nearly 400 providers have reported permanent closures, she said, as have 23 adult day health programs.

Saying that important person-to-person contact with government is lost with remote meetings, Sen. John Keenan, a Quincy Democrat, unsuccessfully sought to amend the bill to require public bodies to meet in-person in most circumstances, while still allowing remote access by the public.

The Senate also rejected amendments from Sens. Diana DiZoglio and Eric Lesser to keep the state of emergency’s cap on the fees that third-party delivery services charge restaurants in place beyond next week.

DiZoglio, who has also been a vocal advocate for takeout cocktails, said she would continue pushing to extend both those measures longer-term. She had proposed an amendment that would have extended the to-go alcohol authorization until June 15, 2023, instead of the bill’s March 1, 2022 date.

A Methuen Democrat who is running for state auditor in 2022, DiZoglio said that while people have returned to dining out, it will still take a long time for restaurants to financially recover from the shutdowns and government restrictions of the pandemic’s early stages.

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