Today (06/10/21), the Massachusetts State Senate passed a bill which would extend a slate of measures instituted in Massachusetts during the State of Emergency stemming from COVID-19. If signed into law, this bill would result in the included measures being temporarily extended beyond the State of Emergency’s expiration on June 15, 2021.
“The end of the State of Emergency in Massachusetts is both a testament to how far we’ve come and a reminder of the work that lies ahead as we seek a robust recovery equitable to all residents” stated Senate President Karen E. Spilka (D-Ashland). “Massachusetts’ recovery will depend on our ability to respond to the lessons of the pandemic, in such areas as housing, healthcare, the restaurant industry and civic and community engagement. Today’s legislation keeps these conversations going and addresses the future of some of the most popular new ideas that have been embraced during the pandemic. Some of the included measures, like mail-in voting and greater access to public meetings, are not merely convenient but are crucial for the continued health of our democracy. I’m grateful for the work of Chair Rodrigues and the Committee on Ways and Means for moving this important bill forward swiftly.”
Many of the extended measures deal with elections and public meetings. Under the bill, mail-in voting would be extended in Massachusetts until December 15, 2021, giving voters flexibility and more opportunity to participate in upcoming fall elections. With municipal approval, early in-person voting could be extended through the same date.
Public bodies subject to the open meeting law would be able to continue holding meetings remotely until April 1, 2022. Similarly, remote town meetings would remain an option for Massachusetts municipalities through December 15, 2021, and quorum requirements for town meetings would be eased. Nonprofits and public corporations would be able to hold meetings remotely until December 15, 2021.
“Extending these emergency measures will allow municipalities, restaurants, businesses, and residents the flexibility they need to adapt as we continue on the path toward our new normal and we get back to a new better,” stated Senator Michael J. Rodrigues (D-Westport), Chair of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. “Thank you to Senate President Spilka for her steady leadership and thank you to my colleagues in the Senate for moving quickly to support citizens of the Commonwealth.”
Also included in the bill are measures relative to restaurant operations. The legislation would allow municipalities to approve and extend permits for outdoor dining through April 1, 2022. Restaurants would also be permitted to offer alcoholic beverages, including mixed drinks, for off-site consumption with the purchase of food until March 1, 2022.
The bill also extends certain protections afforded to tenants during the pandemic. Among these is the requirement that a ‘notice to quit,’ including information on tenants’ rights as well as methods for seeking legal and financial assistance, be served to tenants prior to an eviction. Such notices will continue to be required until at least January 1, 2023. Furthermore, the legislation would also extend hardship protections to persons facing eviction by continuing the court practice of offering temporary continuances to tenants who have filed applications for rental assistance, thereby preventing unnecessary evictions in cases where tenants are unable to pay rent due to COVID-19-related financial hardship. This statutory requirement would have expired on June 15, 2021 and instead will be extended until April 1, 2022.
“We learned a lot during the COVID experience, and we may be able to use some of those lessons going forward. This legislation gives us the time to sort out which changes we should make permanent,” stated President Pro Tempore Senator William Brownsberger (D-Belmont).
“This bill represents responsible and proactive action by the Senate to ensure that important safeguards remain in place after June 15th,” said Senator Cindy F. Friedman (D-Arlington), Vice Chair of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. “The effects of this public health crisis are not over; we must continue to protect the public’s health and well-being. This bill maintains the rapid availability of our strong health care workforce and provides financial support to those most impacted by the pandemic, like those who struggle to secure adequate childcare as in-person work resumes. I thank Senate President Spilka, Chair Rodrigues, and my senate colleagues for their speedy and thoughtful effort in addressing these matters.”
“The bill the Senate passed today recognizes that for many people in Massachusetts, the pandemic is far from over,” said Senator Joanne M. Comerford (D-Northampton). “By extending many of these emergency provisions, we can assure people that many of the important protections such as those having to do with public health, remote participation in civic life, outdoor dining, and protections against evictions will remain in place.”
In an amendment proposed by Senator Jehlen and adopted during debate, a lack of access to childcare will not prohibit someone from collecting unemployment benefits from continuing to access those benefits. This practice, initiated during the pandemic and otherwise set to expire on June 15, 2021 will continue until federal unemployment protections expire in September.
Finally, the Senate extended several measures to ensure that sufficient workforce and access to necessary healthcare services remain to address the needs of the Commonwealth during the continuing public health emergency. In a move which fulfills the Senate’s stated commitment to supporting telehealth’s inclusion as a healthcare option for Massachusetts residents, a requirement that certain in-network telehealth services be reimbursed at the same rate as equivalent in-person services would be extended until at least December 15, 2021.
The bill now goes to the House of Representatives.