Senate votes to extend some COVID orders
Over objection of package stores, cocktails-to-go included
WHILE THE PANDEMIC-related health emergency may be winding down, it will take time for society to return to a fully normal state. Lawmakers are now grappling with which aspects of pandemic life need to continue, at least for a limited time.
The Senate on Thursday passed a wide-ranging bill that would extend a number of COVID-19 emergency orders, including allowing restaurants to maintain outdoor dining and sell to-go cocktails, allowing remote participation in meetings, and extending payment rates for telehealth.
The Senate bill goes further than a similar proposal made by Gov. Charlie Baker, which focused primarily on remote meetings, outdoor dining, and medical billing. The bill now goes to the House for consideration.
Senate Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues said the bill does not add any new policies, but provides temporary extensions in order to allow for a broader debate about if and how to continue any of these policies permanently. “It gives us the opportunity to examine these policies and determine the best fit for our evolving needs as the pandemic winds down,” Rodrigues said.
Many of the pandemic-related orders are those related to economic activity, which have generally worked well during the past months. Over the objection of package stores, the bill would let restaurants continue selling to-go cocktails through March 1, 2022. Restaurants could continue outdoor dining and alcohol service through April 1, 2022.
The bill also extends orders allowing for remote meetings and civic participation – letting corporate and nonprofit boards meet with remote participation, letting towns hold town meetings remotely, and allowing municipal voting by mail through December 15. It would also let public bodies hold meetings with remote participation through April 1, 2022.
Sen. John Keenan, a Quincy Democrat, tried to limit the remote meeting provisions. Keenan said while holding remote meetings served a public health purpose during the pandemic, “we lose something vital when we meet remotely. We lose that person to person contact that is so essential at all levels of government.”
Keenan proposed an amendment that would have required public bodies to resume meeting in-person, with exceptions allowing remote participation if a member is ill, incapacitated, quarantined, or otherwise unable to participate. His amendment was rejected on a voice vote.
The bill also extends some eviction protections, including requiring courts to grant a continuance on eviction proceedings if an eviction is being done solely due to nonpayment of rent due to a COVID-related financial hardship and the applicant has a pending application for rental assistance.
Several senators said they believe there needs to be more eviction protections in place once a federal eviction moratorium expires, and more assistance available to landlords. While no related amendments passed, senators pledged to continue working on that issue.
A law Baker signed in January established permanent pay parity in reimbursements for behavioral health care conducted via telehealth rather than in office. The same law also extended rate parity for all specialties for 90 days after the state of emergency ended and for primary care and chronic disease management for two years. The Senate bill would extend pay parity for telehealth for all specialties until December 15, 2021. The Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association had asked for this additional extension to give insurers and providers time to update their billing systems and scheduling practices.
Senators also adopted several amendments on the floor. One would extend a provision letting public retirees work beyond existing caps on hours and salary for those who returned to help with the COVID-19 response. Another would extend a program that lets doctors consult remotely with elderly patients with complex medication regimens. An amendment would let physician assistants continue to have the flexibility they received during the pandemic to more easily move between hospital units, while another would extend reciprocity that makes it easier for health care workers licensed in other states to work in Massachusetts. Another amendment would let unemployment benefit applicants continue using a lack of childcare or care for a dependent adult as a reason for not seeking work.Sen. Diana DiZoglio, a Methuen Democrat, argued that the bill does not do enough to help struggling restaurants. While the bill temporarily extends to-go cocktails, she said, the cocktails hould be allowed permanently. She also suggested there needs to a permanent cap on fees that third party food delivery services charge to restaurants – apps like GrubHub that she said were “price gouging” restaurants before lawmakers imposed a temporary cap. Restaurants that were closed or limited in their services for months, she said, “are not going to be fully recovered magically on June 15 or in April of next year.”
“Financially speaking, they are still in a very dire situation,” DiZoglio said.