State quietly restores plastic bag bans 

Many businesses still don’t know about order 

ON FRIDAY NIGHT — a time often reserved for releasing bad or controversial news — the Department of Public Health quietly lifted the state’s ban on reusable bags in grocery stores and allowed 139 city and town plastic bag bans to go back into effect. 

As of Monday, the stealthy move had been so effective many businesses had no idea the changes had been made 

“Not giving people notice causes a lot of chaos,” said Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce. 

The order by Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel, posted on the state’s coronavirus website on Friday, rescinded a March 25 order that had banned the use of reusable bags and prohibited stores from charging for disposable bags.  

The March order had been put in place to ensure COVID-19 did not spread from customer to cashier through handling a reusable bag, at a time when grocery stores and pharmacies were among the few businesses allowed to stay open.  

Bharel’s latest order allows consumers to once again use reusable bags. It also automatically restores all municipal bans on single-use plastic bags and related policies that impose charges for each bag a customer buys. Grocery stores will have to follow the state’s general safety guidelines that apply to all retail businesses. 

Theoretically, municipalities could choose to continue to suspend their bans, but their governing body would have to make that decision.  

The executive order went into effect immediately. 

A Department of Public Health spokesperson said the administration did outreach to businesses – including grocery stores, convenience stores, retailers and public health boards – in advance of the announcement. However, as of Monday, many businesses appeared not to know about it. 

Store workers who answered the phones at Market Basket in Somerville, Stop and Shop in Brockton, Whole Foods in Boston and Walgreens in Salem all said a customer could not bring in a reusable bag. Workers at Star Market in Allston and at CVS in Haverhill said a customer could bring in a reusable bag, but cashiers would not be allowed to bag their items – a provision included in the guidelines that were rescinded.  

The exception was Trader Joe’s, where store workers in Cambridge and Hanover both said reusable bags were welcome. 

No stores said they were charging for bags. 

A UPS store in Cambridge promotes the city’s plastic bag ban, which had been suspended by the state because of the coronavirus pandemic, but is back in effect following a little-noticed posting on Friday night by the state Department of Public Health. (Photo by Shira Schoenberg)

“My strong hunch is that most of them have no idea this happened,” said Janet Domenitz, director of MassPIRG, a consumer group that supports municipal plastic bag bans. “For reasons that I do not understand, the recission order was posted late Friday night.” 

Domenitz said her group was happy to hear the policies have changed since more recent science has shown little risk of virus transmission through reusable bags. “Returning to reusables is a really good reminder that the pandemic cannot be an excuse for creating more waste,” Domenitz said. 

Some business groups are frustrated by the way the policy was lifted. Reibman wrote to Newton city officials over the weekend asking for a grace period of 30 to 60 days before Newton’s bag ordinance goes back into effect, to give merchants time to use up their stock of single-use plastic bags and buy more paper bags. 

Reibman said the state’s actions gave merchants no notice that they need to change their bag stock – and gave customers no notice that bag fees will be reimposed. Reibman said it is hard enough for store clerks to enforce face mask rules, and “now you’re the store clerk that has to tell the person in line that bags are now going to cost you 10 cents again.” 

Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said Friday’s order came as a surprise. “A little bit more notice would have been nice,” Hurst said. 

Hurst said stores now have a bunch of single-use plastic bags in stock that they can no longer use, which causes an economic strain. And, he said, a lot of employees still have health concerns about handling someone else’s cloth reusable bag.  “The question is what will local boards of health and mayors do. Will they allow ordinances to go back into place or will they do something to protect consumers and retail employees on their own,” he said. Hurst also worries that there will now be a “crazy quilt” patchwork of regulations and enforcement. 

Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said he thinks municipalities will take some time before they begin enforcing their bag rules again, so they can educate and prepare customers and let businesses use up their single-use plastic bags.  

“Ideally, there would have been something like a two-week notice so that communities could do an education process with their residents and stores have an opportunity to post notice,” Beckwith said.  

Beckwith said he thinks each community will put in place its own process, in conjunction with its stores, to reinstate plastic bag bans. “Obviously, this is a highly stressed environment and they’ll do it in a way that’s not jarring to the local vendor,” he said. 

Boston, for instance, plans to keep its exemption from the plastic ban in place until September 30, to give merchants time to use up their stock of single use plastic bags. The five-cent fee will only return October 1. Customers in Boston are now allowed to use reusable bags. 

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Cambridge announced that it was continuing its prohibition on reusable bags, and it will not reinstate bag fees “until further notice.”

“The governor was able to use his emergency authority to have something happen with a snap of the fingers, and then unsnap the fingers,” Beckwith added. “Communities don’t have the luxury of being able to act that quickly.”