Baker seeks to extend remote meetings, outdoor dining

Bill would keep some emegency rules after emergency ends

WITH THE COVID-19 state of emergency drawing to a close, Gov. Charlie Baker filed legislation on Tuesday to extend certain measures related to remote meetings, outdoor dining, and medical billing – primarily policies that have worked well to help individuals and businesses during the pandemic. 

The bill now goes to the Legislature for consideration, which is in itself an indication of the shifting power center once the state of emergency is over. While the governor was allowed to take myriad actions on his own during the pandemic, most policy changes will now return to the normal process of requiring legislative approval.  

“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.” 

During the pandemic, Baker amended the state’s open meeting law to let public bodies conduct meetings remotely, via videoconference, as long as they set up some method to let the public participate remotely.  

Baker’s bill would extend that order through September 1, 2021. Baker said in a filing letter that while his order was intended as a public safety measure, both the public and the governmental bodies have found the policy to be beneficial. The extension, his administration wrote in a press release, “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.” 

The Massachusetts Municipal Association has been lobbying to allow remote meeting participation permanently. “Remote meetings have engaged more residents than ever before and have significantly increased transparency and insight into government operations and decision-making,” MMA Executive Director Geoff Beckwith wrote in a letter to the House speaker and Senate president. 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.” 

Baker also wants to make it easier for restaurants to extend outdoor dining through November. Amid concerns that indoor dining would result in virus transmission, Baker’s order let municipalities create expedited approval processes for restaurants seeking to allow outdoor dining and alcohol service. Any special permits issued under the order, however, would expire 60 days after the state of emergency ends – which would be in mid-August. Baker’s bill would extend those permits through November 29, 2021, so restaurants that now have outdoor dining could continue offering it. 

Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said the expansion of outdoor dining has been one of the silver linings of the pandemic. “It has proven popular with our operators, guests, as well as the cities and towns,” Luz said in an email. “We welcome the short-term extension and look forward to having continued dialogue how we can make this expanded authorization permanent.” 

The bill does not contain permission for restaurants to continue to offer cocktails-to-go. During the pandemic, special legislation authorized restaurants to sell beer and wine to go, which was then expanded to cover cocktail drinks as well. The take-home alcohol provisions are set to expire June 15, with the end of the state of emergency, and some small businesses are lobbying for it to continue. Liquor store owners oppose the continuation of the policy, which sucks away some of their business.   

The bill also doesn’t touch a cap on third party food delivery fees, like Uber Eats and GrubHub, which lawmakers put in place during the pandemic but which will also expire once the state of emergency ends. 

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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.

A third area that Baker’s bill would address is medical billing. During the pandemic, an executive order prohibited health care providers from charging patients for COVID-related emergency or inpatient care beyond the amount that their insurance was willing to cover. This is often referred to as “surprise billing.” Baker’s bill would extend this protection until January 1, 2022. At that time, federal legislation is expected to go into effect that will include similar protections.  

Baker previously announced that with COVID cases dropping and vaccinations rising, virtually all business restrictions will be lifted May 29. Some face covering requirements will remain in effect requiring masks on public transportation, in health care facilities, and in certain other locations. Most businesses will be able to decide on their own whether to require face coverings.  

Before the state of emergency officially ends June 15, Baker ‘soffice said the administration will take steps to permit the continuation of some additional public health measures. He did not specify yet what those measures will be.