People enjoy outdoor dining in Lawrence last summer. Gov. Charlie Baker filed legislation to allow municipalities to extend special permits for outdoor dining through Nov. 29. (Photo courtesy Esther Encarnacion/City of Lawrence)

On May 25, Gov. Charlie Baker filed legislation to extend certain emergency measures currently in place by executive order that are set to expire on June 15, when the state of emergency will be rescinded.

The governor’s legislation (S. 2452) would extend measures providing for a temporary suspension of certain open meeting law requirements, special permits for expanded outdoor dining, and billing protections for COVID-19 patients. Temporarily extending these measures, the governor said, would give communities and businesses time to transition, but extending them requires legislation.

The MMA has been advocating for the permanent extension of many pandemic rules.

“The abrupt end of the state of emergency on June 15 will create a number of major transition challenges for government and businesses, which is why swift passage of this extension legislation is essential,” said MMA Executive Director Geoff Beckwith. “There are many innovations and operational improvements that we want to keep in place, and this bill would give municipal and state leaders adequate time to enact permanent provisions.”

The MMA sent a letter to legislative leadership on May 24 requesting that they act quickly on a number of permanent changes to ensure a seamless transition after the state of emergency is lifted.

To allow public bodies to safely meet during the pandemic and ensure public access to meetings, Gov. Baker issued an executive order in March 2020 allowing these bodies to meet quorum requirements even if meetings were held remotely through electronic means, as long as measures were taken to ensure the public with electronic access to the proceedings. The bill filed by the governor on May 25 would extend these provisions through Sept. 1 of this year. The governor said the extension would allow additional time to consider possible permanent changes to the open meeting law to provide for greater flexibility in conducting open meetings using electronic streaming and similar measures.

The governor’s bill would also give municipalities the authority to extend special permits for restaurants offering outdoor dining, issued under the state of emergency, through Nov. 29 of this year. Under an executive order issued in 2020, municipalities were permitted to use an expedited process to approve temporary permits for new or expanded outdoor dining and alcohol service. Without a legislative extension, special permits granted under the order will expire 60 days after the end of the state of emergency.

The legislation would also extend a protection adopted in an executive order that prohibits medical providers from billing patients who have received COVID-related emergency and inpatient services for charges in excess of costs paid by their insurers.

On June 1, the Senate Committee on Ways and Means accepted written comments only on the governor’s bill and a bill filed by Sen. William Brownsberger that would temporarily extend remote town meetings and other flexibilities until June 30 (S. 27).

The MMA submitted testimony, stating, “While we support these temporary extensions, we urge you to consider making these changes permanent.”

In summary, the MMA wrote, “We would like to see permanent extensions of the following: the option for public bodies to conduct remote or virtual meetings, allowance for remote Town Meetings that is also extended to Open Town Meeting communities, election provisions such as the option to vote by mail and to move municipal election and caucus dates during emergencies, and expedited permitting for outdoor table service and take-out alcoholic beverages.”

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