With residents stocking up on groceries and restaurants only able to offer takeout and delivery services, communities have been forced to suspend their restrictions on single-use plastic bags and reassess other packaging restrictions, at least during the COVID-19 emergency.

On March 25, Gov. Charlie Baker announced a statewide suspension of local bans on plastic bags and a prohibition on bringing reusable bags into the essential retailers, such as grocery stores and pharmacies, that remain open during the state of emergency.

State and local officials have expressed concerns that reusable shopping bags that are brought into establishments could carry and spread the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, who announced a temporary suspension of the city’s plastic bag ban on March 25, said essential retailers also need added flexibility during the ongoing public health emergency.

In mid-March, the town of Brookline announced a suspension of its local ban on polystyrene containers in order to give food purveyors flexibility as they quickly transition to offering only takeout and delivery during the state of emergency.

The governor has not announced a statewide suspension of other limitations or bans on plastic products.

On March 23, Gov. Baker signed an emergency order guaranteeing that intrastate waste and recycling collection and disposal would continue uninterrupted during the COVID-19 emergency, classifying these services as essential. The order also provides relief from state and federal requirements governing the hours of service for commercial vehicle operators in the waste and recycling sector, while still protecting the health and safety of workers.

Some environmental advocates have expressed opposition to the plastic bag ban suspension, saying there isn’t definitive evidence that reusable bags are a source of virus transmission.

More than 100 cities and towns have passed local bylaws or ordinances to restrict single-use plastic bags, and many others have added restrictions on the use of polystyrene and other products known to be harmful to the environment.

At a legislative hearing in April 2019, the MMA testified in support of a statewide ban on the distribution of single-use plastic bags. The bill saw several changes when it was reported out of the Joint Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, including a removal of fees on paper bags and a preemption of local authority, about which the MMA expressed concerns. A separate bill banning plastic bags statewide passed the Senate in late 2019. To date, the branches have not moved to reconcile the differences in the two bills.

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