State and local leaders convened on Zoom to discuss the reopening process. Pictured are (top row, l-r) MMA Executive Director Geoff Beckwith; Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director at the Department of Public Health; (middle row, l-r) Heath Fahle, special director for federal funds at the Executive Office of Administration and Finance; Sean Cronin, senior deputy commissioner at the Division of Local Services; (bottom row) Jana Ferguson, assistant commissioner at the Department of Public Health and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito.

Twenty-four hours after the administration announced an end to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions as of May 29, state and local officials participated in their 37th and final regular briefing call today with a spirit of gratitude and an examination of the path forward.

“We could not have done our jobs, in the executive office … without your hard work and abilities,” Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito told roughly 175 local officials on the call, convened by the MMA. “I’m so grateful to have had, before the pandemic hit, such a strong relationship with the MMA and municipal officials across the state. That served us well.”

As the state looks to turn the page, local leaders had a number of questions about several areas of flexibility that were granted during the pandemic to help communities conduct their business and to help local economies.

With the exception of certain face mask advisories consistent with federal guidance, the state is dropping business restrictions and gathering limits on May 29 and plans to end the COVID state of emergency on June 15. Pandemic executive orders that expedited permitting for dining and alcohol service outdoors and allowed local boards to meet remotely – provisions that proved popular and were considered successful — are tied to the state of emergency period and would end without intervention at the state or local level.

Local leaders expressed concerns about extending outdoor dining and alcohol service through the summer season and into the fall and continuing remote meetings as needed. They also want to be able to offer no-excuse absentee ballots for city elections this fall. (This provision was granted through legislation, not executive orders, and is set to end on June 30.) Administration officials offered potential stopgap and longer-term solutions, but also expressed a willingness to explore state-level changes.

“There will be continued work done with you and our colleagues in the Legislature in order to ensure an orderly and smooth transition for municipal government across the Commonwealth,” Polito said, “as we shift from emergency orders and legislation to the next phase.”

She said a state-local working group is being assembled to address these issues. (A separate task force will focus on making optimal use of federal recovery funds coming to the state and local governments.)

The expedited permitting for outdoor dining would end 60 days after the end of the state of emergency, or Aug. 15. Polito said cities and towns could issue special permits for outdoor dining under “a normal process that could start now,” or could, through local legislative action, create an as-of-right allowance for outdoor dining. Regarding liquor licenses, she said, a licensing board (typically the select board in a town) can approve a change in the definition of a licensee’s premises to accommodate new or expanded outdoor use. State officials said they’re having conversations with the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission about facilitating these local changes.

“You might want to look at your local bylaws now,” Polito said.

Local officials pointed out, however, that they may not be able to convene a town meeting to make zoning changes prior to mid-August.

“We’ll be working with our legal department on what that bridge needs to look like” to get into the fall season, Polito responded.

A number of local officials also asked about a continuation of special open meeting law exceptions that allow a local board to hold a meeting without a quorum being physically present, a provision that would end with the state of emergency on June 15. Polito said state officials will look into it, while adding that remote public participation has been a success.

The following are some of the other questions raised and the answers from state officials:
• Can municipalities require face masks on municipal property after May 29? Yes.
• May businesses do the same? Yes.
• After May 29, can parades take place without a safety plan filed with health officials? Yes.
• Will the end of the state of emergency affect any federal recovery aid deadlines? No, those dates are all set by federal law and regulations.
• Will added costs associated with holding an outdoor town meeting set for mid-June still be eligible after the end of the Massachusetts state of emergency? Yes.
• After May 29, can municipalities resume in-person meetings? Yes.
• Are senior center and council on aging activities subject to the CDC’s face mask advisory? No, the advisory applies to residential settings, but communities might want to consider whether the activities are indoors or out when setting local rules.

“While we make certain decisions that are statewide, we’ve always said that if a community feels it needs to do something different, that’s stricter, they are permitted to do that,” Polito said.

Also during the call, Heath Fahle, special director for federal funds at the Executive Office of Administration and Finance, highlighted three key “takeaways” from the 151 pages of guidance for the American Rescue Plan Act issued on May 10 by the U.S. Department of the Treasury:
• Funding requests must relate to problems created by or exacerbated by the COVID pandemic.
• Equity, and addressing the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on certain communities, is an area of focus throughout the guidance, and should be a focus in local planning.
• The funds carry with them “significant” compliance and reporting requirements.

“I would strongly encourage folks to undertake a deliberate planning process,” he said. “We’re looking forward to helping with that process.”

• Audio of May 18 call with administration (37M MP3)

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