If "in the nick of time" has been the unofficial motto of the state legislature in recent years, "better late than never" may soon be what the 2021-2022 session becomes known for. After allowing emergency protections associated with the COVID-19 pandemic to expire Monday night, the legislature Tuesday evening finalized a bill that would renew, after the fact, many of the emergency policies put in place to protect renters, restaurants and local governments during the pandemic.
Because of the June 15 expiration of Gov. Charlie Baker's state of emergency order, restaurants can no longer lawfully sell cocktails to go, third party restaurant delivery fees are no longer capped and government boards must meet in person regardless of whether facilities have been reopened. Though leading Democratic lawmakers in the Legislature said they intended to have a law in place to assure a smooth transition out of the emergency era, the bill did not get done in time.
Lawmakers finished their compromise bill Tuesday evening and sent it to Baker for his signature.
The final version approved by the House and Senate included measures the two chambers had already agreed on in their separate bills but left out issues where the teo branches still don't see eye to eye. The bill would let eateries sell beer and cocktails off-premises through May 2022, allow government bodies to meet remotely through December 15 of this year and create a new moratorium on evictions that would run ten days after the federal ban expires July 1. New housing protections and tenant rights would go into effect after the end of the moratorium.
If Baker signs the measure Wednesday, the gap in state policy will have lasted around 40 hours.
"I think the big challenge will be just the bumpiness of the next couple of days until something actually gets to our desk," Baker said Tuesday of the state's intermittent approach toward the emergency-era policies.
After the Senate approved its version of Baker's emergency policy extension bill last week, the House moved its own version Tuesday afternoon, over 12 hours after the policies expired. The chambers then named a six-member committee to reconcile the different approaches in the hope that a compromise could be hatched and given to Baker Wednesday.
"I do hope that we get something in a few days so that we can just sort of put this to bed," Baker said.
In order to get the issues both branches agreed upon out the door as promptly as they could, the negotiators left some issues unresolved. Baker had requested an extension to protections for COVID patients so treatment costs for the virus would not exceed insurance coverage, but lawmakers will have to resume talks on the matter. The two branches also had divergent ideas on how payment rates for telehealth appointments should work post-pandemic.
Another issue close to restaurateurs' hearts, a cap on the amount third-party services can charge eateries for delivering their food to customers, was also left out of the final deal.