State House

Legislative Update September 7th – September 11th

Article by: Matt Murphy
Article Source: State House News Service

SEPT. 11, 2020…..What lessons have been learned? What lessons will be taught? What past experiences can be put to good use to prepare for what’s down the road?

All these questions and more were on the minds of leaders this week as they returned to work after the extended Labor Day weekend, staring at the reality of time and the fact that the dreaded “fall resurgence” could actually be right around the corner.

“There’s a lot of scenario planning going on,” Baker said Tuesday, confronted with the possibility that the days of sub-1-percent positive testing rates may be numbered.

Those scenarios include making sure hospitals that survived the first wave of coronavirus without getting overrun are prepared again. And that the state’s testing labs are ready to handle the increased volume that could come from more college and grade school students getting tested, as well as people confusing symptoms from fall colds and the old-fashioned flu with COVID-19.

CommonWealth magazine reported that Partners in Health, which runs the state’s contact tracing program, is staffing up for the fall, and some outbreaks cropped up on campuses like Boston College’s.

But for now, the trends remain positive, even if the number of communities in the highest risk “red” category climbed by five to 13 this week. Some of that was explained by a cluster of restaurant staff in Chatham. And high schoolers in Dedham getting together to watch the Bruins playoff run.

But even those isolated cases can have consequences. Just look at the spread from one wedding in Millinocket, Maine. The puck party in Dedham was enough to force that town to cancel its plan to begin phasing in students for in-person learning on Sept. 21 after a remote start next week.

Secretary of State William Galvin too said he learned a few things from the first go-around with mail-in voting that he hopes to apply in November, including the need for more uniform ballot counting procedures, but he won’t be asking legislators for any changes to the law. What he has asked the administration for is more than $1 million to cover the cost of mailing another round of applications and ballots.

The unofficial end of summer also meant rethinking how some of the creative steps taken to allow the economy to begin to recover in the warm weather can be extended to chillier autumn days and night.

Baker visited Medford’s Bistro 5 on Thursday to announce that he was doubling the size of the Shared Streets and Spaces grant program from $5 million to $10 million to help restaurant owners like Vittorio Ettore afford modifications like heat lamps to extend the life of their new outdoor patios.

The governor also said that while the going was good he was prepared to allow outdoor and indoor arcades to reopen starting next week, a change to the reopening plan that came after the owner of the Salem arcade Bit Bar sued the administration, questioning why his business was being treated differently than casinos.

That’s not to say that’s the whole reason Baker decided to open arcades. But the courts are starting to become that player off the bench who just may have an outsized impact on the final outcome of the game.

U.S. District Court Judge Mark Wolf declined to intervene after a group of landlords sued over the state’s moratorium on evictions and foreclosures on Constitutional grounds. But the judge gave Baker more to think about over the next month when, according to the lawyer for the plaintiffs, he indicated that the ban’s shelf life may be coming to an end.

The landlord’s attorney Richard Vetstein said Wolf made clear that the ban’s utility as a measure to control the spread of COVID-19 is not indefinite, especially if the state continues to succeed in driving down infection rates. Baker faces a decision over whether to extend the moratorium beyond Oct. 17, and he’ll have to factor the court’s into his thinking.

With a possible return to Housing Court on the horizon for landlords and renters, a group of major health care providers and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh amplified calls to guarantee tenants facing eviction the right to counsel. Hard to see Michelle Wu argue against that, if as Walsh said Monday to great controversy, the popular city councilor is planning to run for mayor next year.

The Supreme Judicial Court also sat this week to hear arguments in a variety of cases, including one involving prisoners seeking release because of the threat of COVID-19 in incarceration.

Gov. Charlie Baker walked down the State House steps Friday morning carrying an American Flag to remember Sept. 11, 2001 at an annual flag-raising ceremony, absent the many others who normally attend. [David L. Ryan/Boston Globe/Pool]

The must-see-court-TV had to wait until Friday, though, when the SJC heard oral arguments in a lawsuit brought by small business owners, church leaders and educators that put Baker’s entire body of work during the pandemic up for judgement. The plaintiffs say Baker’s executive orders aimed at controlling the spread of COVID-19 overstepped his authority under the Civil Defense Act, and a ruling in their favor could negate everything from forced business closures to gathering size-limits.

Needless to say, the outcome of the case will have broad implications for executive power beyond this pandemic, including any future public health crises.

A week before that case was heard, Chief Justice Ralph Gants, 65, suffered a heart attack. He announced the health scare himself on Tuesday in a statement released by the court, indicating that he expected to make a full recovery after a surgery to insert two stents, but would be limited in his ability to judge cases for a time.

Justice Frank Gaziano on Friday said that while Gants would not be participating in oral arguments, he would be following the proceedings and helping to decide the case.

While not a court, per se, the Commonwealth Employment Relations Board also fired a shot across the bow of teachers’ unions when it ruled against the Andover Education Association, finding that teachers who refused to enter school buildings and classrooms on Aug. 31 for back-to-school safety training had participated in an illegal strike.

It didn’t matter, the board said, that teachers deemed the school buildings unsafe and set up in school yards outside with laptops and prepared to work. They don’t have the authority, the CERB decided, to decide where they report for duty.

Baker said he agreed with the decision, and that there was nothing unsafe about returning to a “basically empty” school building for professional development.

But Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy lit into the governor and his administration for not starting school remotely this fall, and said the ruling would not stop teachers in other communities from doing what they needed to do to protect themselves.

With students in many communities prepared to either return to the classroom or fire up their Zoom rooms next week, the back-and-forth between local unions, school committees and the administration all point to a tense week to come and uncertainty about how much learning will actually be taking place.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Mourning summer.

SONG OF THE WEEK: Because everyone can use a reminder now and again, especially if Massachusetts is to avoid a COVID-19 backslide.