Weekly Roundup – Don’t Jinx It

Article source: State House News Service

Author: Matt Murphy

Recap and analysis of the week in state government

More than a year after Gov. Charlie Baker first ordered Bay State residents to mask up to protect both themselves and others from a little understood virus sweeping the globe, the governor on Monday said if (and it’s a BIG if) you are fully vaccinated, you can drop the face covering in time for the Memorial Day barbecue.

Baker was back from D.C. and clear-eyed about what the latest guidance on mask wearing and vaccine effectiveness from the Centers for Disease Control meant for the people and businesses of Massachusetts.

Time to go back to the way things were, or at least something more recognizable.

And it’s not only masks that are getting shed like a jacket on the first day temps climb above 65. Baker said on Monday that along with the rescission of the mask mandate on May 29, all remaining business restrictions, capacity ceilings and gathering limits would be lifted as well. That’s two months ahead of what Baker had initially been planning for, and more in line with steps that some other states are taking.

As for the public health emergency declared last March as COVID-19 began to spread, no more after June 15.

The governor didn’t want to say it, but it sure felt like he was declaring the pandemic over.

“COVID’s a little bit like Michael Myers,” Baker said, chuckling nervously as he compared the virus to the late-70s, can’t-be-killed antagonist in the slasher flick franchise “Halloween.”

When Baker ends the state of emergency, he will also be giving up the rationale used for countless executive orders and emergency laws designed to respond and help people and employers adapt to a new way of semi-quarantined life.

That has created a conundrum for policy makers who must decide, and decide pretty quickly, what deserves to stay from the pandemic-era.

House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka asked for and received a list of executive orders and emergency regulations that will expire when the public health emergency ends.

The Massachusetts Municipal Association is among those who want remote and virtual meeting options to remain in the toolbox for municipal boards, while Sen. Diana DiZoglio is helping to lead the charge on Beacon Hill on behalf of restaurants to keep third-party delivery fees capped and to-go cocktails on the menu.

DiZoglio has filed a bill to extend both pandemic accommodations for restaurants beyond the end of the state of emergency, and has filed a similar budget amendment that will be debated next week.

“Our local restaurants are depending on us to take immediate action as they work to remain afloat in this unprecedented time,” DiZoglio said.

The Committee on Election Laws this week also heard extensive testimony about why voting-by-mail should not be just a way to avoid coming into contact with other humans while participating in democracy, but a way to increase participation in democracy in its own right.

While there’s much still to sort through, the Legislature cleaned three things off its plate this week, finalizing a borrowing bill to construct a new soldiers’ home in Holyoke and settling on another strategy that will allow businesses to avoid steep unemployment insurance bill spikes.

The UI fix is the second attempt by Beacon Hill lawmakers to come to the rescue of employers, but it left some in the business community feeling still exposed.

Democratic leaders had been waiting to hear from the U.S. Treasury on whether federal relief funds could be used to build back deplete unemployment benefit systems, but after being given the green light by the Biden administration the bill they crafted didn’t rely on any of that money at all – at least for now.

Instead, the solution they crafted will spread the cost to employers over 20 years as the state borrows to meet pandemic benefit obligations that stretched the state unemployment trust beyond its means.

The UI bill, which Rep. Josh Cutler said the Baker administration helped to develop, also included the emergency COVID-19 paid leave program that Baker previously tried to amend, to no avail.

The House and Senate stuck with the original structure of the up-to-one-week paid leave program that affords workers time to quarantine, get immunized or care for a family member sick with COVID. And municipal employees would still qualify.

If the Legislature does ultimately decide to spend federal dollars to help businesses shoulder the heavier burden of UI system costs, they could always pad the $273 million supplemental budget Baker filed this week.

That bill uses some federal funds to cover some pandemic spending, but it’s not THE blueprint for how to spend billions in American Rescue Plan dollars. It would, however, appropriate $5 million for the new Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission to get to work certifying law enforcement officers around the state, and another $12.5 million to implement other aspects of last year’s police accountability law.

Of course, in all the excitement over the prospects of a summer without worrying about COVID-19, it’s easy to forget that millions of Bay State residents are still not and cannot be vaccinated.

The state crossed the threshold of 3.3 million fully vaccinated this week, but children under 12 are still not eligible for a vaccine and masks will continue to be required in schools, just not outside at recess.

Masks will also stay the norm in nursing homes and other congregate care settings, and in many communities of color vaccination rates continue to trail those of the white population.

Some people might just keep wearing masks because it makes them feel safer, and Baker said cities, towns and business owners that want to move slower and keep requiring masks or other safety measures are welcome to do so and should be respected.

Because at the end of the day, people are still contracting COVID-19, even if the health outcomes are somewhat improved.

On the day, Baker announced the new reopening strategy, 281 new cases of COVID-19 were reported and 336 people were hospitalized with the virus.

It was the lowest daily case count since Sept. 22.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The beginning of end of the pandemic, like its arrival, came on abruptly and could take some getting used to.

SONG OF THE WEEK: It’s about to be all over now.