New law extends some Massachusetts pandemic-era policies

BOSTON (AP) — Some pandemic-era policies that had expired on Tuesday — such as allowing restaurants to offer take-out cocktails — were quickly extended Wednesday after Republican Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill sent to him by state lawmakers.

The new law would also let government bodies continue to hold virtual public hearings and extend some protections for tenants facing eviction.

Those protections briefly expired after the coronavirus state of emergency, which had been in place for more than a year, was lifted in Massachusetts on Tuesday.

The new law would also extend hardship protections to those facing eviction by continuing the court practice of offering temporary continuances to tenants who have filed applications for rental assistance, thereby preventing evictions in cases where tenants are unable to pay rent due to COVID-19-related financial hardship until April of 2022.

The new law also includes provisions intended to help tenants facing possible eviction understand their legal options. It requires landlords notifying tenants to leave a dwelling for nonpayment of rent to also provide a form that reads: “This notice to quit is not an eviction. You do not need to immediately leave your unit. You are entitled to a legal proceeding in which you can defend against the eviction. Only a court order can force you to leave your unit.”

The form must also include information on rental assistance programs, applicable trial court rules and any relevant federal or state legal restrictions on residential evictions.

Restaurants, which were among those businesses hardest hit during the pandemic, would be allowed to continue offering expanded outdoor dining through April of next year. Also under the new law, take-out cocktails would have to be sold at the same price as drinks that are consumed at the restaurant.

The new law also allows podiatrists, phlebotomists, medical assistants, who otherwise wouldn’t be allowed to give vaccine shots, to continue to administer COVID-19 vaccines.

Most of the policies won’t be extended permanently, although some supporters have pushed to have them written into state law.

The take-out cocktail provision will be allowed through May 2022, while virtual hearings will continue to be an option through April of next year as long as residents are offered a method of public access during the meetings.

Advocates have been pushing for the extension of remote public hearings, saying they make it easier for residents to participate without having to take time off work or schedule a babysitter to attend a meeting.

Two other closely watched pandemic-era policies — the expansion of early voting and mail-in voting — were not included in the final bill shipped to Baker’s desk.

The state had offered broad mail-in voting, while also expanding the use of early voting and ballot drop boxes, to help diminish the pandemic health risk of voters crowding polling locations.

Among those who support making those options permanent are voting advocates and Democratic Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin.

Democratic Senate President Karen Spilka said the bill signed by Baker addressed many issues that were common to both Senate and House versions of the bill and was designed to ensure critical policies continued as quickly as possible.

She also said lawmakers from both chambers will “continue working together to resolve items in the near-term that were not included” in the bill, including the expanded voting measures.