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Remote meetings, outdoor dining could last a little longer if Gov. Baker gets his way

When the coronavirus state of emergency ends in Massachusetts on June 15, it should bring a slow end to many facets of pandemic life — wearing masks in stores, dining on makeshift patio, and attending government meetings virtually rather than in person.

But Gov. Charlie Baker says some COVID-related changes weren't all bad.

New legislation filed by the governor would extend several temporary changes. Lax outdoor dining rules would last until the end of November, local governments would be allowed to keep meetings online until September and medical bills related to COVID-19 would be capped until the beginning of next year.

Under Baker's legislation, medical providers would not be able to bill patients for COVID-related emergency and inpatient care at rates higher than insurers paid until Jan. 1, 2022.

Local officials and restaurant owners have been clamoring for an extension of outdoor seating and say they are excited for it to continue through the end of the summer season. Without legislative action, expanded outdoor dining is set to end Aug. 14.

Hull Select Board member Domenico Sestito said restaurants in Hull have been asking for expanded outdoor dining for years, and the relaxation of state regulations has been a blessing.

Hull's town attorney, Jim Lampke, said before the legislation was filed, town officials had already been urging the the state to consider expanding outdoor dining until after the peak summer season.

In Norwell, select board member Ellen Allen said outdoor dining is valuable to the community and restaurants. Chairman Bruce Graham said he is glad that the state is looking to be more flexible.

Hanover Town Manager Joseph Colangelo said in an email that, if there was a silver lining to the pandemic, it was the relaxation of "unnecessary red-tape" for outdoor dining.

"Everyone likes to sit outside and eat and drink," Colangelo said. "I hope that simple, easy permitting of outdoor dining can be a benefit we can always offer our local establishments."

Rockland Select Board Chairman Mike O'Loughlin said not that many restaurants in town took up the offer of expanded outdoor seating. but anything that can be done to allow the industry to recover is needed.

At a Hingham Select Board meeting, Sen. Patrick O’Connor, R-Weymouth, said most of the emails he has received since the governor announced the end of the state of emergency have been about outdoor dining. He said legislators are keenly aware of how much restaurateurs, and the public, love dining al fresco.

Hybrid meetings? Officials look toward a new future

Virtual meetings have brought problems for some government entities, but also brought new participation for many citizens who weren't previously involved in local affairs.

The legislation Baker announced Tuesday would extend remote meetings until Sept. 1. Baker's office said that "will allow additional time to consider possible permanent changes to the open meeting law to provide for greater flexibility in conducting open meetings through reliance on electronic streaming and similar measures."

In a letter to lawmakers on Monday, Massachusetts Municipal Association Executive Director Geoffrey Beckwith said pandemic rules have facilitated "innovative approaches to governance and service delivery" and that they should be retained. He asked for lawmakers to make new rules for virtual participation.

"Remote meetings have engaged more residents than ever before and have significantly increased transparency and insight into government operations and decision-making," Beckwith said.

Colaneglo, of Hanover, said resident participation in meetings has increased as they have gone virtual and he strongly encourages them to continue forever.

Graham said he wants to go back to in-person meetings, even if remote meetings are convenient. Much of that comes from a concern officials expressed at the beginning of the pandemic — the inability to read a room, or a person, over video.

"I rely a lot on non-verbal clues from people and that's just more difficult during a Zoom meeting, to get a sense of the room," said Graham of Norwell. "When you're in a room with 50 people, and everybody's carrying a torch and chanting, it doesn't came across the same way in Zoom. On other hand, when people are happy, excited to hear what's being said, to feel that person-to-person response, is difficult during Zoom meetings."

Since meetings are usually broadcast on the local cable access channels, board members did not know before if 12 people were watching or 120. Zoom now means they're more in-tune with what's being watched, he said.

Combining virtual meetings with in-person, to allow for virtual audience participation, could be a way to move forward, Graham's colleague said.

"It's a great way for residents to participate, even if they can't be in person," Norwell Select Board member Ellen Allen said.

Allen said she thinks more people have attended since meetings became virtual, but for certain types of meetings, like zoning or planning, presentations are just better in person.

Sestito said he would be fine with hybrid meetings becoming the norm, although the Hull Select Board has not discussed the issue.

"Face-to-face as the only option is unrealistic," he said. "The world has changed."

Lampke said having the option is important for cities and towns as they decide what to do going forward. He is also the director of the Massachusetts Municipal Lawyers Association and his organization is in favor of extending the current remote meeting protocols.

South Shore Chamber of Commerce President Peter Forman said he is hearing from public officials that remote meetings have brought in younger residents who otherwise would not be able to attend meetings because of young children at home or other commitments.

"I think a lot of people, residents, town officials, have found it to be a little refreshing," he said.

The bigger question will be how to combine in person and virtual meetings, he said.

O'Loughlin, of Rockland, said his preference is to meet in person, especially as town facilities begin to open. While remote should be an option for members who are traveling or otherwise not physically able to attend, he would prefer virtual meetings to end sooner rather than later.

"I think if we're allowed to meet in person, we should be able to meet in person," he said.

Rep. Denise Garlick, of Needham, and Sen. Jason Lewis, of Winchester, filed legislation that would permanently require all public meetings to offer "adequate, alternative means of public access" such as audio or video conferencing. Their proposal has the support of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

ACLUM Executive Director Carol Rose said in a statement that future access to meetings should "never again depend on a person's physical mobility, access to transportation, or work and family obligations."


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