Beacon Hill Roll Call: Sept. 14 to Sept. 18, 2020

Published: 9/23/2020 12:37:09 PM

There were no roll calls in the House and Senate last week. This week, Beacon Hill Roll Call presents the second part of a look at many of the COVID-19-related bills that have been filed in 2020 and an update on their status.

Listed below are some of the key pandemic-related bills that have been approved by the House and Senate during the pandemic and signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker.

No COVID-19 liability (S 2635)

This proposal, based on a bill filed by Gov. Baker, makes health care professionals and health care facilities immune from lawsuits and civil liability for any damages alleged to have been sustained by an act or omission by the health care professional or health care facility in the course of providing health care services during the period of the COVID-19 emergency. The immunity would not apply in instances of gross negligence, recklessness, conduct with an intent to harm or in cases that discriminate based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Baker said the legislation would provide health care workers and facilities with protections from civil liability while they are on the front lines of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I cannot overstate the urgency of enacting this legislation,” Baker said when he filed the bill. “We need to ensure that fear of liability will not prevent the commonwealth and its medical institutions from acting decisively to deliver the kind of medical response we need during this pandemic.”

Improve unemployment benefits (S 2618)

This bill provides additional unemployment insurance relief to low-income families, non-profit institutions and employers. Provisions include ensuring 30 weeks instead of 26 weeks of unemployment compensation during any week in which there are more than 100,000 claims; extending the grace period for contributions for many non-profits that self-insure for unemployment claims; protecting employers from increased unemployment insurance costs due to COVID-19; and removing a cap that results in many low-wage workers not receiving additional amounts of unemployment insurance.

Supporters said these provisions make important changes to the unemployment insurance system and will provide emergency relief to both affected workers and business owners who are trying to keep their businesses afloat. They said it is important that the state continue to support workers who, through no fault of their own, have had their incomes interrupted by the executive orders and regulations necessary to contain the spread of COVID-19.

“In these tumultuous and uncertain times, it is imperative that we support workers and families affected by the economic fallout from COVID-19,” said Sen. Nick Collins, D-Boston. “By expanding unemployment benefits, and breaking down barriers to accessing resources, the Massachusetts Senate is emphasizing its commitment to protecting vulnerable residents and workers across the state.”

“In the wake of the novel coronavirus, unemployment has become one the most pressing issues for the Legislature,” said Sen. Michael Moore, D-Millbury. “It is our job to support and assist residents of the commonwealth and this legislation is evidence of that.”

$1.1 billion for COVID-19 response (H 4853)

Provisions of this bill include $350 million for personal protective equipment; $139 million for rate add-ons to providers of congregate care and other essential human services; $93 million for incentive pay for state employees at facilities that are in operation 24 hours a day; $85 million for field hospitals and shelters; $44 million for the Community Tracing Collaborative; $36 million for emergency child care for essential workers; and $13.5 million for local housing authorities.

The measure also makes Juneteenth an official state holiday. Juneteenth, derived from the date June 19, marks the day in 1865 that enslaved African-Americans in Texas finally received word from Union Army General Gordon Granger that they were free, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves. News of, and enforcement of, Lincoln’s proclamation relied on the advancement of union troops, which were slow to reach Texas, and enforcement had been slow and inconsistent.

Allow restaurants to sell hard liquor (H 4856)

The bill allows restaurants to sell sealed containers of mixed drinks with takeout and delivery orders. A law passed in April allows restaurants and bars to sell limited quantities of beer and wine, in their original containers, with takeout and delivery orders. However, that law did not include mixed drinks.

The proposal requires orders for cocktails to be placed by midnight, or earlier if the establishment closes before that. The measure defines mixed drinks as a drink sealed in a container holding up to 64 fluid ounces of liquor and mixer that have been combined.

“While not a silver bullet to rescue restaurants, it provides another tool in the shed for operators to try to claw their way back to sustaining and hopefully someday growing their business,” said Bob Luz, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. “Restaurants have been the hardest hit industry during the pandemic and much more assistance is needed.”

Also up on Beacon Hill

The following are some of the pandemic-related bills that have been filed and have not yet been acted upon by the Legislature.

Colleges will not be held liable (S 2644)

On April 13, Sen. Walter Timilty, D-Milton, filed a bill that would grant indemnity from lawsuits to public and private colleges as a result of any act or omission by the institution when it develops, manufactures, tests or distributes personal protective equipment (PPE) in response to COVID-19, unless the act or omission constitutes willful, wanton or reckless conduct.

“Quite simply, we are in a situation where we need all hands on deck,” Timilty said. “The state has been asking companies that are able to repurpose their manufacturing processes to help with the emergency demand of PPE. Here in the commonwealth, we have some of the best colleges and universities around that are able to help, but currently cannot. This bill will remove that hurdle.”

Business interruption insurance (S 2655)

On April 6, Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, filed a bill that would require insurance companies to cover businesses’ costs if they close down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Eldridge said the bill would also allow insurers to apply for reimbursement for the costs through the Division of Insurance, and then allow the Division of Insurance to reimburse licensed insurers that sell business interruption coverage.

“Business owners are in a financial crisis as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, while facing the requirement to pay rent, various business costs and employee wages,” Eldridge said. “Many of these businesses purchased business interruption insurance, yet in speaking to their insurance agents, have confirmed that this insurance does not cover virus pandemics.”

“Since this crisis began, I have been supporting every measure possible to expand resources and coverage for businesses and individuals facing financial insecurity,” said co-sponsor Sen. Patrick O’Connor, R-Weymouth. “This legislation is exactly the type of policy we need right now to preserve our vulnerable industries, and I hope we can quickly move it forward in the legislative process.”

Economic relief (H 4727)

On March 26, Rep. Tami Gouveia, D-Acton, filed a bill that would provide $1,000 to Massachusetts residents with a one- or two-person household earning up to $84,000 annually; three-person household earning up to $105,000 annually; and households of four or more people earning up to $131,000 annually. Each household with a dependent would receive an additional $500 per dependent.

Supporters said the measure is aimed at helping poor, low-income and middle-class households.

“The goal of this bill is to provide immediate economic relief to our residents and families hardest hit by the economic ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Gouveia said. “This legislation is especially important for workers in the gig economy, independent contractors, part-time workers and others who had to wait weeks and sometimes months to collect unemployment benefits, potentially falling behind on rent, mortgage or credit card payments. Direct cash assistance cannot be our sole solution to the widespread and ongoing economic consequences of this pandemic, but it will be a critical lifeline for our residents who may not have access to savings or family resources to support them in this difficult time. On the national level, such cash assistance schemes have garnered bipartisan support and I hope we can build on that spirit of cooperation here in the Massachusetts Legislature.”

Freeze rent (H 4718)

On March 30, Reps. Paul Mark, D-Peru, and Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, filed a bill that would prevent all increases in rent until 30 days after the COVID-19 state of emergency is lifted. Local cities and towns would also have the power to freeze rents in their local communities.

Mark and Sabadosa said in written testimony that they filed the measure because housing is an area where sudden economic decline would have a significant impact on families, the state, and its cities and towns.

“Large rental companies are continuing to renew leases with rent increases, causing some to have to leave their homes and search for new housing during a pandemic,” they said. “Graduate students have been particularly hard-hit as they have suddenly found themselves unemployed, out of school and unable to afford attempts to increase their rent.”

“We filed this legislation in response to concerns from both commercial and residential renters in our districts who were already struggling to make rent due to the COVID-19 pandemic, only to find themselves facing rent increases,” Sabadosa added. “Housing security is not something we should jeopardize anytime, but especially during a public health crisis. If we care about protecting public health and want to stimulate the economy, ensuring that people can stay housed is essential.”

Front-line health workers (H 4749)

On April 26, Rep. Chris Hendricks, D-New Bedford, filed a bill that would create a legal presumption that any COVID-19 diagnosis of a front-line health worker is work-related. These front-line workers include emergency medical technicians, emergency room and urgent care medical personnel, and emergency room and urgent care non-medical staff.

“I filed this bill to ensure that front-line health workers do not get denied workers’ comp,” Hendricks said. “This bill creates a legal presumption that any COVID-19 diagnosis with these folks is work-related. This would ease their burden while pursuing workers’ compensation, which would provide immediate wage relief and medical care.”

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