As the vaccine campaign presses on and the state sees fewer and fewer new COVID cases, Massachusetts continues its hopeful return to normality. Movie theaters are opening. The fully vaccinated people can venture into their favorite restaurants or bars without masks. People can gather to do the things they couldn’t a year ago when the worst of the coronavirus crisis was still upon us.
Yet there’s a particularly important gathering made safely possible by progress against the pandemic that still isn’t occurring: the state Legislature.
Like many other aspects of life, business as usual on Beacon Hill had to be reimagined in the COVID era. State government, including the legislative branch, adapted in an unprecedented fashion to conduct meetings, hearings and sessions remotely via Zoom. It was a necessary shift to keep the gears of governance in motion amid a public health crisis.
Now that the commonwealth’s impressive vaccination efforts have abated that crisis, though, it is past time for lawmakers to make the necessary shift back to normal, pre-COVID proceedings. That is, the Legislature should be actually convening to do its job as it has before, and do away with its reliance on Zoom calls and computer screens that separate legislators from each other and the public they are elected to serve.
To be sure, there is much to be learned from our time grappling with the coronavirus, including how to conduct civic matters.
From the municipal to the state level, allowing digital attendance at meetings meant that many who normally couldn’t make it to in-person meetings — the elderly, those with disabilities, parents of working families — were able to have a seat at the table in a convenient way that wasn’t previously available. In fact, many Berkshire officials noted more citizens were attending meetings.
These newfound benefits to local and state democracy are great — and we can keep them while ensuring that our governmental functions don’t remain stuck in COVID mode forever.
The Legislature would do well to follow the Pittsfield City Council’s example. Councilors met remotely for the final time this week, and are set to convene in-person in Council Chambers at City Hall for the first time since COVID restrictions went into effect last year. The council’s Ordinance and Rules Committee is considering a permanent policy change to allow a call-in option if constituents wish to attend virtually.
This rule change is a great idea for better governance in Pittsfield and beyond. It retains the newly acquired flexibility and accessibility for constituents while recognizing the need to get officials back to the usual in-person procedures that are most conducive to productively and transparently conducting the people’s business.
It’s worth noting that digital meeting attendance is more convenient for some, but less so for others, such as those with less tech savvy or no high-speed internet access at home. Those people shouldn’t be locked out of participatory democracy because our leaders continue to drag their feet on getting back to business as usual.
Berkshires communities that continue to eschew in-person municipal meetings should also take note here, but it’s particularly important that the state Legislature return to doing its job as it did before the pandemic now that it is safe to do so.
On the road back to normal, some mile markers should come sooner rather than later. Our democratic institutions ought to be at the top of that list.