The COVID-19 state of emergency Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker declared last year ended Tuesday, yet the commonwealth’s government — for the most part — remains closed to the public. The Legislature hasn’t announced when it plans to resume the people’s business in person.
When pandemic-related restrictions on schools, businesses and even local governments in Massachusetts have been lifted — the Pittsfield City Council will resume in-person meetings next week — it’s time for state government to do the same.
A plan may be in the works? In late May, the State House News Service reported that House leaders and staff were at work on a “comprehensive plan” to reopen the State House to staff and the public. But no timeline for re-opening the building or resuming in-person sessions has emerged.
The delay hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“It’s time for them to come back to work,” David Tuerck, the president of the Beacon Hill Institute, a public policy group in Boston, recently told the Salem News. “If you can walk into a bar without a mask and order a drink, you would think it would be safe for lawmakers to come back and do their jobs.”
Since last year, the 200-member Legislature has conducted business in a hybrid — remote and in-person — approach that limits the number of lawmakers who can be in chambers when business is being conducted. Committee meetings have been held remotely over the past year. Other meetings have been held with a few members present in both the House and the Senate.
That approach is hard to justify when the state of emergency has been lifted and people are beginning to resume normal life again. While the Legislature should be meeting in person, it should look to retain Zoom technology as a two-fold benefit for its own transparency and to facilitate more public input.
Lawmakers in neighboring states have already resumed in-person meetings. In New Hampshire, the House began meeting in person last fall in a large sports complex. In Maine, the House and Senate resumed in-person meetings earlier this month.
It’s time for Massachusetts lawmakers to follow their lead and do the same.