BOSTON — Rules that allow senators to debate and vote remotely will remain in place until at least March 31 under a change approved Wednesday that could extend the State House's desolate status.

Via voice vote, the Senate approved an amendment to its pandemic-era emergency rules (S 12) replacing the Jan. 1, 2022, expiration date with a new endpoint of March 31, 2022, or more than two years from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and more than a year after many people began to get vaccinated against the virus.

Sen. Joan Lovely, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, said the extension would give lawmakers flexibility to manage lingering COVID-19 risks. Senators can "reevaluate and make adjustments if necessary" as the new expiration date approaches, the Salem Democrat said.

The Senate's emergency rules package allows senators to cast votes without being present on the chamber floor, requires everyone present in the room to maintain social distancing, and imposes a mask requirement for Senate-controlled spaces in the State House.

Minority Leader Bruce Tarr voiced support for the extension, saying the change would allow the Senate to "maximize participation by members and staff while still protecting public health."

With the State House still closed to the public more than a year and a half into the pandemic, Tarr said he hopes the Senate will ramp up in-person operations following the new March 31 rules expiration.

"At least in terms of our caucus, we are hoping to expedite the return to the full operations of this chamber as soon as possible," Tarr said. "The date that is represented in these rules allows us to assess the situation after significant time having lapsed between now and the expiration of the rules. Our hope would be that at that time, we would be able to contemplate rules changes to further allow the operations of the chamber to be restored closer to full participation by the membership." 

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