READING - Residents can again bring reusable bags to area supermarkets and retailers.

With board members themselves confused about the issue, Board of Health Chair Eleanor Tate Shonkoff last night confirmed the resumption of the municipality’s single-use plastic bag ban after a brief discussion over whether Reading took formal action to suspend the rules.

During a virtual meeting on Thursday night, Shonkoff explained she had received at least one inquiry about whether the board would consider revoking an emergency order from earlier this spring that prohibited residents from bringing reusable cloth and plastic bags to area grocery stores due to the COVID-19 crisis.

But after studying the matter, Shonkoff and Board of Health veteran member Kevin Sexton realized that referenced emergency directive — though debated at length last spring — was technically never formally acted upon by local officials.

As such, Reading’s retail prohibitions on the distribution of plastic bags at the checkout aisle have actually been back in effect since last Friday, when the Mass. Department of Public Health (DPH) declared state residents are no longer restricted from bringing reusable bags to supermarkets.

“In the middle of us talking and discussing that plan, I think the state stepped in and did it for us. I just want to make sure that we’re not undoing something that we technically never did,” explained Sexton, who didn’t recall taking an actual vote in March on the proposed local public health directive.

The statewide grocery store restrictions were linked to Governor Charles Baker’s declaration of a state emergency and subsequent mandate on March 23 that shuttered all “non-essential” businesses. Two days later, Mass. DPH Commissioner Monica Bharel, in explaining that supermarkets and pharmacies are deemed an essential service, hinged a number of caveats to continued store operations, including requirements that the businesses keep customers spaced apart, offer special senior shopping hours.

Yet another special condition suspended all local plastic bag bans on the grounds that the virus could be spread to employees through contaminated surfaces. Besides prohibiting supermarkets from allowing customers to bring reusable bags into stores, Bharal’s March 25 order also granted supermarkets and pharmacies the rights to pack-up customers’ merchandise in single-use plastic bags.

Last Friday, Bharel, pointing out that the state’s economic reopening plan loosens several previous operational restrictions that applied to grocery stores, rescinded her March 25 directive.

Reading first implemented its local plastic bag ban at Town Meeting in the fall of 2017. The rules, which went into effect on Sept. 10, 2018, allow for municipal officials to fine retail establishments up to $200 for violating the town bylaw.

To date, roughly 140 communities across the state have imposed similar restrictions on the distribution of single-use plastic bags.

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