BOSTON – From wills and trusts to home sales and loan refinancing, few legal transactions don't require a notary public to witness the document signing.
But under Massachusetts law those interactions must take place in person, which runs counter to social distancing directives aimed at preventing spread of the new coronavirus.
Gov. Charlie Baker has ordered all "non-essential businesses" to close for two weeks and advises people to stay home as the state government ramps up its response. Meanwhile, health officials are advising people to follow social distancing protocols by remaining at least 6 feet apart.
Tens of thousands of workers across a wide swath of industries -- including constables and licensed notaries -- have been sidelined as a result.
Lawmakers say allowing for remote notarizations, even on a temporary basis, is vital for officiating everything from powers of attorney to real estate transactions.
A proposal filed by Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr would allow notarizations via video conferencing while the state's emergency declaration remains in effect.
Tarr said the move is needed to keep vital financial transactions going as the state government shuts down many other segments of the economy.
"Notarization requires the notary and signer of the document to be face to face, which under the current circumstances is obviously a problem," said Tarr, a Gloucester Republican. "There's a way to overcome that with technology, and we're trying put the right boundaries around it."
His proposal, which will be introduced in the Senate on Thursday, has bipartisan support from Sen. William Brownsberger, D-Belmont, the Senate's president pro tempore.
Judi Brissette, owner of the Peabody-based Mobile Notary Services of the North Shore, specializes in services like wills and estate planning, a service commonly used by the elderly who are most vulnerable to the virus. She said it's "crucial" that the state take steps to allow remote notarization, and not just because her business has been put on hold.
"These people are not getting vital documents signed and notarized," she said. "What happens if someone's parents pass away and they don't have the power of attorney?"
Brissette said the face-to-face requirement can easily be met using technology such as a webcam. Signers can be in another town, state or even another country.
The shutdown of notary services is a major concern for the real estate industry, which is concerned about a logjam of sales put on hold.
"We recognize the governor and Legislature have a lot on their plates, but this is something that we believe could help allow a very important economic engine in the state to continue to move," said Justin Davidson, general counsel and director of government affairs Massachusetts Association of Realtors. "The idea of remote notarization is something we fully support."
The association wrote to Baker asking him to make the changes by executive order. It is also working with lawmakers on a legislative fix.
Notaries were not among the dozens of professions that have been given an exemption to remain open under the governor's most recent shutdown.
On a federal level, groups are lobbying the Trump administration and Congress to allow remote notarization either through legislation or an executive order.
Nearly two-dozen states allow remote notary service, according to the National Notary Association.
Governors in several states, including New Hampshire and New York, have issued executive orders temporarily allowing remote notary services.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com