Bulgarian MPs approved the second reading of the bill on State of Emergency measures after a marathon 13-hour sitting on March 20, intended to limit the spread and overcome the consequences of the Covid-19 epidemic.
Drafted by the Justice Ministry and tabled late on March 16, the bill was heavily amended between readings, prompting lively debates among MPs from the government coalition and the opposition benches, both during the committee hearing on March 19 and on the House floor.
The bulk of the bill focuses on the anti-epidemic measures already ordered by Health Minister Kiril Ananiev on March 13, while allowing for more drastic measures that could be implemented at the recommendation of the Covid-19 crisis staff.
Most of the amendments were focused on the bill’s transitional and final provisions, which contained changes to a number of other laws, including the Penal Code, Labour Code and Social Security Code, among others.
The bill mandates that employers should introduce distance work whenever possible and if not, implement strong anti-epidemic measures, including disinfection of the premises and hygiene training for their employees.
Employers can force their employees to take up to half of their annual paid leave during the State of Emergency. Additionally, the state will cover 60 per cent of salaries of employees facing lay-offs, with employers paying the remaining 40 per cent. The criteria for the companies to receive such state aid would be drafted by the Cabinet.
The bill also suspends procedural deadlines on all current lawsuits, save the criminal ones, and terminates all public auctions by state and private court enforcement agents. Additionally, it limits notary operations to “urgent and emergency” cases.
Deadlines for payment of utility bills are extended and bank accounts of hospitals and individuals cannot be impounded for the duration of the State of Emergency.
Amendments to the Penal Code envision a prison term of up to three years and fines of up to 10 000 leva (about 5100 euro) for disseminating “untrue information about the spreading of an infectious disease”.
The validity of identification documents, including the residence permits of foreign nationals, are extended by a period of six months, with the proviso that the extended validity does not apply outside Bulgaria’s borders.
The export of medication is prohibited and heavy fines are envisioned for breaching the ban. Public procurement tender requirements for medical equipment and goods, as well as disposal of medical waste, is suspended.
To limit profiteering, retailers are required to sell goods at prices equal to the average for the three months prior to the State of Emergency being declared. A maximum of 20 per cent mark-up is imposed on goods and services for which such a track record does not exist.
The profiteering amendment was tabled by the opposition socialists and backed by the government – but it was a rare case of agreement during the debate, which saw the opposition fiercely argue against some of the proposed amendments.
Among those that caused the most consternation among opposition MPs was the provision that allowed the use of armed forces to enforce State of Emergency measures – including ID checks and preventing the movement of persons, powers that are otherwise limited only to the police.
The opposition was also strongly opposed to an amendment that gave authorities the right to request location data of mobile devices from telecom providers. Ruling coalition MPs argued that this was needed to ensure self-isolation orders were not being breached, but the opposition saw a dangerous encroachment on individual freedoms.
Both amendments were adopted despite the opposition’s arguments.
The bill will go into force immediately after being published in the State Gazette.