After 9/11, officials ordered a lengthy investigation. Lawmakers want the same for the pandemic
Beacon Hill Democrats are preparing legislation that would create a commission to broadly investigate the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, including the disproportionate impact on people of color and Governor Charlie Baker’s decisions to close schools, businesses, and other sectors of Massachusetts’s economy.
The bill, which state Senator Eric P. Lesser and Representative Jon Santiago plan to file Tuesday, models the seven-person panel after the federal 9/11 commission formed to examine the 2001 terrorist attacks, which killed about 3,000 people.
The group would review the “totality of the state’s response,” according to a copy of the bill, from its overall preparation to the various measures Baker took to contain the spread of COVID-19, which as of Tuesday had sickened more than 110,000, including probable cases, and is believed to have killed at least 8,200 across the state.
“Massachusetts already has been disproportionately impacted. Massachusetts will likely be disproportionately impacted into the future. And state government is where a large portion of the policy-making regarding the crisis is made,” said Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat and Senate chairman of the Legislature’s economic development committee. “It’s the right move to do a deep dive.”
Congressional Democrats have been discussing similar plans at the federal level since April, with the goal of creating a bipartisan group chartered by Congress, as the 9/11 commission was. That group released a report in 2004 that criticized US law enforcement and intelligence agencies for failing to prepare for terrorist attacks.
The state-level proposal, which comes just weeks before the legislative session is scheduled to end, points to a shifting focus within state government, where for months, officials, policy makers, and hospitals remained locked in an emergency response mode as infections surged through Massachusetts, one of the country’s hardest-hit states.
Massachusetts remains under an indefinite state of emergency. But the number of new cases and fatalities has been on a steady decline statewide as restaurants, offices, and other businesses slowly reopen and Baker relaxes travel guidelines on some out-of-state visitors.
It is a stark contrast to other parts of the country where the virus has surged anew, including Texas, California, and Florida, where cases are taxing health care systems and some states are ordering measures, such as wearing masks in public, that have existed here for months.
Under the bill, the commission would have to meet no later than 45 days after the legislation passes and produce a report within six months — a timeline, should the Legislature approve it this month, that could overlap with a second surge of cases that public health officials warn could come this fall.
Baker, five of the state’s other constitutional officers, and legislative leaders would each name a member, and current elected officials, state and local government employees, lobbyists, or employees of special interest groups would all be barred from serving on what the bill describes as a “nonpartisan” commission.
Given the compressed legislative calendar, it’s not immediately clear what the bill’s prospects are for passing this month. Santiago said he hasn’t spoken with House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo about the proposal, and the South End Democrat said the need for a fuller review “is not going to disappear at the end of July” should it not emerge for a vote this summer.
“We owe it to the countless number of families who have lost loved ones and health care workers who continue to risk their lives,” said Santiago, who is also an emergency room physician at Boston Medical Center. “There are lessons to be learned. The response wasn’t perfect by any means.”