Virus “gut punch” leaves Senators in triage mode

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – Virtual caucuses, daily check-ins by phone and text, and a working group divided up into a suite of subcommittees are guiding the state Senate’s response to the public health crisis as legislators practice their own form of social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s a seismic blow,” said Sen. Jo Comerford to helm of the working group. “It’s a pandemic plus an economic gut punch, and it’s happening all at once to people who, they — themselves and their families — most didn’t have the economic margin to sustain this gut punch, and that’s where government comes in.”

Senate President Karen Spilka said she tapped Comerford, a Northampton Democrat, to lead the effort because she’s the Senate chair of the Public Health Committee “and a tremendous facilitator.”

The coronavirus-focused working group was among the first steps of a communication and involvement plan Spilka said she began developing around the time Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency.

“Basically, back — it’s hard to believe it was just two weeks ago — two Wednesdays ago, we knew when we left that there was going to be a dramatic change in the way we did business,” Spilka told the News Service.

In addition to the working group, Spilka said, she’s been putting out a daily bulletin to share information with senators on things like Baker’s executive orders, federal government actions and upcoming legislation.

Senators have been checking in with each other over daily texts or phone calls, she said, and meeting for virtual leadership meetings and caucuses, including one call scheduled for Thursday morning with both Republicans and Democrats.

The telephone caucuses can last for several hours and involve talk of upcoming coronavirus response bills, Spilka said.

“I think almost everybody has perfected Zoom,” she said, referring to the popular video call platform.

The “tele-caucus” meetings, like traditional in-person caucuses held in Spilka’s office suite, are closed to the press and the public. Spilka said the body is trying to be mindful of transparency in a time of remote work by putting bills out in advance when possible and live-streaming its informal sessions.

The Legislature is exempt from the open meeting law and lawmakers have resisted attempts to modify that.

In recent caucuses, Spilka said, Sen. Brendan Crighton has discussed a potential bill related to housing and evictions, Sen. Cindy Friedman talked about the nursing scope of practice bill the Senate passed Thursday, Sen. Paul Feeney talked about potential sick leave legislation, and Comerford discussed “safety net” issues involving state benefits.

In the working group, Comerford is on a safety net subgroup looking at issues around housing, food security and economic security, with Crighton and Sens. Sonia Chang-Diaz, Harriette Chandler and Sal DiDomenico.

Sen. Eric Lesser is leading a subgroup on economic recovery and reinvestment; Sen. Cindy Friedman on health care and hospitals; Sen. Cindy Creem on the impact of federal guidance; Minority Leader Bruce Tarr on supply chain and price gouging; Sen. Brownsberger on municipalities, elections, the courts and the Department of Corrections; Sen. Jason Lewis on education; and Sen. Julian Cyr. on elder affairs.

The group as a whole operates on “a pretty classic formation of hub and spokes,” Comerford said, with each senator pulling in other colleagues to work on specific issues.

“We’re doing our best to work with leadership, to figure out the right sequencing — traffic cop it, if you will,” she said in a phone interview.

Part of the group’s work, Comerford said, is figuring out how the Senate can be most effective — fielding requests from constituents, passing legislation, channeling their ideas and concerns through Spilka, or “rolling up our sleeves and doing the work of being as best an ally as we can to the administration.”

Spilka said the working group has played a “pivotal role” in vetting ideas and coordinating communication among senators. The first thing it did, she said, was ask the 38 senators to share the concerns and problems they were hearing.

Spilka said that ask resulted in “almost 200 issues that were funneled up, just within two days.”

One issue raised early on, Spilka said, was that many senators wanted the state to close its schools — Gov. Baker on Wednesday extended the school closure he had ordered earlier this month.

The group is also working to identify potential sources of personal protective equipment and medical supplies like ventilators, vet that information, and pass it on to the administration, Spilka said.

“It’s a shame that this is being laid on the states to identify their own resources,” she said. “This should be a federal government role, but be that as it may be, Massachusetts, its residents [and] its businesses have really risen to the occasion. It’s really heartwarming.”

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