By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A new joint legislative committee responsible for analyzing how the state responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, and help it prepare for future emergencies, met for the first time on Thursday.
“This is a fact-finding, not a fault-finding committee,” Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, said. He’s a co-chair of the Alabama Pandemic Response and Preparedness Committee, which includes many of the state’s top leaders who will put together a report on lessons learned in the last 15 months.
“The goal of this commission is to move forward,” Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said. “We don’t need to throw rocks about what we maybe should have done, or could have done, or what we did.”
This committee was formed after a joint resolution from Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, passed the Legislature earlier this year. The panel is required to meet at least three times before the 2022 regular legislative session, one of those times being a public hearing where citizens can submit testimony about how they were impacted by COVID and the state’s reaction to it.
Melson and fellow co-chair Rep. Paul Lee, R-Dothan, said their main objectives will be for each branch or level of government to identify the principal actions taken in response to the pandemic, the cost and benefits of those actions and how they compared to actions taken in other states.
Gov. Kay Ivey is not a member of the panel but addressed the group at its first meeting. She told committee members that, while in hindsight she regrets some actions her administration took, she remains pleased overall with how she handled the pandemic.
“I think our responses were valid and more involved than some states and less involved than others states and when challenged in court our responses withstood legal scrutiny,” Ivey said. “Some of our state’s responses to COVID were well intended but not universally praised. Yet in reality most of our 28 emergency proclamations were about cutting red tape and getting government out of the way.”
Ivey and other state leaders at times were criticized for pandemic-related public health orders, including a stay-home order that required many businesses to close their doors while others deemed “essential” were allowed to stay open. Some argued the state went too far, others said the lockdown didn’t go far enough. Some state legislators even attempted to weaken or at least check some of the governor’s executive powers during this year’s legislative session.
Months later Ivey said she would have taken a different course on the stay-home order if she had to do it over.
The state’s last emergency proclamation is set to expire on Tuesday, but most pandemic-driven restrictions like mask orders and occupancy limits have long since gone away.
House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said he hopes the report will also show some of the positive actions that deserve appreciation.
“There will be some correction that will be needed, I’m sure, but that’s what this commission is going to be all about,” McCutcheon said. “There will also be opportunities to say we did things right and for that we don’t want to throw rocks, but maybe give a pat on the back for the good work that was done.”
Other members of the committee include:
- State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris
- Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington
- Emergency Management Agency Director Brian Hastings
- Will Parker, general counsel to the governor
- Alabama National Guard Director Col. Jim Hawkins
- Rep. Rex Reynolds, R-Huntsville
- Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro
- Rep. Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville
- Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn
Committee members also discussed including officials from the Alabama State Department of Education, the Department of Mental Health and higher education on the committee.
Future meeting dates and times are yet to be determined.
Harris, whose medical advice was the basis for many state actions, said he believes the special committee is a great move for the state and looks forward to working with the fellow members.
“This is an opportunity for us to thoughtfully go through all the issues and figure out all the things that worked and things that should have been done differently,” Harris said. “I think most importantly we want to make sure we are prepared for the next time.”