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The South Florida Roundup

Condo regulation after Surfside, bracing for another COVID surge and the legislative session

a view of the champlain towers south from the water
Al Diaz
Miami Herald
Rescue crews continued working through the weekend at the site of Champlain Towers South, which collapsed early Thursday morning.

Editorial page editors Nancy Ancrum from the Miami Herald, Steve Bousquet from the South Florida Sun Sentinel and Tony Doris from the Palm Beach Post joined host Tom Hudson on The South Florida Roundup. They looked at the big issues facing Florida as COVID surges and the state Legislature heads back into session.

After the June collapse of Champlain Towers killed 98 people, a Miami-Dade County grand jury recommended a series of changes, from how often buildings are inspected to the responsibilities of condo association boards in fixing known problems.

"I think that the grand jury report was really on target, a lot of common sense recommendations," Ancrum said.

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Bousquet said taking up condo regulation will be an "important test" of the Florida Legislature in its upcoming session, scheduled to start Jan. 11.

"The right thing is not always the most popular thing and this is a good example. For a very, very long time condominium owners have basically had their way with the Florida Legislature," he said.

New regulations will likely cost money to a lot of condo owners, who are reliable voters, Bousquet said. And there are a lot of them, not just in South Florida.

"A lot of people live in condominiums in Tampa Bay. People live in condos all up and down the east coast of the state, up to places like New Smyrna Beach. Something like one out of every four residents lives in a condominium in Florida," he said.

Tightening up on regulating condos is the right thing and needs to be done, Bousquet said, but "I'm skeptical. It's a two-month [legislative] session. I just worry that this issue gets lost in the shuffle."

Doris said Hurricane Andrew is an example of when a catastrophe leads to the obvious need for changes — but that can be delayed as different professional groups and others resist changes that will cost them money and make their lives more complicated.

"But I think ultimately the collapse of that building will hopefully save more lives than it sadly took, because it's become very obvious to everyone that we need more frequent inspections," Doris said.

Bracing for the omicron surge

Ancrum said Miami-Dade has "all the components in place" to face a new surge of COVID-19 cases driven by the omicron variant.

"Just this week we had County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava talk about how we should handle the holidays, perhaps eat that slice of turkey and stuffing outdoors. We had a press conference by Carlos Migoya, head of Jackson Memorial Health System, already implementing some more stringent rules for entering the hospital," said Ancrum. "And, of course, there's schools."

Ancrum said the Miami Herald Editorial Board had just had a conversation with outgoing Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho Friday.

"And again, he is prepared to follow the science. He stood up to the governor the first time around with the first surge as schools were getting ready for in-person learning, and he is prepared to do that again," she said.

Doris said he is also concerned about local governments not having the power to enact safety measures this time — and little appetite from the public for taking such measures on their own.

"I think we've let our guard down completely with no help from Tallahassee. But I also put the blame not just on the governor but on my fellow citizens," he said.

"I took a walk down Clematis Street the other night. It wasn't a single person wearing a mask. Everybody was in the bars. Everybody just wants it to be over, so they're behaving like it is. But it ain't," said Doris. "I can tell you from seeing what's going on in New York and elsewhere. It's coming."

'Democrats are dejected'

With the annual legislative session starting early next year, many are watching to see if Democrats — or even some Republicans — might stand up to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Bousquet, who covered Tallahassee for many years, says it's not looking likely, based on how the Legislature behaved during the special session in November.

"The political calculus is that DeSantis is riding very, very high at the moment. He is overwhelmingly favored to win re-election. Democrats are dejected. There's a lack of esprit de corps in the Democratic Party," Bousquet said.

Bousquet said in a state with nearly even party registration, it's unhealthy for one party, or one branch of the government, to dominate.

"It's part of the Legislature's job to stand up to the governor even when they're of the same political party. It's how the system is supposed to work," he said. "There should be a very contentious confirmation hearing this session for Joseph Ladapo, the new surgeon general. Let's see if there is. The Legislature is not fulfilling its responsibility to be a true check and balance on the executive branch."

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Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.