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Florida Legislative Session Opening Not So Festive During Pandemic

Session Photo_20210219.jpg
News Service of Florida
The opening to a previous legislative session in Tallahassee.

TALLAHASSEE --- Breaking with longstanding tradition because of the COVID-19 pandemic, members of the Florida Senate and House will not gather in one place to kick off the 2021 legislative session and hear Gov. Ron DeSantis’ State of the State address.

The House and Senate typically hold a festive joint session in the House chamber to hear the State of the State address.

But in a memo to senators this week, Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said the Senate will stay in its chamber during the March 2 session opening and watch DeSantis’ address on a big video screen.

Other precautions also will make the session opening more staid: Flower arrangements often cover lawmakers’ desks on the first day, but Simpson wrote that they will not be allowed in the Senate chamber and should be delivered to senators’ offices. Also, the Senate public seating gallery will be closed.

The opening-day details are the latest sign of how the pandemic has changed the operations of the Legislature --- and, in particular, the Senate. Simpson has brought in experts, including from Tampa General Hospital, to provide advice about ways to reduce the chances of the virus spreading in the Capitol.

“As a reminder, these protocols were developed in consultation and coordination with infectious disease experts at Tampa General Hospital, the Florida Department of Emergency Management, the Florida Department of Health, and our own in-house epidemiologist,” Simpson wrote in the three-page memo, which also outlined a series of other preventive steps that will be taken during this year’s 60-day session.

As committees have met leading up to the session, the Senate has barred members of the public and lobbyists from attending meetings in person. People who want to speak on bills have been required to go to the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center, a few blocks from the Capitol, and testify through video conferencing.

In the memo, Simpson said that procedure will continue throughout the session as the Senate will remain closed to visitors.

“Senators and professional staff are encouraged to meet with members of the public via phone, teleconferencing, or outdoor (social distance) meetings,” the memo said.

The pandemic also has led to a suspension this year of the Senate page program, which typically includes students running errands and taking part in the legislative process.

The Senate is scheduled to convene in its chamber at 9:30 a.m. March 2, while the House will convene in its chamber at 10 a.m., according to information posted on legislative websites. DeSantis will speak during an 11 a.m. joint session, albeit with lawmakers watching from opposite ends of the Capitol’s fourth floor.

Simpson, who has had COVID-19, told reporters this week he hopes the restrictions will end before the 2022 legislative session, after the majority of Floridians are vaccinated against the virus.

“I’m hoping that starting in the next committee year, we will get back to a normal state in the Capitol,” he said. “We fully intend to bring the process back to normal as soon as we can, normal meaning where people can come in and visit their Capitol, come in committee rooms and visit with their senators. That’s a very important part of the process. And, unfortunately, this just has to be our turn where we have to do these protocols.”

The House has also put in place a series of preventive measures, though it has not gone quite as far as the Senate. As an example, it is not requiring people to testify remotely from the civic center.

House and Senate members, staff and reporters --- who are allowed in committee meetings in both chambers --- have been tested for COVID-19 before each committee week and will continue to be tested during the session.

“COVID protocols, generally, I think have worked very well, largely because the members and the staff have been extremely cooperative of doing all the things that we’ve asked of them, getting the testing, wearing the masks,” House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said Thursday.

--- News Service senior writer Dara Kam contributed to this report.