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Florida Lawmakers Excited, Wary About Capitol Return In A Pandemic

In a month or so, all 160 members of the Legislature are scheduled to return to Tallahassee, despite predictions that the COVID-19 pandemic could be worse than it is now. Some lawmakers say they're confident everything will be fine while others—especially those who've had the coronavirus—want to make sure safety is the top priority.

It is a Florida tradition. Two weeks after the Nov. 3 election, lawmakers will return for a one-day ceremonial session. A new House speaker and Senate president will take charge. Dozens of newly elected legislators will take the oath of office and the Legislature will adopt rules to guide it for the next two years. Lawmakers believe they have to take those steps in person -- not remotely.

Incoming Senate President Wilton Simpson said there will be restrictions on public access to the Capitol, and limits on how many people can be in the Senate Chamber.

We’re going to drastically limit the number of people on the floor so that we can honor a six feet social distancing effort, and I believe everyone will have masks on, he said.

Simpson said all senators will be offered coronavirus tests on Monday, the day before the session on Nov. 17 th, and he said the Senate ventilation system will be re-calibrated so more fresh air is pumped into the Capitol from the outside. Friends and family can watch the proceedings on closed circuit TV from a Senate conference room.

“I would feel very comfortable coming back,” said Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, who was first elected to the House 20 years ago. He has no hesitation about returning.

“I’m sure that protocols will involve distancing and masks and separating people, and so under the guidelines, yes, not only am I comfortable, but I’m looking forward to it,” Bean said.

Bean said he’s reassured by the fact that legislative leaders are taking extra safety precautions. The Senate has signed a two-year contract with Tampa General Hospital for an infection control plan. Hospital experts are scrutinizing the capitol’s air conditioning and heating systems, hallways and elevators.

At least four legislators have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus: Republican Sen. Ben Albritton, and House members Randy Fine, Chris Latvala and Shevrin Jones.

Jones will be sworn in as a Democratic senator on November 17 th. He was hospitalized in early July with the virus.

“I’m happy that precautions are being made,” Jones said. “I hope they make them public sooner rather than later because I know for a fact there are members who are looking for those protocols to come out to be sure that they and their families are safe.”

The last time lawmakers assembled in Tallahassee was on March 19 when they returned for a one-day session to pass a budget. By then, there were many ominous warnings of widespread shutdowns, mass hospitalizations and deaths. Legislative leaders would not even shake hands afterward. One lawmaker, Rep. Evan Jenne of Dania Beach, called that gathering, “the damn stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” But Jenne said legislators have no choice but to assemble in person.

“I am not sure that we have any other option,” Jenne said, “the way everything is written as I understand it. As it stands, we won’t have a virtual way of doing this, so we’re kind of stuck. Am I hesitant? Yes. Will I? I have to."

The one-day organizational session is typically attended by hundreds of family members and friends and business associates, as well as a large number of staff members and lobbyists.

Sen. Perry Thurston of Plantation favors restrictions on the number of people who can enter the state capitol.

“I empathize with individuals who have loved ones at home who have special needs and conditions,” Thurston said. “I do think that we as an organization should mandate certain precautions. If we’re going to come we should mandate that certain precautions be followed … Limiting the number of people who can be in the Capitol, and requiring everyone to have masks and whatever other PPE should be recommended.”

Simpson said he was not aware of any legal requirement for in-person attendance for an organizational session. He said doing it the same way as before is, “the most respectful way”.

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Steve Bousquet has covered state government and politics for three decades at the Sun Sentinel, Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald. He was the Times' Tallahassee bureau chief from 2005 to 2018 and has also covered city and county politics in Broward County. He has a master's degree in U.S. history from Florida State.
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