Clad with face masks, black rubber gloves and protective aprons, cleaners furiously scrubbed the Florida House chamber Monday after Speaker José Oliva announced that some lawmakers had attended events where other participants subsequently tested positive for the novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19.
As the workers spritzed and sprayed their desks, five House members, who had attended conferences in Washington, D.C. more than a week ago, voluntarily submitted to exams by Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees and his team.
Ninety minutes later, it was business as usual on the floor of the Florida House.
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Rep. Cary Pigman, an Avon Park Republican who is a doctor, told his colleagues that the five legislators were “very low risk” and did not have any symptoms of the disease.
“There is not a risk for them returning to the floor with us,” Pigman said.
Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Neptune Beach, Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey in the Hills, Rep. Thad Altman, R-Indialantic, Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, and House Minority Leader Kionne McGhee, D-Miami, attended the Conservative Political Action Committee or American Israel Public Affairs Committee conferences this month. Other conference-goers have tested positive for the virus.
The legislators were briefly isolated Monday in a small conference room in the back of the House chamber, while Rivkees and his team evaluated them and the chamber was decontaminated.
Because the lawmakers and a House staff member “had no direct contact” with the infected conference-goers and no symptoms, they do not have to participate in “social distancing,” Pigman added.
“I want to repeat that all the members that I escorted out are at very low risk … without symptoms, and following the best recommendations,” Pigman stressed. “We did more than we needed to do, but we didn’t know that until we consulted with the surgeon general.”
The House erupted in cheers as the lawmakers re-entered the chamber.
While the House was in recess, Senate President Bill Galvano told reporters that he had asked a senator who also attended one of the conferences to self-quarantine until health officials had completed an evaluation. Galvano, R-Bradenton, did not name the senator.
Galvano, who dropped into the press gallery on the Capitol’s fifth floor during a break in a floor session, said the Senate chamber is cleaned on a “pretty regular basis,” but staff members are taking extra precautions.
The Senate president called Oliva’s decision to clear the chamber and disinfect the desks of the five lawmakers and the desks of their neighbors “appropriate” because he could see “people getting nervous about it.”
But he acknowledged the timing --- just days before Friday’s scheduled end of the legislative session --- was inopportune.
“We have work to do. It is the last week, and there is so much to do --- and then we get this unfortunate curveball,” Galvano said.
Oliva’s announcement of the state legislators’ potential exposure to the deadly virus --- made from the podium during the House’s afternoon session --- sent shock waves through fourth floor of the Capitol, where, in typical fashion, lobbyists and aides were clustered around large-screen televisions broadcasting action inside the House and Senate chambers.
As the members’ desks were being scrubbed, some confused lawmakers wandered around on the fourth floor, unsure of what was going on inside the chamber and when --- or if --- they would be called back into action.
The novel coronavirus, which began in China, is responsible for two deaths in Florida and has spread in the state.
But, for the most part, lawmakers, lobbyists and aides appeared unfazed by the potential danger of COVID-19’s reach into the Capitol.
“I’m very comfortable here,” Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, told The News Service of Florida, adding that Oliva was taking “all appropriate measures” to ensure House members’ safety.
Plakon noted that health officials have said the flu has affected more people than COVID-19.
But he admitted he is taking precautions.
“I’m Purell-ing all the time,” Plakon said, referring to a popular brand of hand sanitizer.
Health officials have cautioned that seniors and people with certain chronic diseases are more at risk if they are exposed to the deadly virus.
Lobbyist Ron Book, who was diagnosed with cancer, scurried around on the fourth floor as the House awaited the five lawmakers’ clearance.
“I’m not going to sit and worry about it,” Book said, adding that people needed to “be smart.”
Health officials have advised people to wash their hands, stay home if they are sick, and cover their mouths and noses when they sneeze.
The COVID-19 scare came as lawmakers scrambled to iron out differences between the two chambers’ proposed budgets.
Veteran lobbyist Jack Cory said Capitol insiders are in “uncharted territory” with the novel coronavirus.
“Towards the end of session, everybody is run down. Everybody is tired. Everybody’s been working 15-hour days over the weekend. So we’re all susceptible to it,” Cory said. “The panic’s going on simply because of the lack of factual information.”
Cory, standing near one of the hand-sanitizing stations in the Capitol, noted that health officials are advising people to wash their hands.
“I was running out of hand sanitizer,” he said. “I just filled it up on the state machine over there.”