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A scene from a Florida bar exam. Image via Tampa Convention Center.

Corona Economics

Orlando, Tampa July Bar exams expected to be in-person, raising concerns

July events could each gather 1,200 applicants in convention centers.

In a month, more than two thousand law school graduates will gather in Orlando and Tampa to take the Florida Bar Exam. This event has some applicants worried during a time of rising coronavirus infections seen in both cities and Florida in general.

The Florida Board of Bar Examiners has scheduled the exam for all Florida wannabe-lawyers to be administered in person at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando and the Tampa Convention Center, throughout July 28-29.

The board indicated it has been working with the Florida Department of Health and has laid out a list of physical-distancing and mask-wearing requirements for the applicants, based on what the board calls “currently available public health information.”

“The board considered several options for the administration of the July 2020 General Bar Examination,” Board of Bar Examiners Executive Director Michele A. Gavagni said in a written response to Florida Politics. “Based on extensive discussions with the Florida Department of Health and other medical experts, we concluded that the best way to safely administer an exam that is fair, reliable, and secure is by administering the exam in-person, in July, at two sites, implementing multiple levels of safety protocols identified and required by the health authorities. The board continues to confer regularly with public health experts on the latest COVID-19 news and data.”

But on social media and in communications with Florida Politics, some applicants say they are unconvinced that safety can be maintained, and are worried.

They also expressed concerns that appropriate accommodations are not being provided for any applicants with high-risk conditions. They also have raised concerns that they might prepare for the July exam, only to find it canceled if Orange and Hillsborough counties continue seeing rising levels of COVID-19 infections.

One applicant, who asked not to be identified out of concern for his career, which has yet to start, complained in a message that the state is forcing people to take a test “in very risky conditions which makes immunocompromised people chose between getting an income or waiting ’till February.”

Another posted on a message board that she is concerned about, among other issues she enumerated, “mass spreading as we go back to our communities from the filth that is Orlando and Tampa.”

Yet another mused about spending six hours a day, for two days, in a room with more than 1,000 strangers: “They’ve got the National Guard coming in to take our temperatures. A lot of people are asymptomatic. That’s just a fact.”

Alternatives have been proposed.

In April, the deans of all 12 of Florida’s law schools wrote to the Florida Supreme Court suggesting several alternatives, including this plan: that the exam is held in classrooms in each of the law schools, thereby separating applicants into much smaller groups. They offered 202 available classrooms.

According to the National Conference of Bar Examiners, various other states have taken different approaches. Many have postponed their bar exams until the fall, hoping for a better environment. Some, including Michigan, Indiana, and Maryland, are trying out limited remote bar exams. Some of those states are providing provisional approval, allowing those who pass the remote tests to work until a full, in-person exam can be administered at a later date.

The Florida Bar Exams are given twice a year, in February and July. For the July run, the Board of Bar Examiners has announced that the following rules would be in place:

— Applicants will be assigned to either Orlando or Tampa.

— Applicants and staff will be asked screening questions and have their temperatures taken before they are admitted to the sites. Anyone with a fever will not be allowed in.

— Only one applicant will sit at each table, all set at least six feet apart. Applicants will be required to remain six feet apart when in line to enter or exit, and at any time during the exam.

— All applicants will be required to wear masks and will be asked to leave if they remove masks.

— Anyone from out of state would have to comply with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ applicable executive orders, including a required 14-day quarantine for some, before arriving.

— The board is willing to waive applicant fees for anyone who decides to postpone taking the exam until February due to coronavirus concerns.

On Sunday, Florida topped the 100,000 threshold in COVID-19 cases, with more than 20% of them being recorded just in the previous seven days. Orange County and Hillsborough County have struggled with the state’s most significant new outbreaks in recent days. Hillsborough County crossed 5,000 cases Saturday, now with 5,973 after recording 393 new positives. Orange County has 5,157 total cases, with 243 new reports on Sunday.

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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