With two weeks until lawmakers first convene to prepare themselves for the 2021 Legislative Session, Senate President-Designate Wilton Simpson is asking Senators to follow special virus protocols for the Organizational Session.
Senators must be tested for the COVID-19 virus by Nov. 16, the day before the Organizational Session begins. No district staff will be allowed to travel to the Session.
Only newly elected senators will be allowed to bring a spouse or guest on the Senate Floor, and only those senators will be ceremonially sworn in.
Senators will be asked to follow social distancing guidelines and wear masks, including guests 2 or older and who can remove masks without assistance. Face coverings worn on the Senate Floor must be solid-colored with no pattern or logos, other than the Senate Seal. Face shields will also be available for senators and staff.
The protocols are temporary, Simpson emphasized, and future protocols will be updated as medical professionals track what’s necessary with the dynamic pandemic.
Activities will be limited to the required election of officers and adoption of rules, as well as the ceremonial swearing in of newly elected senators.
Other traditions like family events and congregate meals won’t happen during the Organizational Session. Families, friends, staff and special guests won’t participate like before.
“While this will be a disappointment to many, I am mindful of how Florida families have foregone or postponed celebrating or participating in many significant events due to COVID-19,” Simpson said. “Disruptions to our traditional ceremonies will be small in light of the sacrifices made by so many.”
Newly elected senators may bring one guest on the Senate Floor, who must be reserved with the Senate the Friday before the Organizational Session and who must also receive a COVID-19 test by the following Monday.
Testing for guests in the remote viewing area is also available, but not required.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, First Lady Casey DeSantis, Lt. Gov. Jeanette Núñez, outgoing Senate President Bill Galvano, outgoing House Speaker José Oliva, Cabinet members and one Florida Supreme Court Justice will be the only additional officials allowed on the floor. One media photographer, who tests negative for COVID-19 the day before, will be admitted as a pool photographer for the press corps.
Last month, Simpson announced that Senate staff were developing a safety plan in collaboration with Tampa General Hospital. Outgoing Senate President Bill Galvano authorized a contract with TGH at Simpson’s request.
“We are actively seeking expert advice, we will make informed decisions, and we will work together to implement the best approach on how to keep everyone safe,” Simpson told Senators in a memo a month ago.
The hospital, in partnership with USF Health, has created a strike-team-like program connecting infection prevention team members with its own infectious disease experts and those from the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine. That team has already consulted for businesses including the Florida Aquarium, TECO, the Straz Center for the Performing Arts and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Following Simpson’s announcement from October, Tampa General Hospital President and CEO John Couris called it an honor for the hospital and school to collaborate with the Senate.
“We’re dedicated to safeguarding the health and well-being of the citizens of Florida, and that includes creating a safe environment for our elected officials to work,” he said. “I know our elected officials have work to do, and with the Tampa General and USF Health strategies in place, they can safely focus on the policies that affect our state.”
With the era of coronavirus approaching its ninth month, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced lawmakers to rethink what legislating looks like in a pandemic. When the pandemic was first taking hold in Florida, the Legislature was in its final weeks of the 2020 Regular Session.
After lawmakers extended the Session one week to finalize their vote on the state budget, which was abruptly reworked to consider the pandemic’s impacts, lawmakers implemented safety measures to keep voting running as usual.
In what was supposed to be the Session’s final week, some lawmakers from both chambers were briefly quarantined after news broke of positive tests at conventions they had recently attended. No lawmakers developed symptoms then. Some tested positive over the summer, including Rep. Randy Fine, incoming-Sen. Shevrin Jones and outgoing-Sen. Rob Bradley.
In September during the Legislative Budget Commission, lawmakers gave a sneak peek into what hearings could look like come March. In the refurnished Pat Thomas Committee Room in the Knott Building, some lawmakers sat in person while others dialed through a new teleconferencing system. Technical difficulties delayed the meeting’s start, but lawmakers ultimately held a successful hearing regarding the state’s troubling finances.