FL Legislature lays out safety protocols for committee meetings; from COVID tests to virtual testimony

By: - December 18, 2020 5:17 pm

Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson is shown during the organizational session on Nov. 17, 2020. Credit: Florida Channel, screenshot.

If you want to participate in legislative politics next month you might have to give your testimony from a couple blocks away from the Florida Capitol building.

That’s because, according to Senate COVID safety protocols for the January committee meetings, the general public will view and provide testimony remotely from the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center to reduce the number of people in committee rooms.

With Senate President Wilton Simpson recovering from COVID-19, both that chamber and the House of Representatives published safety protocols on Friday. And remote public engagement is only one precaution.

Overall, the protocols focus on social distancing, limiting in-person interactions as much as possible, and regular COVID tests. But the House and Senate differ on some of the strategies.

Simpson, a Republican representing Citrus, Hernando, and part of Pasco counties, sent a memo to state senators and staff describing the new protocols.

“In recent days, we have all been encouraged with positive reports surrounding new COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics,” Simpson said in the memo.

“However, until a vaccine is widely available for those outside of high risk designation, the Senate will continue to proceed with care and caution, observing social distancing guidelines and limiting in-person meetings.”

The only people allowed to view committee meetings in person will be those invited to present information and members of the news media.

As for the general public, the Senate has arranged with the civic center to provide three remote viewing rooms to “provide the opportunity for members of the public to view meetings and virtually address Senate committees in a safe, socially distant manner,” according to the memo.

Individual committees are scheduled so that no more than three meetings occur at the same time, to take advantage of the Senate’s three largest meeting rooms and maximize social distancing.

Senators are also encouraged to hold virtual meetings when they can and are expected to undergo regular COVID tests.

A memo from Speaker of the House Chris Sprowls, a Republican who represents part of Pinellas County, envisions socially distanced public seating during hearings. For “issues of great public significance” there will be “expanded seating capacity for on-site virtual testimony.”

Members of the public will submit requests to testify through an online registration system.

The House has allotted an hour for sanitation between committee meetings. The Senate memo did not address additional sanitation.

As for masks, it depends on who you are. Employees of the House will be required to wear them but House members will be asked “to wear a mask when around other members, legislative employees, and visitors. Some exceptions may apply based on individual circumstances.”

The House memo did not directly address expectations for the media, but the communications office said in a follow-up email to the Phoenix that reporters will be asked to “test for COVID-19 in advance of the committee week they are covering in person.”

A number of Florida lawmakers have had brushes with COVID-19. In November, nine missed the organization session because they’d either tested positive or had recently interacted with someone who had.

A spokesperson for the Senate said Simpson “is recovering well, feeling great these last couple of days.”

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.