Virtual public testimony, limited in-person attendance for Legislature’s 2021 committee meetings

By: - January 5, 2021 5:16 pm
Florida Capitol

The Historic Capitol, foreground, and Florida Capitol buildings. Photo Colin Hackley

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the Florida Legislature has granted limited access to state lawmakers, staff, media and “subject matter experts” for in-person committee meetings for the upcoming 2021 legislative session, according to a memo Tuesday by the Senate.

The Legislature convenes March 2 but committee meetings are usually held before the regular session. The first committee meetings begin next week, with lawmakers reviewing myriad issues, from ethics and elections, to agriculture, criminal justice and the state budget.

In other years, committee meetings brought a crowd of people to the Capitol, from lawmakers to lobbyists, members of the media and advocates for various issues.

Nowadays, those who are in the Capitol are expected to follow safety measures to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks.

“All Senators, staff, and visitors are asked to continue to adhere to CDC guidelines designed to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” the memo says.

The new protocols – released Tuesday from Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson – exclude the public from attending committee meetings at the Capitol but they will be allowed to gather at the Civic Center in Tallahassee to address committees through video.

Those who wish to speak before the Senate will have to complete an appearance card.

“Each committee notice published yesterday in the Senate calendar included the room number within the Civic Center where members of the public may gather should they wish to address the committee,” the memo reads.

Seating in committee rooms is limited “due to social distancing guidelines” and the Florida Senate encourages “staff and state agency personnel” to remotely view meetings.

The Florida House released its safety protocols on Monday, saying “all committee meetings will be live-streamed” on The Florida Channel and public testimony will be held in-person but limited seats are available.

“Seating will be available via electronic reservation on a first-come, first-served basis. For meetings in which public testimony is not solicited, seating will be limited to the Members, invited presenters, and the press,” the memo says.

The House will provide an option for written testimony “through the online electronic appearance record” when seating capacity is full. In addition, House members “are asked to please wear a mask when in the presence of other people,” with exceptions to certain lawmakers, according to the memo.

The Florida Phoenix previously reported that the Florida Senate had been consulting with health experts at Tampa General Hospital to develop safety measures for the 2021 session, according to Lisa Kauffman, press secretary at the Florida Senate Majority Office.

Overall, Florida’s legislative session may look different in the new year, as it grapples with the continued effects of the global pandemic — but Florida won’t be alone.

Legislatures across the country have been considering plans to meet in person or virtually, or adopt hybrid models in 2021. Some states have already made decisions, as COVID-19 cases surge around the nation.

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Issac Morgan
Issac Morgan

Issac Morgan is a 2009 graduate of Florida A&M University's School of Journalism, and a proud native of Tallahassee. He has covered city council and community events at the Gadsden County Times, worked as a sports news assistant at the Tallahassee Democrat, a communications specialist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and as a proofreader at the Florida Law Weekly.