House Dems call for more COVID protections in Capitol; members, lobbyists and others test positive

By: - January 21, 2022 7:00 am
Florida Capitol

The 22-story Florida Capitol towers over the old Historic Capitol. Credit: Diane Rado

Florida House Democrats are pushing for stricter COVID-19 protocols to prevent outbreaks during the 2022 legislative session, such as Zoom options for committee hearings, as more lawmakers, lobbyists and others have contracted the illness.

The state House has health guidelines and precautions that were sent to members on Jan. 7, including a lenient approach to COVID-19 testing, optional use of face masks, and hand sanitizer stations in committee rooms and other areas — but not mask or social distancing mandates.

The Florida Senate doesn’t appear to have any strict requirements when it comes to COVID-19 either, but spokeswoman Katherine Betta on Thursday told the Florida Phoenix that “the Senate has always and continues to follow CDC guidelines with regard to any employee, including a Senator, who tests positive for COVID-19.”

The legislative session in Florida oftentimes draws a large crowd in the Florida Capitol, including journalists, residents, lobbying firms and other groups offering public testimony on important legislation proposed by lawmakers.

That said, at least two Democratic members of the 2022 Florida Legislature said in tweets, emails or media reports that they were out of committee meetings recently because of COVID infections, including state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando and state Sen. Darryl Rouson, who represents part of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

Gary Fineout, a longtime, well-known legislative reporter in Tallahassee, tested positive this week. It was mentioned in the POLITICO Florida Playbook. (Fineout authors the Playbook.)

Florida Politics  wrote this week that “absences of Sens. Darryl Rouson, Jason Brodeur, Ileana Garcia and George Gainer are excused, a Senate spokesperson said, but there is speculation that some senators may be missing because of COVID-19 infections.”

Senate spokeswoman Betta said in an email to the Phoenix that “the reason listed by Senator Gainer is not related to COVID.” Gainer represents several counties in the Panhandle.

“Letters from Senators Rouson, Brodeur and Garcia do not list a specific reason, nor are they required to,” Betta added. Brodeur represents Seminole County and part of Volusia. Garcia represents part of Miami-Dade.

House Democrats have been requesting virtual legislative meetings through Zoom and to “allow the public to join in and have their safety at Zoom meetings,” House Democratic Leader Evan Jenne said.

“We have been met with resistance all along the way,” Jenne said in phone conversation. “Our rules do not say anything about it (Zoom) other than you have to be in person. So, it really would have required a rules change that was not offered.”

Still, the health guidelines by House leaders don’t offer sufficient protection to members and others against COVID-19 and its more transmissible omicron variant that continues to circulate across the state, Jenne said.

“There’s still plenty of hand sanitizer everywhere, paper masks being offered. But there’s no meat on the bone when it comes to what we’ve seen in terms of COVID protocol,” Jenne said, adding that last year’s session launched with stricter health measures.

“But that’s what we’re dealing with. Hopefully everybody takes their personal responsibility more seriously,” he said.

Jenne, a Democrat representing part of Broward County, said he continues to wear N95 facial coverings for extra protection and that lobbyists during the session have also been impacted by the pandemic.

“I know a number of lobbyists that are out with it, lobbyists who were working these halls (in the Capitol) the day before they tested positive. So, it is a little concerning,” Jenne said.

For instance, the “2022 Legislative Session Protocols” sent to House members states that free COVID-19 testing services with same-day results are available at the Capitol but “screening for COVID-19 will not be a condition to enter House spaces.” However, according to the document, “members and employees should not enter the Capitol if they are exhibiting symptoms.”

The safety protocols in the House also instruct members and employees who have COVID-19 to quarantine and not enter facilities within the House chamber.

Jenne added: “There are rules about testing and when you should test and when you shouldn’t. But for the most part, compared to last year, it’s pretty much nonexistent in terms of any type of COVID protocols at all. Unfortunately, my dear friend, my buddy, Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, he’s been upfront that he contracted it. …and he’s been public about it.”

Meanwhile, Smith told the Phoenix in an email Wednesday that he’s “feeling better for sure” after testing positive for COVID-19 but “will be out all week while following CDCs 5-day minimum isolation rules.”

“Right now, there’s very little being done to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the Capitol, which frankly is the case pretty much everywhere across Florida,” said Smith, a Democrat representing part of Orange County.

“With this surge in omicron cases we are seeing, the Legislature is going to be at risk not only to the virus, but at risk to legislator shortages and staff shortages just like we’ve seen in our public schools, healthcare facilities and workplaces across the state.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday reported 46,092 new COVID-19 cases in Florida, based on Jan. 19 data. Only California and Texas had bigger numbers for new cases.

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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.