As Florida lawmakers reconvene, pandemic casts large shadow

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – Florida lawmakers gavel into session Tuesday amid a pandemic that will play a starring role on their agenda and influence how they conduct business over the next two months.

The state Legislature will have to grapple with a health threat that has loomed large on public life and the state’s economy, as lawmakers deal with reduced government revenues as they draft a state budget.

The coronavirus is already influencing how lawmakers are conducting business. Social distancing rules will remain in place at the Capitol to keep the coronavirus from infiltrating the hallways of power — even though a fourth of the state Senate, perhaps more, has been infected by the disease, including the chamber’s president and its top Democrat.

Lawmakers and staffers – and anyone regularly given entry into the Capitol, such as journalists – must undergo weekly testing for the virus. Temperature checks will also be conducted.

“Think if half of us were out for two to three weeks,” Senate President Wilton Simpson said at a recent press briefing. “It’s something very important so we can get the people’s work done, and we fully intend to bring the process back to normal as soon as we can – normal meaning where people can come in and the visit their Capitol and come into committee rooms and visit with their senators.”

It’s unclear how many of the 120-member House have been infected, but some members over the months have gone on social media to share news that they had come down with the disease. Citing privacy laws, a spokesperson for the Republican-controlled House declined to provide statistical information on what percentage of members have come down with the disease.

Widespread infections among lawmakers could lead to an abrupt recess to the session if attendance falls below the necessary quorum.

That could scuttle debate over key legislation being advanced by Republican majorities in the House and Senate, including a measure that would shield businesses from COVID-related lawsuits.

Senators and House members will hold floor sessions without witnesses in the public galleries, although the press will be allowed to chronicle proceedings in person.

Even as Gov. Ron DeSantis has opened up much of the state, and even preempted local governments from enforcing fines for not wearing masks, the state Capitol and its legislative meetings will be off limits to the general public.

Hearing rooms will not have the usual throngs of lobbyists, policy advocates and ordinary citizens who seek to influence or witness the work of the Legislature and American democracy.

As it did during committee weeks, the House will provide limited seating in committee rooms and allow people to deliver their comments in person. But seating will have to be reserved ahead of time.

The House gallery, where the public is allowed to witness floor sessions, will be reserved for lawmakers’ families and guests.

The Senate has been more restrictive and will require anyone desiring to comment on legislative action to do so from the Tallahassee Civic Center, located several blocks away from the Capitol, from which their testimony will be beamed into hearing rooms. And its public gallery will be closed.

Democrats have sought to provide broader public access to legislative meetings. On Friday, Sen. Perry Thurston renewed his request to set up sites across the state from which ordinary citizens could deliver their comments remotely using videoconferencing services that have become widely used during the pandemic.

“There is a growing concern that the limited input of voices in advance of the upcoming 2021 legislative session has essentially granted a green light to a very narrow agenda tailored more for the well-heeled than the average citizen,” Thurston wrote in his letter to Simpson.

Simpson and fellow Republicans have declined to take that action.

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