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Florida lawmakers return this week but won’t be tackling pandemic

Incoming House Speaker Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican, and Senate President Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican, have both announced that committee meetings will not resume until January at the earliest.

TALLAHASSEE — Florida legislators meet for the first time in eight months on Tuesday to swear in newly elected lawmakers, but legislators will keep their distance from one another, in an attempt to stave off the coronavirus — and from any talk of addressing the economic and health-related fallout from it.

The one-day legislative session is required by the state Constitution “on the fourteenth day following each general election...for the exclusive purpose of organization and selection of officers” and it is expected to last just two hours.

Rep. Chris Sprowls, R- Palm Harbor, front, and Senator Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, back, listen to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis State of the State address in January.
Rep. Chris Sprowls, R- Palm Harbor, front, and Senator Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, back, listen to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis State of the State address in January. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

In some years, when circumstances have warranted it, legislators have expanded the agenda of the organization session to either conduct committee hearings and begin hearing legislation or they have called a special session to address emergency issues after a hurricane or budget crisis.

Related: Do Florida lawmakers take coronavirus seriously? Ask when they stop hugging.

But, after months of avoiding any public association with the coronavirus during a bitter election cycle, the Republican-led House and Senate have no plans to elevate the issue now.

Incoming House Speaker Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican, and Senate President Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican, have both announced that committee meetings will not resume until January at the earliest as lawmakers prepare for the annual two-month legislative session that begins March 2.

Committees start in January

When they do meet, both chambers are planning special pandemic committees, led by Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, in the House and a yet-to-be-named lawmaker in the Senate. But according to House and Senate leaders, the committees won’t focus on how to end the rising case numbers, distribute a vaccine, or direct more resources to the Floridians in economic despair, but to deal with pandemics of the future.

"My concept is to look at what went right and what went wrong in terms of our response in all areas starting with healthcare issues,'' said Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, the incoming Senate Rules chair and a close ally of Simpson’s. “We had hundreds of thousand of people in the trenches who felt the effects. I got thousands of emails from people from every walk of life, and people have ideas. We need to hear them.”

But neither Leek nor Passidomo see the Legislature’s role as helping to contain the virus that has taken the lives of more than 17,000 Floridians.

"Let’s see what may be happening in January,'' Leek said. He commended the approach taken by Gov. Ron DeSantis that targeted areas of the state with higher cases for stricter restrictions. “I’m a huge fan of home rule, and when it comes to an issue like this in particular, it’s not one size fits all.”

In September, DeSantis issued an executive order that shocked many local governments when he overruled many local ordinances and required every part of the state to open for commerce, ended restrictions on restaurant dining, and barred local governments from enforcing mask mandates and social-distancing rules.

The open-everything approach to the pandemic helped the governor energize supporters of President Donald Trump in Florida and secure a win in the battleground state. Democrats, who lost five seats in the 120-member House and one seat in the state Senate on Nov. 3, criticize their Republican peers for skirting their responsibility in addressing the difficult task of containing the coronavirus spread in Florida.

"The governor may be a Navy man but he’s raised the White Flag,'' said Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat. “He’s gone around the state trying to say everything is all right when we could see everything is not all right.”

"If 17,000 people would have died from a hurricane you better believe there would have been a special session,'' said Rep. Evan Jenne, the incoming House Democratic co-leader from Dania Beach.

He said that legislators should be convening now to repair the state’s broken unemployment system, focus resources to mental health issues and propose uniform guidelines for protecting kids and teachers in school.

"How to prevent this should be part of the discussion, but we have to figure out a way to bring relief to people who are suffering right now in terms of their health and the economy and unemployment,'' Jenne said. “There’s a lot that needs to be done.”

Sen. Gary Farmer, the incoming Senate Democratic leader from Fort Lauderdale said he believes that legislative leaders are holding back because it would contradict DeSantis, who Farmer calls a “COVID denier.”

"It’s hard for Republican leadership to take a really proactive, aggressive stance when the people in charge are organizing super-spreader events,'' he said, referring to the governor’s numerous appearances at campaign rallies for President Trump where both men neither wore a mask nor practiced social distancing.

By contrast, Sen. Gayle Harrell, a Stuart Republican and a long-time member of Senate healthcare committees, said she is a “very comfortable with where the state is.”

"I think the governor has done a good job,'' she said, also commending state Surgeon General Scott Rivkees who has held a behind-the-scenes role to the governor’s public one. “Open everything as long as you do it responsibly.”

She said that even with a vaccine, Florida “is going to be living with the consequences of this for a generation” and it’s not too soon to tackle that issue now.

One of 7 inactive legislatures

Meanwhile, Florida is one of only seven states that have not had their legislators convene to address pandemic-related issues since the onset of the crisis in mid-March, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Forty three other states and the District of Columbia have met in either regular or special session to pass laws related to helping businesses provide employees with sick leave and quarantine time off. They have modified workers compensation coverage to accommodate illness. They have expanded housing and food assistance programs and funded contact-tracing programs to contain the virus. And five have required their states to collect COVID data and provide residents with data to help them better assess their risk in the COVID world.

Florida’s legislature should be tackling many of the same issues and provide the oversight of the oversight of the DeSantis administration the public expects, Democrats said.

"We have a very important oversight role,'' said Rep. Ben Diamond, a St. Pete Democrat. “We write the budget and we need to hold them accountable for the way they’re doing business. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do because we have been on the sidelines during one of the most devastating crises we’ve ever faced as a state and nation.”

For Jenne, that oversight include more transparency about positive case rates in schools and communities, testing rates, contact tracing.

"We can’t just wait and say we’ll fix this next time around,'' he said. “We need to have more data and more transparency because ultimately this is a decision that individuals are going to make in terms of the level of risk they are putting themselves through.”

The last time lawmakers convened in Tallahassee was March 19 when they returned for a one-day session to pass the state budget. At the time, anxiety about the coronavirus was intense, as little was known about how it spread.

Since then, Republican Sens. Ben Albritton and Ray Rodrigues have tested positive for COVID-19 as has Democratic Sen. Geraldine Thompson. House Republican Reps. Randy Fine and Chris Latvala have both had it, as has Democratic Rep. Shevrin Jones.

Despite the governor’s calls to open everything in Florida, the state Capitol remained closed to visitors last week, and legislators were going to extraordinary means to avoid spreading the virus when they come together from all over the state as cases rise.

Simpson hired Tampa General Hospital to recommend protocols for how to handling social distancing and to examine the air flow in meeting rooms. The Senate ventilation system has been re-calibrated to allow more fresh air into the Capitol. A mobile testing lab will be set up outside the Capitol, and every senator must be tested for COVID-19 by Monday. House members and members of the media are also invited to take the rapid PCR test.

‘Sacrifices made’

Senators are required to wear solid-color face masks, with no pattern other than the Senate seal, and face shields are allowed but not in place of masks. Friends and family will be allowed, but only to watch the proceedings on closed-circuit TV from a Senate conference room. The traditional communal meals and celebratory gatherings won’t be condoned.

The only additional people allowed in the chambers will be 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. One media photographer, who tests negative for COVID-19 the day before, will be admitted as a pool photographer.

"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 wrote in a note to senators. “Disruptions to our traditional ceremonies will be small in light of the sacrifices made by so many.”

Seeking liability limits

The only likely piece of COVID-related legislation Republicans point to is providing liability protection to small businesses hurt by the economic slowdown to limit coronavirus-related lawsuits against them.

This is very important to getting businesses comfortable with opening their doors,'' said Leek, who will head the Pandemic and Public Emergencies Committee. “We also don’t want to do anything that encourages businesses to be sloppy and not do the right thing that puts their customers in jeopardy.”

Farmer, a trial lawyer, called the proposal “a solution in search of a problem.”

"There has been no rash or huge increase of civil lawsuit filings, and the truth of the matter is the reason none of that has happened is those cases are incredibly hard to win,'' he said.

Passidomo, however, said the issue is a top priority for both chambers and the governor but will be one of many intended to respond to Floridians who are hurting.

"The pandemic is something where nobody is right and nobody wrong and everybody cares,'' she said. “Everybody has a perspective and has something to offer. We should be able to hear it all and try to put together something moving forward — for when it occurs again.”

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