TALLAHASSEE — Last March, when the coronavirus arrived in Florida, state and local governments enacted policies that fundamentally changed how communities interact.
Most of the changes restricted the movement of people with the hope of saving lives. But some concessions made things more convenient in a less personal society.
As lawmakers gather in Tallahassee, some of those convenient policy changes could be here to stay. Bills making their way through the Legislature would allow Floridians to continue to get alcoholic drinks delivered from restaurants. Other legislation would expand access to telemedicine — even for pets. And yet another proposal would give students greater flexibility to learn virtually.
“Necessity is the mother of invention and sometimes, desperation is the mother of invention,” said Samantha Padgett, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association’s general counsel.
Meanwhile, SB 1228 would also codify pandemic-era changes by requiring school districts to offer virtual learning throughout the school year. And a number of other bills would expand telehealth options, including SB 1370, which would provide access to virtual veterinary appointments in some instances.
All of the above proposals are being offered by Republican lawmakers.
In typical Tallahassee fashion, many of these bills have been at the center of a tug-of-war between various lobbying interests.
Take the to-go alcohol bill. The Restaurant and Lodging Association has long been in favor of allowing Floridians to have alcoholic drinks delivered to them. But before the pandemic, passing such a law would have been politically unworkable, Padgett said. She pointed to competing powerful interests and the highly regulated nature of alcohol sales and transportation.
But now, Floridians have been able to get boozy drinks delivered to them for more than a year. The policy is a widely popular way to support local eateries.
This year, the alcohol industry has come to the negotiating table to make sure a bill passes that almost everyone can live with, Padgett said. For example, the Senate version of the delivery bill was modified in February to make it clear that a restaurant would not be allowed to sell entire bottles of liquor as if it were an ABC store.
Both the House and Senate bills could be headed to their chambers’ floors in a matter of days. The bills have been met with virtually no opposition from lawmakers to date.
“I have friends who have never contacted me ever about anything I’ve done in the Legislature who are contacting me about this,” said Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg.
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The bill allowing Floridians to get a pet in front of a veterinarian via a videoconference was also born of pandemic necessity.
In March, the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation loosened regulation around veterinary telemedicine in an emergency order, allowing vets to see patients virtually, “provided the attending veterinarian is comfortable assessing the patient remotely.”
Initially, this year’s Senate bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, R-Doral, would have essentially codified that order into law.
But some veterinarians feared that telemedicine would be inadequate for patients who cannot speak for themselves.
“There are many, many conditions in veterinary medicine that can only be diagnosed with a complete physical exam,” said Dr. Julie Moodoyan, a Tallahassee veterinarian, at a Florida Senate Agriculture Committee meeting Wednesday.
Rodriguez offered to change her bill to address some of the veterinarians’ concerns. The version that passed the Senate committee Wednesday would only allow vets to see pet patients for the first time via videoconference under certain conditions.
For example, veterinarians can give virtual medical advice in first aid or emergency situations, or to prescribe nutritional drugs.
Meanwhile, even a year into the pandemic, some 30 percent of families are still opting for virtual instruction for their school-aged children.
That’s why Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah Gardens, is proposing SB 1228, which, among other things, would require schools to give students that option year-round. If his bill were to become law, virtual attendance would be equivalent to in-person attendance for a given student.
“While this clearly doesn’t work for every student, I think there are students that can benefit from it. There are families that can benefit from it,” Diaz said, noting that he was a proponent of expanding virtual education for years even before the pandemic.
Unlike the alcohol delivery bill or the expanded telemedicine proposal, Diaz’s legislation has not gained much traction during the 60-day legislative session. There is no House sponsor for his bill, and it’s yet to be heard in a committee.
Still, Diaz, the Chief Operating Officer of Doral College, which leans heavily on virtual instruction, is an influential voice in his caucus when it comes to education policy. There’s plenty of time for his bill to win lawmakers over.
“During the pandemic, we’ve seen the good and the bad of it,” Diaz said of virtual learning. “But if we continue with our consistent concept of school choice, I think it’s another option that may work for a percentage of parents.”
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