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TALLAHASSEE — In the waning days of the 2020 legislative session, Floridians and state officials are scrambling to get the latest information about the novel coronavirus as the number of cases in Florida mounts by the day.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has criss-crossed the state to make announcements. State health officials have made recommendations to senior living facilities, schools, local governments and even prisons about how to handle the growing threat.
Officials like U.S. Sen. Rick Scott have placed themselves in isolation out of an abundance of caution.
But inside the chambers of the Florida House and Senate where hundreds of lawmakers, lobbyists, journalists and members of the public gather daily, the sense of urgency is hard to find.
Lawmakers have spent hours giving long farewell speeches, sharing hugs and handshakes, posing for photos and exchanging gifts. On Thursday, the Senate did the annual unveiling of the Senate president’s portrait, from underneath a velvet cloth. Meanwhile, people watching in the galleries saw their phones and Twitter feeds light up with the never-ending barrage of breaking news: sports tournaments canceled, the U.S. Capitol closed to visitors, cruise industry idle.
When Senate President Bill Galvano gave his goodbye address, lawmakers presented him with a trip to Hawaii, complete with a ukulele and a koa wood necklace. Over the speakers, tropical music played.
“I hope this is good until 2022,” he joked. “I may have to take the surgeon general with me.”
As the speeches and formalities went on, so did the legislative session. The regularly scheduled session is supposed to end Friday, but leadership has said it will likely go until Thursday of next week.
Lawmakers are still finalizing the state’s budget, which is being re-evaluated because of the virus and the related stock market drop. They may need to scale back everything from tax cuts to teacher raises, they said.
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On Monday, the Florida House stopped in mid-session for a wipe-down and brief isolation of five members who attended events in Washington, D.C., where people were detected as having the novel coronavirus.
House Speaker José Oliva said the swift action on the part of the Department of Health, which determined that the members did not needed to be tested or isolated, made him confident that the Legislature is acting responsibly in conduction the daily floor sessions.
When asked whether session should be postponed Wednesday night, Oliva appeared to downplay the risk.
“It’s alarming, the level of reaction,” Oliva said. “One wonders, does the health department know something that we don’t in regards to the level of risk?”
He continued: “If you go just on a case-level basis, it certainly would to be more than a regular reaction to such a thing. So it’s a concern, because the current facts don’t seem to support the level of reaction that we’re seeing.”
On Thursday, Oliva said the business-as-usual stance was no mistake.
“We are still shaking hands because we are not in panic mode,” Oliva said.
Lawmakers say individually, they are doing what they can to communicate with their constituents and keep their offices safe.
Rep. Javier Fernandez, D-South Miami, said he’s been doing appearances on Spanish radio and even urged the Department of Health to start posting notices in Spanish.
“We are making sure messages are delivered in a culturally competent way,” he said. “We want to tamp down the panic.”
He said on the House floor he keeps hand sanitizer with him at all times, and that he’s seen more members using it now than he’s seen in his two sessions. At least one member has been pushing the buttons on her desk, used to record members’ votes, with her elbow.
However, Fernandez said he does notice lots of hugs and the occasional cheek kiss.
Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, said he’s been keeping the sharing of food in his office to a minimum, and has put out bottles of hand sanitizer out for staff’s use. His office has also sent memos to constituents about canceled events in Miami, like the Jazz in the Gardens festival that was recently canceled in his district.
Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said she has encouraged her colleagues to practice good hygiene and to model that behavior to others. Eskamani, who is in the middle of a reelection campaign, added that her office in the process of reviewing and rescheduling events.
“I have a little bottle of hand sanitizer on my desk I am actively using and I know a few other members do, too,” said Eskamani, who was gifted a small bottle by Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz after she tweeted about having to purchase the hard-to-find product online.
Some lawmakers said the farewell speeches, while long, are appropriate for members who may have spent much of their career in the Legislature.
Braynon, who recently gave a speech of his own, said he doesn’t fault his colleagues.
The budget is still being worked out “behind the scenes,” he said, so the speeches are not wasting time, but filling it.
“Staff is still working on the budget ... and if you’ve known someone for a decade, you’re not going to end your time with them with a fist bump,” he said.
Fernandez said it’s hard to criticize the term-limited members who want to give long speeches, since “they deserve their due.”
Lawmakers could probably be more modest with the hugs and kisses though, he said.
“We’re all very social people and being from Miami, so we’ve probably got to rein it in.”
Eskamani said, however, she thinks leadership should “keep session as tight as possible.” The Department of Health should be giving lawmakers more direction too, she said.
“It would be in everyone’s best interest for us to move through the end of session as quickly as possible, keep speeches short and consider virtual options to reduce human contact,” she said. “I’m sure there are concerns around a virtual meeting because we’ve never done it before, and I assume we don’t have rules for it, but more proactive cleaning by all of us should be something we are each practicing.”
Meanwhile in other states, legislatures are preparing to close their capitols if the coronavirus is found in their midst. In the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak in Washington state, lawmakers are scrambling to pass a $100 million package to combat the disease before their legislative session ends Thursday, the AP reported..
According to the Associated Press, if a legislator or staffer is diagnosed with COVID-19 or if the state’s public health officials advise a shutdown, the Legislature would adjourn abruptly and look for alternative methods to finish the session.
There are 27 confirmed cases in Florida to date but none in Leon County. DeSantis, however, says he expects numbers to climb as more testing is done.
Times/Herald staff writers Emily L. Mahoney, Lawrence Mower and Times staff photographer Scott Keeler contributed to this report.
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