A team from Tampa General Hospital is helping the Florida Senate develop a plan for the 2021 legislative session in an effort to reduce spread of the coronavirus as lawmakers gather to conduct state business.
Wilton Simpson, the soon-to-be Senate president, announced the partnership in a memo Tuesday that went to all senators and their staffs. It said Tampa General will help “develop educational information ... on practical, actionable infection prevention steps" for how lawmakers should conduct themselves during session, which begins March 2.
In an interview Wednesday, Simpson said the partnership resulted from conversations started during his time on Gov. Ron DeSantis' state reopening task force, which also included Tampa General president and CEO John Couris.
“Once we concluded that business, our thoughts went to how we are going to reopen the capital,” Simpson said. “John reached out and we started talking through the processes."
The hospital created its Prevention Response Outreach team earlier this year in response to COVID-19, Couris said in an interview. It’s made up of prevention experts from Tampa General and the University of South Florida medical school who started their work locally, helping Tampa’s Florida Aquarium come up with a safe reopening plan.
The team started work in Tallahassee this week, Simpson said, evaluating all Senate areas, including the Senate chamber, committee rooms and offices. Simpson said the House of Representatives, too, will use advice from Tampa General, but it is unclear how involved that side of the Legislature will be.
A call to incoming House Speaker Chris Sprowls was not returned Wednesday. Instead, a spokeswoman from his office wrote in an email that the House “shares the Senate’s commitment to creating a safe, functional environment where our members, our employees and the general public can participate in the legislative process."
The email said both chambers have been “engaged in our own deep dives into COVID-19 research” and will continue to have an “extremely open dialogue." A question about what that work has entailed was not answered.
Simpson said the Senate has been working on forming a partnership with Tampa General for months, but the announcement came as the nation is learning about a coronavirus outbreak in another government building, the White House. The ordeal serves as a good example of what can happen when government leaders gather during a pandemic, Simpson said.
He said Tampa General will continue to support lawmakers as the circumstances of the pandemic could change in the coming months. In addition to the Florida Aquarium, the hospital has consulted with multiple entities since May, including The Straz Center for the Performing Arts, the Tampa Bay Lightning and TECO.
All of the work has been important to getting businesses back up and running safely. But helping the state feels like a special honor, Couris said.
“It’s all about the people of Florida,” he added. “Senators are doing the people’s work, and we need to create a safe environment for that.”
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