COVID-19 looms over plans for FL Legislature’s first gathering

Florida Capitol. Credit: Colin Hackley.

First-time gatherings for incoming legislators freshly minted in fall elections are usually festive occasions marked by pomp, circumstance and parties. But this year, the events will be bare-bones affairs, with precautions reflecting COVID-19’s devastating effects on Florida.

As of Thursday, the Florida Department of Health reported 827,380 COVID-19 infections — the third highest number of infections in the nation — and 16,961 deaths of Florida residents.

The numbers climb daily, yet the new legislative bodies are scheduled to meet in 12 days, on Nov. 17.

The gatherings are constitutionally mandated organizational sessions in which the chambers will elect officers and be ceremonially sworn in.

But House and Senate leaders have cancelled social functions traditional for organizational sessions, as well as interim committee meetings that would have put lawmakers to work in December.

The House and Senate sessions will be closed to all but the lawmakers themselves and a small number of special guests. This excludes former members, even past House and Senate leaders, who traditionally return to take a bow.

Special seating is being provided for members with special medical vulnerabilities, and the Historic Capitol will be set up for additional seating for members who prefer more distancing than will be available in the chambers.

A limited number of guests will be allowed to observe from a distance.

Masks will not be mandatory, but House and Senate leaders made clear in written instructions they expect members to wear them for the safety of all participants. Members must get a negative COVID-19 test by Nov. 16, and they will be checked for fever before being allowed to enter the chambers on the 17th.

Senate President Designate Wilton Simpson, a Republican representing Citrus, Hernando and part of Pasco counties, said the precautions are in line with hardships Floridians are living with on a daily basis.

“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. Disruptions to our traditional ceremonies will be small in light of the sacrifices made by so many,” Simpson wrote.

The proceedings will be live-streamed on The Florida Channel.

Simpson’s memo noted that Senate staff resumed fulltime operations in the Capitol when Gov. Ron DeSantis fully reopened the state and lifted statewide coronavirus restrictions.

The Legislature is scheduled to convene March 2.