Virtual committee meetings, Zoom testimony on bills and other options for state Legislatures in a pandemic

Florida Capitol
The Historic Capitol, foreground, and Florida Capitol buildings. Photo Colin Hackley

Florida’s legislative session may look different in the new year, as it grapples with the continued effects of the global pandemic — but Florida won’t be alone.

Legislatures across the country are considering plans to meet in person or virtually, or adopt hybrid models in 2021. Some states have already made decisions, as COVID-19 cases surge around the nation.

In Maryland, for example, the General Assembly plans to hold a mix of virtual committee meetings and in-person floor sessions, with restrictions on public access and implementation of social distancing measures.

In the Maryland Senate, members of the general public “who wish to testify on a bill in committee will do so via Zoom.” And the Senate floor will be revamped to include “tall plexiglass panels on three sides,” according to Maryland Matters, an affiliate of the nonprofit States Newsroom.

The Virginia state House plans to holds its 2021 legislative session virtually because of “ongoing health concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Virginia Mercury reported. Virginia’s state Senate hasn’t announced its plans yet. The session is scheduled to convene Jan. 13.

The National Conference of State Legislatures is keeping track of COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on state Legislatures, including suspensions or postponements of sessions and committee meetings that craft legislation and build state budgets.

According to the NCSL, two state Legislatures have postponed its legislative sessions, as of Nov. 17: “The Illinois General Assembly postponed the Legislature’s veto session scheduled Nov. 17-19 and Dec. 1-3. The Missouri Legislature delayed a special session until after Thanksgiving,” NCSL said on its website.

Typically, legislators must be “physically present in committee or on the chamber floor to participate in debate or voting” to protect the “integrity of the legislative process,” NCSL said.

However, in Wisconsin, a law allows for “virtual meetings of the Legislature and legislative committees” during an emergency.

Wisconsin’s legislative session begins in January, but the Legislature hasn’t decided if it will meet virtually or in-person, a Senate clerk told the Phoenix in a phone conversation.

In Florida, lawmakers met in the Capitol Nov. 17 to swear in new members and handle other organization tasks.

At that time, “the Legislature put specific guidelines in place and took many additional measures to ensure the safety of everyone,” said Lisa Kauffman, press secretary at the Florida Senate Majority Office. Those included rapid COVID-19 testing, enforcement of social distancing and signage to encourage wearing a face covering.

Both chambers of the Florida Legislature have yet to release its plans for the 2021 legislative session but it appears that lawmakers could meet in person following a variety of safety protocols.

The Legislature convenes March 2, 2021, but committee meetings are usually held before the regular session.

The Florida Senate has been consulting with health experts in the state to develop safety measures for the 2021 session, according to Kauffman.

The Senate’s safety plan is being guided by infectious disease and infection prevention experts at Tampa General Hospital (TGH),” Kauffman said in an email to the Florida Phoenix.

“The TGH team is working with our professional staff on the development of a plan, including an evaluation of all Senate areas, from our Senator and staff offices, to public areas, to committee rooms, and our Senate Chambers so that Senators, staff, and visitors have confidence that safety measures are fully considered and implemented ahead of the 2021 Regular Session.”

As the Senate continues to work with Tampa General Hospital, it “will be announcing protocols for the 2021 Session in the coming weeks,” Kauffman said.

John Couris, president and CEO of Tampa General Hospital, said in a written statement last month:

“We’re dedicated to safeguarding the health and well-being of the citizens of Florida, and that includes creating a safe environment for our elected officials to work.”

The Florida House has yet to announce its plans for the 2021 legislative session but Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls said in a memo to House members that “by December 30, we will publish protocols that will address our work during the January and February committee meeting weeks.”

He added that “the 2021 Legislative Session protocols will be released before the end of February 2021.”

“As we learn more about the pandemic,” he said, “we will continue to collaborate with our friends and partners in the Florida Senate, and tailor our protocols to the specific stages of our legislative work.”