The Florida Capitol is expected to remain largely closed to the public for the rest of the legislative session because of the COVID-19 pandemic, as lawmakers get more comfortable meeting face to face.
Despite new COVID-19 cases trending down from late fall and early winter and the federal government increasing vaccine supplies to the state, Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, doesn’t anticipate lifting health precautions before the scheduled April 30 end of the session.
“I don't think everyone in this building will be vaccinated in the next seven weeks,” Simpson said last week. “We have a major concern for our senators. But are equally as concerned for our staff.”
Simpson estimated it could be the summer before such vaccinations could be completed.
“That leads us to believe that next year we would go back to a much more traditional model of having folks come back into this chamber and visit us,” Simpson said.
Gov. Ron DeSantis expects that sometime in April vaccines might be available to all Floridians, with lines shorter than they were in the early stages of vaccinations when fewer doses were available and seniors rushed to get shots.
“I think as you get into some of the younger demographics where the risk is just a lot lower, I think it's going to be less than 50 percent are going to opt for it,” DeSantis said Friday while in Sebastian.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden, stressing the need for vaccinations because the fight against COVID-19 and its variants “is far from over,” also said he envisions everyone will be able to get in line for shots by May 1.
“Let me be clear, that doesn't mean everyone's going to have that shot immediately. But it means you’ll be able to get in line beginning May 1, every adult will be eligible to get their shot,” Biden said. “And to do this, we're going to go from a million shots a day that I promised in December, before I was sworn in, to maintaining, beating our current pace of 2 million shots a day.”
More than 4.2 million people in Florida have received at least one dose of the vaccines, according to the state Department of Health.
The Senate and House have set up protocols that have led to major changes in the way this year’s legislative session has been conducted.
Lawmakers, staff members and the news media are expected to get tested for COVID-19 weekly.
Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, said Democrats are starting to feel more comfortable meeting in small groups and plan to begin in-person caucus meetings.
“We're going to ask for limited staff attendance, I don't think every legislator needs to bring one of their staffers in,” Farmer said Friday. “We'll have some of our minority caucus staff in there. But we'll be there in person. Then stakeholders and the press can attend on Zoom, ask questions, participate in that manner. That way I think we're doing the best we can to have that in-person togetherness that I think we rely on so much as legislators.”
The Senate has implemented more restrictive access requirements to the Capitol than the House, where lobbyists and other visitors must register online at least three hours before committee meetings, show identification and pick up passes to gain access to meeting rooms.
People that want to speak before Senate committees must go to the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center, a few blocks west of the Capitol at Florida State University, and appear through a livestream.
While some lawmakers have discussed expanding the livestream option to other locations in the state for public input during future sessions, Simpson said it’s too early to consider if any COVID protocols will become standard practice once the pandemic is deemed conquered.
“What we don't know is, what are the CDC (federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines going to look like in August?” Simpson said. “If you were to tell me that the circumstances are going to be 100 percent vaccinated, all restrictions lifted on travel and so on, I would say we will go back to the way it was. But the realities are, as we don't know, if some of these additional strains will bring additional problems, we certainly hope that it goes back to normal where people are visiting us in our offices, and the public is welcome in this building.”