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Pandemic Session Means Less Pomp, More Circumstances As Lawmakers Grapple With Impact Of COVID-19

The Great Seal of Florida, as it sits in the rotunda of the state Capitol building
Steve Bousquet
The Great Seal of Florida, as it sits in the rotunda of the state Capitol building

The Florida legislative session began Tuesday in a largely-deserted state Capitol amid unprecedented restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

No crowds. No flower baskets on senators' desks. Visitors' galleries were mostly empty and the hallways quiet on Day One. The Senate session opened with a senator, Jeff Brandes, joining his daughter in singing the National Anthem.

The Capitol is more secure than ever, and so tight that former Senate President Mike Haridopolos, now a lobbyist, had trouble getting through a security checkpoint.

But he did, and was one of just two former Senate presidents allowed to be on the Senate floor, as part of a Tallahassee tradition.

In Opening Day remarks, Senate President Wilton Simpson told senators that not everything is different.

"This is an opening day like none other. Fewer people, less ceremony, but all hands on deck to tackle the needs of our state. And there are many needs," he said.

Eight reporters, far fewer than normal, watched Simpson's speech from the upstairs press gallery, where it was hard to hear at times over the din of a machine that purifies air -- yet another sign of the many physical changes in the Capitol.

Eight people were physically present at an afternoon Senate hearing on a controversial bill to extend lawsuit protections to businesses fearful of COVID-related lawsuits. Outdoors, the Capitol courtyard, normally buzzing with activity any day during the session, was desolate and quiet, as it will be for the next 60 days.

But it's true that not all has changed. House Speaker Chris Sprowls' speech included a swipe at the Florida reporters who cover the Legislature.

"A lot of has been written and said about the session that starts today," he said. "Most of it is nonsense. Almost all of it is wrong."

Governor Ron DeSantis State of the State speech was about a half-hour long and was heavy on self-congratulatory talk about how much better Florida has dealt with the pandemic than the other big states of California, Texas and New York.

The governor fist-bumped his way through a crowded House chamber, with handshakes -- the basic means of communication between politicians -- still off limits. Senators remained in the Senate chamber and watched DeSantis on TV, because they couldn't join House members in the House without violating social distancing. Another Tallahassee tradition set aside in the age of COVID-19.

Copyright 2021 WFSU

Steve Bousquet has covered state government and politics for three decades at the Sun Sentinel, Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald. He was the Times' Tallahassee bureau chief from 2005 to 2018 and has also covered city and county politics in Broward County. He has a master's degree in U.S. history from Florida State.