State legislative leaders Friday released contrasting COVID-19 protocols for upcoming committee meetings, with the Senate setting up an off-site area where the public can view and participate in meetings amid the pandemic.
Under Senate President Wilton Simpson’s plan, members of the public will have to watch remotely and testify from a civic center a few blocks from the Florida Capitol — unless they are invited to the meetings by committee chairs — when the meetings begin next month.
“As determined by the committee chair, in advance of each meeting, committee staff will contact those with subject matter expertise (for example, agency staff), who would typically attend a meeting within their jurisdiction, to determine whether, based on the specific agenda, they should attend the meeting in person in order to answer questions that may arise,” Simpson, R-Trilby, wrote in a memo to senators on Friday. Members of the press will be allowed to attend in-person meetings, the memo said.
“Only agency representatives, or other subject-matter experts listed on the meeting agenda who are scheduled to speak before the committee” will be invited to appear at Senate meetings, Simpson spokeswoman Katie Betta told The News Service of Florida in an email.
Simpson, a farmer who also spent decades in the environmental remediation business, urged senators “to avoid in person meetings and to utilize available platforms to schedule meetings virtually” for January.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, has embraced a somewhat more relaxed stance, while still limiting the number of people who will be able to mix and mingle with state lawmakers during committee hearings that begin the week of Jan. 11 in advance of the annual legislative session, which starts March 2.
Seating in House meeting rooms “will be socially distanced and limited to meetings where committees are discussing bills or potential legislation,” Sprowls wrote in a memo to House members on Friday.
The House will use an online registration system for people who want to provide “substantive testimony” and for the press, Sprowls said. Seating in committee rooms will be available on a “first-come, first-served basis,” he added. Expanded seating capacity for “on-site virtual testimony” will be available “on certain issues of great public significance and when scheduling allows,” the House speaker wrote.
Visitors to “House spaces,” including lobbyists, will be “required to observe social distancing and wear a face covering when in the company of another person,” Sprowls’ memo said.
People who are exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, who are in quarantine or who were recently diagnosed with the virus won’t be allowed to enter the House.
The Senate “has and continues to observe” federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols, which include face coverings, social distancing and frequent hand-washing, Betta told the News Service.
The new legislative protocols, which come as COVID-19 cases and deaths in Florida continue to climb, encourage lawmakers to limit face-to-face interactions with the public.
Sprowls urged House members “to use conference calls or virtual meetings as alternatives to in-person meetings.”
The House speaker’s memo advised that representatives should “make every effort” to limit the number of people who are in their offices at one time. Members’ offices “generally accommodate” two guests, and aides’ offices generally have room for no more than one guest, Sprowls said.
“In-person meetings should be by appointment only with sufficient time in between appointments to avoid crowding in common areas,” he instructed.
The House is creating a condensed committee schedule by splitting committee blocks in two and using an alternating meeting schedule, thereby reducing the number of days House members will be in Tallahassee.
For example, committees and subcommittees will meet over two days during the week of Jan. 11, instead of the traditional four days of meetings. Committees and subcommittees that did not meet in early January will meet later in the month.
To maximize social distancing, Simpson previously announced that the Senate intends to use its largest committee rooms and hold no more than three committee meetings at one time.
The Senate, meanwhile, has reserved three “remote viewing rooms” at the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center, where members of the public will be able to watch the proceedings and testify.
“I understand that these protocols represent a significant change for everyone, and there are sure to be bumps in the road as we navigate the best way to facilitate a safe environment for the 2021 legislative session,” Simpson, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday, wrote in Friday’s memo.
But some lobbyists seemed taken aback by the Senate’s invitation-only plan.
“I suspect that I would be considered an expert on gun issues and would be invited on pro-gun bills, but it would probably be a cold day in hell before a Democrat would want me there for a gun control bill,” National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer, who has represented the gun-rights organization for decades, told The News Service of Florida on Friday. “Frankly, the thought of testifying from the civic center virtually sucks.”
Others fear that Senate Republican leaders may not reach out to people or organizations that don’t support their takeson issues.
“Anytime you have invitations going out from leadership, you’re going to run into potential inequities, especially not only the nonprofit, advocacy-oriented lobby corps, but also the public,” Brad Ashwell, Florida state director of All Voting is Local, said in a phone interview. “A lot of constituency groups bus up members during session.”
Logistics could also pose a problem, Ashwell said. Lobbyists could find it difficult to attend a House committee meeting in the Capitol shortly before or after making a virtual appearance at a Senate panel from the civic center.
“This disconnect between what the House and Senate are doing is concerning to me. They need to be on the same page,” Ashwell said.
Sprowls and Simpson are requiring legislators to undergo COVID-19 testing.
“We appreciate the challenges presented by COVID-19, but are confident that if we work together in a spirit of openness and consideration, we can navigate the challenges of the next few weeks,” Sprowls wrote.