Florida House, Senate lay out rules for Organization Session during COVID-19 pandemic
Both the House and Senate have established coronavirus protocols for the upcoming ceremonial meeting.
When the Florida Legislature holds its ceremonial "organization session" on Nov. 17 don’t expect the usual sense of celebration, camaraderie and frills.
There'll be no House and Senate galleries overflowing with family, friends and special guests.
No hoary salutations of past House members from the floor.
No giant bouquets and towering potted plants on members’ desks that require handcarts to remove.
Not even a chance to break bread in the members’ dining hall.
Welcome to Organization Session 2020, COVID-19 Pandemic Edition. Expect to see lots of masks, hand sanitizer, temperature checks and rapid testing.
Both the House and Senate have established coronavirus protocols to minimize risks associated with the pandemic for the mini-session, constitutionally required to be held 14 days after an election. Rules also are being developed for members of the press.
Incoming Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, contracted with infectious disease and prevention experts at Tampa General and the University of South Florida to help come up with protocols for the Senate. These guidelines are strictly for the organization session, he said.
“As the guidance of medical experts is updated based on the status of the pandemic, so will our protocols,” Simpson told senators in a Wednesday memo. He also outlined a no-nonsense get-together simply for “the required election of officers, adoption of rules” and swearing-in of new members.
In a similar memo sent out the same day to his fellow lawmakers, House Speaker-designate Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said protocols “are guided by public health research and industry best practices, and developed with the strong desire to balance the need for prudent alternatives in our legislative practice with the duty we have in the service to our constituents.”
Guidelines will be ready by Dec. 30 for the upcoming interim committee meetings in January and February and the regular 2021 session beginning March 2.
“My hope is that the spirit of public service that is leading us through these difficult days will remain with us long after our lives have returned to normal," Sprowls said.
A coronavirus scare toward the end of the last regular session briefly shut down the Legislature. Workers sprayed, scrubbed and disinfected the House chamber after it was discovered that several members attended political events where they may have come in contact with people who tested positive for COVID-19.
For the upcoming organization session, the House will have "screening stations" at the doors on either side of the Chamber, similar to what was set up at the end of the 2020 session. Across the way, senators and guests will be asked to enter through the main doors of the Senate Chamber.
Every House and Senate member, staff member and guest who attends will get tested for the virus, administered by the Division of Emergency Management. Rapid-turnaround, molecular diagnostic testing for COVID-19 will be provided on site at no cost to members.
Second, everyone who wants one can get a mask. Anyone who feels the need for extra protection also can get a face shield or more secure N95 mask.
House members exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms or awaiting diagnostic test results must email the Speaker's office to request to be excused from the organizing session. Senate members who exhibit symptoms are asked to stay home and seek appropriate medical care as needed.
The Senate’s current budget is covering the cost of the contract with Tampa General, as well as other materials like hand sanitizers and cleaning products, and signs designed and printed by the Senate Multimedia Office. Simpson himself paid for masks for senators and staff.
Traditionally, a 'family day' at the Capitol
Organization Day is traditionally a family day at the House and Senate — but because of COVID-19 members will only get one pass for a spouse or invited guest.
“Our families, friends, special guests, and even our professional staff, will not be able to participate in the same way they had in previous years,” Simpson said. “While this will be a disappointment to many, I am mindful of how Florida families have forgone 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.”
While they are not requiring face coverings, House and Senate leaders said people are expected to follow federal guidelines to wear face coverings, maintain social distancing, and wash hands often.
The House rules do note that Leon County has a mask ordinance in place that “imposes certain mandatory requirements for the use of facial coverings in business establishments.” Masks, however, cannot be used for advocacy, according to the House rules.
The Senate goes one step further and requires its members to wear solid-colored masks with no patterns or logos, other than the Senate seal. Guests in galleries will be expected to wear masks.
House members will be assigned temporary seating in the chamber and no modifications will be made to existing members’ desks, House protocols said. Special areas have been designed in and adjacent to the chamber for members with unique health issues.
The House chamber in the Florida Capitol Historic Museum, also known as the "old Capitol," will be offered to those who want "greater social distancing" than available in the regular House chamber.
The House also is limiting gallery seating to 60%. A negative onsite rapid COVID-19 test is required to be seated in the House Gallery. The spouses' lounge will be open but child care will not be provided.
No meals will be served in the members’ dining hall during the week of organization session, and members are being asked not to bring any materials, including computers, into the chamber to make security screening easier.
And no big bouquets.
“Only reasonably sized floral arrangements and live plants will be approved for distribution in the House chamber for the organization session,” the House protocols said. “Because the House chamber will be secured at the conclusion of the Organization Session, we ask that you remove all floral arrangements and plants from your desk at the conclusion of the session.”
Contact Jeff Schweers at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.
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