A one-day legislative organizational session convenes in Florida’s capitol Tuesday without all the usual pomp and circumstances of previous years.
Due to COVID-19, the Florida House and Senate have enacted several changes. In years past, the Capitol was packed with friends, family, lobbyists, and media for the first gathering of lawmakers prior to the upcoming legislative session. This year, the session is limited to the swearing in of newly elected legislators, the approval of rules and formally electing Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, as Senate President and Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, as House Speaker.
In an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19, attendance at this year’s session is also limited. Seating on the House floor will be “strictly limited to elected members and select guests at the speaker’s invitation,” according to a House plan. On the Senate side, only newly elected senators will be allowed to have a guest accompany them on the Senate floor for the swearing-in ceremony. The Senate’s spouse and child-care center will be closed.
The Senate made COVID testing mandatory by Monday for senators, staff and a limited number of guests. In the House, COVID testing is available but not required.
“Our families, friends, special guests, and even our professional staff, will not be able to participate in the same way they have in previous years,” Simpson wrote in a memo to senators. “While this will be a disappointment to many, I am mindful of how Florida families have foregone 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.”
The Florida House of Representatives announced through a YouTube video, several physical and structural changes to House offices and spaces.
It is intended that physical improvements will facilitate social distancing in wake of the pandemic. According to the video, committee rooms will have new seating for members, and teleconferencing capabilities are being updated around the House.
A new legislative welcome center is under construction in the fourth floor Rotunda of the Capitol, in the space dividing the main doors to the House and Senate. Maps, details on COVID-19 protocols and instructions on how to participate in the committee process will be available.
With a nod to the challenges of COVID, the Senate has proposed changing rules which forbid Senate committees from meeting past 6 p.m. Under the proposed rules, committees can recess and reconvene when and where the Senate President allows, to complete unfinished agenda items. The intent is to make the meetings more accommodating to members of the public travelling across the state for public comments and to allow senators to move meetings to the Knott Building, which has refurbished committee rooms that are more conducive to social distancing.
The Legislature’s Committee Weeks begin in January. Florida’s 2021 Legislative Session begins in March.