TALLAHASSEE — After nearly 14 months of being closed to the public, the Florida Capitol will reopen this week ahead of a special legislative session on gambling.
Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, made the announcement Monday, but it’s not clear if other parts of state government will follow a public-health advisory by Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees to open back up as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
Simpson’s office sent out a memo that said the Capitol will be open to the public Friday, one week after lawmakers finished the regular 60-day legislative session.
That means members of the public can enter the building without first getting tested for COVID-19 or showing proof of vaccination. The special session on a proposed gambling deal, known as a “compact,” between the state and the Seminole Tribe of Florida is scheduled to be held the week of May 17.
Democratic critics asserted that the public’s lack of access to the building during the regular session made it easier for the Republican-controlled Legislature to pass controversial bills.
“It allowed the conditions to be there to get bills passed faster and with less controversy, which makes the process less deliberate,” Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, told reporters Monday. “There probably were some big bills where we should have been more deliberate, should have slowed down and taken in more public comment.”
Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, said gambling is largely an issue for Capitol insiders. He said members of religious groups that oppose gambling might get engaged during the special session. But mostly, Jenne predicted that reopening the Capitol means a return of face-to-face lobbying.
“I think you’re going to see a whole lot of Gucci loafing lobbyists walking through those doors who haven’t for the last couple months, and that’s where you’re going to see that,” he said. “You’re going to see a lot more lobbyists in the building, but I don’t think you’re going to see this grand outcry from the people about the intricacies of the gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe.”
Meanwhile, with about 9 million people vaccinated in the state, Rivkees wants government agencies that closed their doors during the COVID-19 pandemic to reopen. But it’s not clear that government agencies are following Rivkees’ advisory.
Public access to government buildings and properties remains limited.
For example, the website for The Grove Museum in Tallahassee has a message that reads:
“We prioritize the health and safety of the public and our employees. After careful consideration, The Grove Museum will be closed to the public until further notice. Previously scheduled events that would have otherwise included the public will be either cancelled or rescheduled for a later date.”
The top of the Agency for Persons with Disabilities website has a message that says: “IMPORTANT: All administrative APD buildings remain closed to the public.”
And the Public Service Commission held online meetings Tuesday, with topics including proposed changes to base electric rates for Duke Energy Florida.
When asked about resuming face-to-face meetings, commission spokeswoman Cindy Muir said, “We follow the directives from DMS (the Department of Management Services).”
The Department of Management Services administers and maintains the state’s buildings and contracts. But it’s not clear what — if anything — the department has told agencies. Department spokeswoman Rose Hebert did not provide answers to written questions submitted by The News Service of Florida.
The Florida Supreme Court will hear two cases this week, including one involving a “stand your ground” self-defense issue, but the cases will be argued in a video conference. Paul Flemming, public information officer for the Office of State Courts Administrator, said the court is “keenly aware of these changing circumstances.”
The court’s policies have been guided by what’s called the Court Continuity Workgroup, which has met throughout the pandemic to look at procedures.
Rivkees issued the public-health advisory Thursday. He rescinded all previously issued public health advisories, officially making vaccines available to everyone who qualifies under emergency-use authorizations and recommending that fully vaccinated people no longer wear face coverings.
Rivkees’ advisory also said government offices should “be conducting in-person operations to carry out their duties and better serve Floridians.”