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As Florida Lawmakers Reconvene, Pandemic Casts Large Shadow

florida capitol complex - wfsu.jpg
WFSU
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As the 60-day session begins Tuesday, social distancing and other safety rules will continue to be in place at the Capitol.

Florida lawmakers will gavel into session Tuesday in Tallahassee amid a pandemic that will play a starring role on their agenda — including its influence on the state budget and a debate whether to shield businesses and health workers from COVID-related lawsuits.

The coronavirus is also influencing how lawmakers are conducting business. Social distancing rules will continue to be in place at the Capitol to keep the coronavirus from further infiltrating the state's hallways of power.

A fourth of the state Senate has already been infected with the disease, including the chamber's president and its top Democrat. It's unclear how many of the 120-member House has been infected.

The Florida House will largely stick with existing COVID-19 restrictions, according to protocols released Friday by Speaker Chris Sprowls’ office.

Under the House pandemic procedures, lobbyists and other visitors must register online at least three hours before committee meetings, show identification and pick up passes to gain access to meeting rooms.

Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, initiated the process before committee meetings began in January.

The Capitol complex continues to remain largely closed to the public, and the Senate is requiring lobbyists and members of the public to testify remotely from the nearby Donald L. Tucker Civic Center.

After the issue got delayed this month, a high-profile bill that would provide COVID-19 legal protections to businesses is slated to go before a Senate committee on Tuesday.

The Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee has included the bill (SB 72), sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, on its agenda.

The measure, which would help shield businesses from lawsuits stemming from injuries or deaths related to COVID-19, is a top priority of Republican legislative leaders and business-lobbying groups. But it got hung up Feb. 15 in the Commerce and Tourism Committee because Brandes was chairing another committee meeting.

The House version of the bill (HB 7), sponsored by Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Dover, has cleared its committees and could be considered by the full House this week.

Meantime, both houses will continue moving forward with proposals that would help shield health care providers from lawsuits related to COVID.

The House Pandemics & Public Emergencies Committee on Tuesday will take up the House’s health care liability bill (HB 7005), sponsored by Rep. Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland. A day later, the Senate Health Policy Committee will take up the Senate version (SB 74), sponsored by Brandes.

To adhere to social-distancing requirements during the 60-day legislative session, the House is offering limited seating on a “first-come, first-served basis” for committee meetings in which legislation is discussed.

The updated House protocols won’t allow people who can’t get access to committee rooms to testify remotely from an overflow room, a change from the earlier coronavirus precautions.

Registered lobbyists who don’t want to attend meetings have the option of submitting an “electronic committee appearance record to waive in support or opposition of filed bills, amendments or draft legislation instead of appearing in person,” the House protocols said.

Members of the public who aren’t registered lobbyists and can’t attend committee meetings in person will be allowed to submit written comments to committee members electronically.

House visitors will be required to wear face masks, including when they are addressing committees, and won’t be allowed to show up unannounced.

“Visitors in House spaces who are unescorted or who do not have a valid pass for an upcoming committee meeting, will be directed to leave the building by the House Sergeant’s Office staff,” the updated protocols released Friday said.