TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (The News Service of Florida) — Senate President Wilton Simpson doesn’t expect his side of the Capitol to be open to the public or lobbyists until after the upcoming 60-day legislative session, as many lawmakers and staff members likely will continue to await COVID-19 vaccinations.
During a meeting Monday about Senate procedural issues, Simpson advised members to get used to talking with lobbyists outside the Capitol complex. And he said public comments during Senate committee meetings will continue to be streamed online from rooms a few blocks away at the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center.
“I suspect this is the way it’s going to be through this session,” Simpson, R-Trilby, said as the second of five committee weeks got underway in advance of the March 2 start of the session.
“I also expect that by the summertime we’ll have all of them vaccinated that wants to be vaccinated,” Simpson continued. “And probably next year, it will go back to a more normal situation, that we will then have to define what that actually means.”
COVID-19 tests are being provided for free to lawmakers, legislative staff, Capitol employees and members of the media before the start of each week. But with steps such as testimony streamed from the civic center, the Senate has imposed slightly stricter rules than the House about trying to prevent the spread of the virus.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, has banned visitors from congregating in House “open spaces” and “seating areas” and is encouraging lobbyists to submit electronic appearance records to show their support or opposition to legislation, if they don’t wish to address committees.
Sprowls is also trying to reduce the number of days House members are expected to be in Tallahassee for the committee weeks.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has focused the state’s vaccination efforts on residents who are age 65 or older. Simpson noted that several senators in that age group are in the process of being vaccinated and that the Senate will pursue efforts for others to get vaccinated as the age limit is lowered.
“We’re not going to skip the line,” said Simpson, who tested positive for COVID-19 last month.
The use of online public comments might remain available in some hybrid fashion after the upcoming session, Simpson said. Besides more convenient parking at the civic center, Simpson said the remote location might allow people to feel more secure.
“I am presuming that we will have all been vaccinated, we’ll have herd immunity. And we can get back to semi-normal,” Simpson said. “But certainly, this is a really good process to have, where you have plenty of parking, plenty of room, plenty, you know, folks to take care of people who want to speak to us. And with the electronics today, with the ability and 5G (wireless technology) coming online, as it continues to come online, this is going to get better and better.”
Simpson also jokingly suggested the COVID-19 safety changes could have benefits for lawmakers.
“I think we’re going to be a whole lot more productive,” Simpson said. “And it’s kind of nice, right? It’s kind of like, ‘Hey, this way it should be.’ Does anybody have a problem with 25 lobbyists not piled up in your office?”
Simpson said he was cutting himself off from making a joke, noting the meeting was aired on The Florida Channel, before adding, “This is going to be a very productive session with all the leeches outside. I mean, not the leeches. Leaves outside.”