Florida House evacuates chamber floor amid COVID-19 threat

5 lawmakers attended DC conference where attendee tested positive for coronavirus

State workers swab down Florida's House floor at the state Capitol in Tallahassee on Monday after several lawmakers reported exposure to a person who tested positive for COVID-19 while attending a political event in Washington. (AP photo/Bobby Caina Calvan)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida House abruptly recessed Monday afternoon and cleared public galleries after several of its members agreed to be tested for the new strain of coronavirus after recently attending a political event in Washington where one attendee tested positive for COVID-19.

Five House members and their staff attended the conference, according to House Speaker Jose Oliva.

“In an effort to set an example in the ongoing fight against COVID-19, and in an abundance of caution for their fellow Members and staff, Representatives Sabatini, Altman, McGhee, Donalds and Byrd, along with a staff member, have voluntarily agreed to submit to testing,” Oliva said in a statement.

The House chamber was emptied Monday afternoon while the desks of the members were disinfected. House communications director Fred Piccolo said the risk of them testing positive is low.

“Members have chosen to self-isolate out of an abundance of caution. They are feeling fine; they have no symptoms," Piccolo said. “They haven’t exhibited symptoms for 10 days and we feel like they’re just doing this out of an abundance of caution. They should be just fine.”

Crews in blue medical gowns swabbed the House floor during the recess. Lawmakers were allowed to return to the chamber within an hour.

Rep. Cord Byrd, who was among those potentially exposed, said state health officials said they did not need to be tested or quarantined.

“We were able to verify with the organizers of the convention that the person that tested positive was not at any of the specific functions where we went nor were they at the same hotels," Byrd said Monday.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

House and Senate leaders announced Saturday they have agreed to Gov. Ron DeSantis’s request for $25 million to help the state combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19.

DeSantis said he expects Florida to receive at least $27 million from the federal government, along with an extra $500,000 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to immediately cover costs like lab equipment and staffing.

On Monday, Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva acknowledged the threat from a new virus to the Florida economy, as he opened what could be the final week of this year’s legislative session.

“We may be facing a very real challenge here. The coronavirus, while it had a rather minute effect on us, the panic surrounding it has had a real effect,” he told his chamber Monday morning.

Although he was ready to take precautions, Byrd said that he was glad he didn’t have to self-isolate, so he can get back to business at the state Capitol.

“We’re at the final stretch. This is the last week of the session. We’ve got bills to present, so obviously we want to do the right thing for the safety of everyone involved, but at the same time, we want to be able to finish out business and we’re going to be able to do that," he said.

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