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Florida lawmakers take precautions during budget vote

Coronavirus concerns added a twist to the final meeting of the session

File photo
File photo (News Service of Florida)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida lawmakers weren’t taking any chances Thursday during their final meeting of the legislative session as they voted on the budget for the coming year.

The usually packed and celebratory event looked distinctively different this year as they took special precautions in light of the concerns surrounding the spread of coronavirus, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease.

Among the precautions taken was closing the Capitol to the general public, and requiring members of the media to answer a series of questions before they were allowed inside the building.

More than 20 lawmakers elected to stay home, but those who showed up had their own protocols in place.

State Rep. Dr. Cary Pigman led the effort to screen lawmakers behind closed doors to make sure they weren’t infected before they reached the floor.

“We’re using the same precautions that the CDC recommends for any visit to a healthcare clinic or emergency department,” Pigman said of the safety measures.

On the floor, elbow bumps and hand sanitizer were in abundance.

Some lawmakers even chose to wear gloves as they debated the merits of the record $93 billion budget. The budget passed both chambers unanimously, but everything in it has question marks due to the coronavirus.

Despite that, House Speaker Jose Oliva expressed optimism that lawmakers would keep their promises on issues such as environmental spending and pay raises for teachers.

“We believe that a vaccine could have a very immediate turn of events, and so that’s what we would hope for,” Oliva said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis called the session a success.

“We now are in a different world than we were just a few weeks ago and we’re going to be looking to see how Florida is able to respond to the COVID-19,” DeSantis said.

The state has $3.9 billion in reserves along with $60 million set aside to fight the coronavirus, but the governor said to expect a heavy-handed veto pen this year.

The Capitol will now close to the public for 30 days.

Absent a vaccine, it seems likely the Legislature will be forced to return not long after that.