TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida Senate is bringing in a team from Tampa General Hospital to help determine how to safely hold committee meetings and the 2021 legislative session as the state continues to struggle with COVID-19.
Incoming Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, advised senators Tuesday he asked outgoing President Bill Galvano to sign a contract with infectious-disease and infection-prevention experts at Tampa General Hospital on a safety plan for areas of the Capitol complex used by senators and staff members.
“They will help us develop educational information for senators and staff on practical, actionable infection prevention steps,” Simpson wrote. “Additionally, they will support the Senate on an ongoing basis as the need arises, recognizing that specific intervention strategies and guidance may change between now and early next year, when the bulk of legislative work for the 2021 session would traditionally take place.”
House spokeswoman Jenna Sarkissian said she expects the House to use the Tampa General input as it develops its protocols for the session.
“Both chambers have been engaged in our own deep dives into Covid-19 research and looking at best practices in the public and private sectors,” Sarkissian said in an email. “We’ve had an extremely open dialogue, and both chambers have committed to share the feedback we receive and the lessons we learn.”
The Legislature completed the 2020 session in mid-March, just as the virus was starting to take hold in the state. Since then, the Capitol has been closed to the public, with access limited to employees and people who have appointments in offices housed in the building.
Lawmakers are set to return to the Capitol on Nov. 17 for a post-election organization session, which includes swearing in new members. Gov. Ron DeSantis has also indicated a special session could be held at the time to address his proposal aimed at cracking down on disorderly protests.
However, lawmakers, staff, lobbyists and others will really begin crowding halls and meeting rooms during committee weeks, which could begin as soon as December. During those weeks, committees work on legislation ahead of the 2021 session, which starts in March.
The scheduled of committee weeks will be announced after the election, Simpson wrote in Tuesday’s memo to senators.
Tampa General’s Prevention Response Outreach team is expected to begin its work on the Senate plans this week, according to the hospital.
“We’re dedicated to safeguarding the health and well-being of the citizens of Florida, and that includes creating a safe environment for our elected officials to work,” Tampa General President and CEO John Couris said in a prepared statement.
The hospital team includes members of its “Infection Prevent Team,” infection disease physicians from the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine and private practice physicians who specialize in infectious disease.
The team, set up in May, has previously consulted with Florida Aquarium, The Straz Center for the Performing Arts, The Tampa Bay Lightning and TECO.
The Florida Aquarium, which has not opened all its amenities, limits hourly capacity to provide for physical distancing, requires online reservations, prohibits cash payments, limits groups to eight people and requires employees and guests older than 3 years old to wear masks. The aquarium also set up hand-sanitizer stations at all entrances, exits and restrooms, limited food service seating and requires continuous cleaning of high-touch surfaces that include windows, railings, restrooms and elevators.
At the Straz Center, masks are required for guests and staff members, touchless entry with e-tickets is strongly encouraged, tables are set 6 feet apart and may not be moved, cashless payments are strongly preferred, hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes are available and security and servers must wear gloves.