TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida lawmakers returned to the state Capitol on Monday, amid a recent surge in COVID-19 cases and some concerns over security in the wake of last week's attack on the U.S. Capitol.
It was a generally subdued opening to the work of lawmakers, whose regular session starts in March.
The usually pulsing Capitol of the country's third-most populous state was devoid of the legions of lobbyists and citizen advocates who swarm Florida's corridors of powers.
The only committee to meet extensively Monday was the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee. Members of the public and lobbyists not directly involved in the hearing had to monitor proceedings blocks away from an arena at Florida State University.
“I know this is a difficult year,” said Deborah Foote, the deputy director of the Florida Chapter of the Sierra Club, who was among the handful of citizens taking part in the first day of the legislative committee week.
“We're very concerned about the public participation component,” she said, adding that the public venue for public speakers required no COVID screenings.
Like other legislative bodies across the country, Florida lawmakers have been mindful of the ongoing pandemic, which has sickened more nearly 1.5 million Floridians and killed more than 23,000.
“While we remain encouraged with the recent vaccination progress, we will continue to proceed cautiously, and testing in advance of committee meetings as well as adhering to CDC guidelines regarding masks and social distancing is an important part of our careful approach to maintaining a safe environment in which to conduct legislative business," said State Senate President Wilton Simpson, who recently recovered from an infection of his own.
A procedural briefing for committee leaders had to be postponed because state Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, the chair of the Rules Committee, announced Sunday she tested positive for the virus.
“We have to do the best we can under the circumstances,” said Sen. Linda Stewart, an Orlando Democrat.
The pandemic will be front and center in this week's legislative agenda, including a discussion Wednesday by the Senate Health Policy Committee on the state's response to the outbreak.
Earlier in the day, legislative Democrats held a virtual press conference to denounce proposals aimed at controlling Black Lives Matter protests that have roiled communities across the United States.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, had urged lawmakers to crack down on violent protests, which some in his party have broadened to include mobs similar to the ones that brought the U.S. Capitol under siege last week.
But Democrats asserted Monday that last week's violent events in the nation's capital are now being used as a pretext to win support for legislation that, they said, remains intended to control Black protesters and their allies.