MIAMI – A House committee approved a bill Wednesday to better prepare for public health emergencies, ranging from ensuring the state is well-stocked with personal protective equipment to allowing the governor more flexibility in spending state money to deal with a crisis.
The bill approved by the House Pandemics & Public Emergencies Committee on a 14-4 vote also addresses how deaths are reported, would allow the Legislature to override a governor's executive orders and seeks to better inform the public on state spending on its response and emergency orders.
The bill would require the state Public Health Officer to develop a plan for every foreseeable public health emergency and update it every five years. It also spells out that health emergencies could include the release of toxic chemicals and nuclear agents, as well as biological toxins.
But the four Democrats who opposed the bill took issue with provisions that limit emergency orders issued by local governments.
“We should not be severely restricting the emergency powers of local governments. I think that makes us less safe and I think that mayors shouldn't have to ask permission from Tallahassee in order to be the mayors they were elected to be,” said Democratic Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith.
The bill would prevent local governments from restricting personal freedoms during a health emergency, including the right to worship, buy a gun, work, travel or assemble. Local emergency orders would also be limited to seven days, with the ability to renew them another seven days at a time for a total of no more than six weeks.
The bill also expresses the legislative intent to keep schools and businesses open to the greatest extent possible if they can do so safely. If a governor does close schools and businesses he or she must detail why the action is necessary and regularly review the decision.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, after initially stopping in-school learning and closing many businesses, now says Florida won’t close schools or businesses because of the pandemic.
During an extended emergency, the governor would have to release details of state contracts addressing the issue. After a year, a financial audit would have to be conducted on state spending on the emergency.
The Department of State would have to create a website listing in searchable form all emergency orders. The Department of Emergency Management's and governor's website would have to post links to the site.
Florida has had more than 2 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus and more than 33,000 deaths related to the virus.
Meanwhile, Florida International University plans to return to pre-pandemic scheduling, starting in the summer session. Since the global pandemic began, the Miami-based university has held classes either online or with social distancing measures in place. But with vaccinations underway, the university is ready to offer a “robust and safe on-campus experience for students," Provost and Executive Vice President Kenneth Furton wrote in an email sent to students and faculty on Tuesday.
He said that if needed, the school would rescind its on-campus plans, the Miami Herald reported. He did not specify what changes in conditions would trigger a change of plans.
“Because of the fluid nature of the pandemic, we will remain flexible and agile,” Furton's email said.