Session to open without COVID-19 restrictions

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TALLAHASSEE - Legislative leaders are monitoring the spike in coronavirus cases across Florida but haven’t made plans to reimpose restrictions on public access that were used during the 2021 session.

With the 2022 legislative session starting Jan. 11, people will be allowed to roam most of the Capitol complex and address lawmakers in person.

“In light of the pandemic, the Florida House last session made significant improvements to facilities, including adding hospital-grade HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters for better air quality, ample hand sanitizing stations and more,” House spokeswoman Jenna Sarkissian said in an email. “These improvements remain in place as the 2022 legislative session approaches and members prepare to do the people’s business.”

During the 2021 session, the Senate sharply restricted public access to try to prevent spread of COVID-19. For example, people who wanted to speak before Senate committees had to go to the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center, a few blocks west of the Capitol at Florida State University, and appear through a livestream feed.

In the House, lobbyists and other visitors were required to register online at least three hours before committee meetings, show identification and pick up passes to gain access to meeting rooms.

Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for Senate President Wilton Simpson, said in an email Monday that Simpson “continues to monitor the status of the pandemic,” but the Senate has not put in place plans to resume the 2021 restrictions.

On Dec. 20, Simpson, R-Trilby, advised members that the Senate will be open to visitors throughout the upcoming 60-day session. A memo from Simpson also said senators could request social distancing and masking within their individual offices.

“We should all be respectful and honor such requests,” added Simpson, who in October issued a rebuke to Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo for declining to wear a mask while in the office of Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton.

Polsky was being treated for breast cancer. Ladapo defended his action by saying he cannot communicate clearly “when half of my face is covered.”

Beside the option of senators requiring masks and social distancing in their offices, Simpson said the Senate will continue to conduct frequent cleanings of common areas and restrooms and provide wipes, sanitizer and other products for use in between routine cleanings of office spaces. Also, hand sanitizing stations remain in place in common areas and HEPA filters will be used in committee rooms, the Senate chamber and the press gallery.

“We now have a better understanding of how our own personal health impacts others in the workplace,” Simpson wrote. “Everyone is encouraged to monitor their health daily and to stay at home when sick.”

The Senate will make testing available to elected officials and their staff, Simpson’s memo said.

The Senate and House will hold a joint session Jan. 11 in the House chamber to hear Gov. Ron DeSantis’ State of the State address, the traditional kickoff for the session. Simpson will host a luncheon for senators and their families in the Old Capitol’s Senate chamber after the joint session.

The session will open against the backdrop of a spike in COVID-19 cases, as the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus has spread across the state. It also will come two months after lawmakers held a special session that included taking steps to prevent vaccination and mask mandates — a key issue for DeSantis.

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