The Florida Senate will convene to organize next week, and masks are not mandated

Members and guests are asked to adhere to CDC guidelines that recommend masks and six-foot social distancing.

Legislative leaders on Wednesday released details surrounding the Nov. 17 organization session, with the House and Senate laying out different plans for how they will conduct business and celebrate election victories amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

While organization sessions are normally ceremonial events where family members and friends watch legislators get sworn in, incoming Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, released a plan that will limit the number of people allowed on the Senate floor and require that all senators and senior staff members be tested for COVID-19 by Nov. 16.

“There will be an onsite testing location available on Sunday, November 15 and Monday, November 16. Please allot 30 minutes for the rapid result PCR test,” Simpson wrote in a memo.

The Senate plan doesn’t mandate that masks be worn but makes clear that members and guests are asked to adhere to federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that recommend masks and six-foot social distancing. 

The Senate’s spouse lounge and child-care center will be closed, and only newly elected senators will be allowed to have a guest accompany them on the Senate floor for the swearing-in ceremony. Returning senators’ guests and family members will be seated in a different room to watch a livestream of the ceremony.

“Our activities will be limited to the required election of officers and adoption of rules, as well as the ceremonial swearing in of newly elected senators. The traditional social activities, family events, and congregate meals, will not happen during the organization session. Our families, friends, special guests, and even our professional staff, will not be able to participate in the same way they have in previous years,” Simpson wrote. “While this will be a disappointment to many, I am mindful of how Florida families have foregone or postponed celebrating or participating in many significant events due to COVID-19. Disruptions to our traditional ceremonies will be small in light of the sacrifices made by so many.”

Simpson's plan was developed with the guidance of Tampa General Hospital. The Senate in October signed a two-year contract with the hospital for COVID-19 prevention and outreach services.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, also notified members on Wednesday that the chamber was taking steps to ensure their safety during the organization session.

The House plan said on-site testing will be available to lawmakers and that they will undergo temperature screenings before entering the House chamber. Negative COVID-19 tests will be required for people who will sit in the House galleries.

The House also will make face masks and shields available for lawmakers, with the plan noting that Leon County, where the Capitol is located, has a local mask ordinance that requires masks to be worn in businesses open to the public. 

While the Senate is allowing some members to have guests on the Senate floor, seating in the House will be “strictly limited to elected members and select guests at the speaker’s invitation,” the House plan said. Members’ guests will be seated in the galleries.

Unlike the Senate, the House will hold in-person orientation sessions for new members on Nov. 16, and the Democratic and Republican caucuses will be authorized to meet. Additionally the House plans to keep its spouses’ lounge open.

While the House isn’t reorganizing desks, it is creating special seating assignments so House members with “unique health issues” can be seated. Additionally, the House will allow members who seek more social distancing to sit in the House chamber of the Old Capitol.

The House also has been working with the Department of Management Services to improve the air quality and filtration in the House chamber.

“As we convene for the 2020 organization session, and in the months ahead, we will be establishing protocols to mitigate the risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Sprowls wrote to House members in a note introducing the plan. “Our protocols are guided by public health research and industry best practices, and developed with the strong desire to balance the need for prudent alternatives in our legislative practices with the duty we have in the service of our constituents.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis in September floated the idea of holding a special session in conjunction with the organization session to take up a proposal aimed at cracking down on disorderly protests. But the information released Wednesday by Simpson and Sprowls did not indicate any plans to hold such a special session.

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