Legislating in the time of COVID-19 means putting protections over public access

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Mary Ellen Klas, Kirby Wilson
·9 min read
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Located on the tallest hill in the highest part of the state, halfway between Pensacola and Jacksonville, Florida’s Capitol is hard to reach for most Floridians during the annual legislative session.

But this year, as legislators opened their 60-day session Tuesday trying to navigate a global pandemic and stay healthy enough to avoid disrupting their activities, access to elected government is even more distant.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has not allowed the Capitol to be open to visitors even as he ordered all businesses to be open in Florida. Citizens are kept out of the buildings and at a distance, and the pandemic protocols set up by legislative leaders to allow the public to testify in person before committee hearings have proven cumbersome and technology-challenged.

“This is an opening day like none other,’’ said Sen. Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican, Tuesday morning as he gaveled in the Senate with fewer visitors in the galleries than usual. “There is no doubt COVID-19 protocols have created challenges. ... The look and the feel of the Capitol is different, but the mission is the same.”

Simpson and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican, have defended the public restrictions as necessary “to make sure that we’re safe.” But as most of America has grown accustomed to the ubiquitous convenience of teleconferencing as a safe way to engage with each other, Florida’s legislative leaders have rejected that approach as a legitimate way to hear testimony from constituents, drawing widespread complaints from advocacy groups and even veteran lobbyists.

Locked down but also locked out

“What we’re dealing with right now is a lockdown of the process,’’ said Rich Templin, a longtime lobbyist for the Florida AFL-CIO. “The access to the Florida Senate is being completely eliminated. The building is shut down. ... The House is a little more open, but certainly not so for the average person.”

To testify before a Senate committee, people are asked to appear at one of three meeting rooms at the Leon County Civic Center and have their comments streamed virtually into the meeting room. Only those invited to present to the committee will be allowed in the actual meeting room.

Members of the press are allowed in the Capitol but only if they have been tested for COVID-19 the day before at a site set up on the Capitol ground and tested negative. In the House, the public is allowed to attend but must register in advance and are allowed to speak during committee hearings only if they have been invited to appear.

Normally, the halls would be bustling with lobbyists, constituents and lawmakers all trying to influence the legislative process in one way or another. Instead, the coronavirus pandemic has prevented Democrats from meeting in large groups in person. Party business is mostly done over Zoom, and most legislative committee meetings are kept strictly to one hour because sanitation crews have to disinfect the rooms between committees.

The strict protocols, which have been in place since legislators met for a one-day session in November and continued through weeks of committee meeting in January and February, will be here through the session and won’t be lifted until vaccination rates are much higher, Simpson said.

In addition to keeping the public at bay, legislators must undergo weekly testing, temperature checks and the expectation that everyone wear masks. Only for opening day are they being allowed to bring in family members, but even they have to be tested. Five House Republican chose not to wear masks, but all senators, and their family members, wore them.

Legislative leaders will not disclose the names of all members and staff who have tested positive for COVID-19, but at least 16 of the 160 legislators have publicly acknowledged being infected.

Simpson said the weekly testing has proven effective catching several asymptomatic carriers of COVID, including “several” senators and staff. On Monday, Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, and his wife both tested positive and were not allowed in the Capitol Tuesday.

“It could have spread to half the Senate, two-thirds of the Senate, and we would have been shut down for minimally two weeks,’’ Simpson said.

To Rep. Nicholas Duran, a Miami Democrat, it’s strange to walk the halls of a mostly empty Capitol. He said he wonders if the disruption will interfere with the ability of lawmakers to thoughtfully consider pieces of legislation not already on the agenda of Republican leaders.

“Every session, both the House and the Senate have priority bills. Priority bills don’t get slowed down,” Duran said. “It’s just a matter of the rest.”

New protocols present new challenges

But the different approaches to dealing with the public have added confusion to an already stressed process.

In the House, lobbyists and concerned Floridians are free to enter committee chambers, sometimes dozens at a time, to make themselves heard. But no one is allowed to approach committee members after the hearings. In the Senate, there are no lobbyists or members of the public, but reporters are free to approach lawmakers to ask follow-up questions once the committees are adjourned.

The contrasting protocols, however, present challenges to people who need to attend meetings in both the House and Senate, forcing them to walk about a mile to get both places. For less seasoned advocates and even veteran lobbyists, it’s an inconvenient set of obstacles.

“If someone says something that you need to respond to and you’re sitting in your office, you have to get your ass to Civic Center, or you realize, gee whiz, I didn’t get a ticket to get into a committee room,’’ said Ron Book, a veteran lobbyist who represents cities and counties as well as corporate and nonprofit clients. “How am I going to communicate? How to effectively advocate?”

For advocates and lobbyists who do not have the money to hire teams of lobbyists to build relationships with legislators, or entice them with campaign cash, the inability to meet legislators in person this session adds another layer of inequity to an already deep divide.

“To have the Senate and the House have different processes is problematic for people with disabilities,” said Olivia Babis, senior public policy analyst with Disability Rights Florida. “Somebody that has mobility impairment may not be able to make that trek back and forth, especially to have to do it repeatedly, multiple times a day.”

In addition, the Civic Center doesn’t have an adjustable podium or microphone for people in wheelchairs, she said.

More than 30 Florida grassroots organizations wrote to legislative leaders in February, expressing their concern about the lack of transparency and urging them to allow the public to participate remotely.

“The relationship between elected officials and constituents is intended to be a dialogue and not a one way street,’’ said Common Cause Florida Executive Director Anjenys Gonzalez-Eilert at a news conference last week.

Neither the House nor Senate has allowed people to submit comments electronically as an alternative to appearing in person, the advocates said, and the website to submit appearance forms frequently malfunctioned during committee weeks in January and February.

Patti Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said the decision by legislators not to open the process by using widely accepted technology was a deliberate choice to allow them to be “less than transparent.”

“Florida must strike a balance between giving the Legislature the flexibility needed to execute its constitutional responsibilities during a crisis and the public’s right to participate so the legislative process is fully transparent and accountable,’’ she said.

Democrats seek virtual access

To address the problem for future legislators, Senate Democratic Leader Gary Farmer, a Lighthouse Point Democrat, last month filed legislation to put a constitutional amendment before voters to allow legislators to meet virtually and to guarantee public access to those meetings.

“We’re seeing bills that would limit voting rights, circumvent the will of the people on the successful minimum wage amendment, and favor big insurance companies over everyday consumers,’’ he said in a press release. “These proposals are all being rammed through during a time when those directly impacted are unable to attend meetings and speak directly to the lawmakers passing these bills. This is unacceptable, and I hope that this legislation will prevent terrible injustices such as this from occurring again.”

Simpson rejected the suggestion that they could open the process to virtual testimony from Floridians as “pretty ridiculous” because “anywhere in the world, somebody could call in.”

“I think it’s important for folks to come to Tallahassee to express their opinion,’’ he said.

Sprowls also defended the protocols.

“Listen, this is all inconvenient,’’ he told reporters last month. “It’s inconvenient for the members to come up here and to get tested before they come into the building, but it’s the right thing to do to keep everybody safe.“

He predicted that when the pandemic ends, “it’s not something that we want to hold on to.”

Simpson said legislators have been meeting with constituents regularly through video conferencing, and he’s heard from some Floridians that it has been so widely welcomed it will be normalized.

“Folks that normally drive from Pasco County four hours to get here to see me for 15 minutes or 30 minutes now in the future will say ‘Hey, can we do a Zoom call?’ ” Simpson said. “I think that’s going to be a much more efficient process for a lot of our constituents back home.”

For legislators, the distancing needed to get their job done safely has taken its toll, too.

To Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who every year has one of the longest lists of pending bills in the Legislature, the pandemic protocols have changed everything.

“It’s a lot less fun,’’ he said. “This job is the human interaction, the meeting with students, the challenging ideas. You take that away and this is just work.”

He says there is reward in “working through solving some of these tough problems, but you don’t have the interaction with people that make it enjoyable.”

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas