Florida Dems concerned with COVID-19 protocols ahead of next session

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Democratic leadership is concerned the House’s COVID-19 protocols for committee weeks aren’t strong enough, and at least one key member fears it could lead to an outbreak.

Miami Lakes Rep. Bryan Avila announced the Republican-led House’s protocols Monday morning, two hours before the first committee meeting in advance of the 2022 Session. House Democratic Co-Leader Evan Jenne criticized those protocols for not being as strict at a time when lawmakers return to Tallahassee and COVID-19 transmission remain at a high rate.

Despite nationwide celebrations early this summer that the pandemic was effectively over, the delta variant struck the United States following mass re-openings. The delta variant has inflicted what has been Florida’s worst wave of the pandemic, with the death toll now topping 50,000.

Similarly, Jenne fears COVID-19 could sweep through the State Capitol.

“You see what happens when we put our guard down,” Jenne said. “When we as a state put our guard down, we have an extreme spike in COVID in the delta variant. The same thing will happen in this building.”

He also recalled the phenomenon of the “Tallahassee gunk” in past sessions, when everyone in the legislative process would get sick simultaneously.

Unlike during the 2021 Session, the Capitol is currently open to the public. And unlike last year, weekly COVID-19 testing isn’t required. However, free rapid testing is available to members and staffers.

Avila, dubbed the “COVID-19 czar” by House Speaker Chris Sprowls, also announced that lawmakers’ and caucus’ offices will have limited on-site staffing. Avila’s memo said the House would continue to implement measures for a safe legislative process.

While Democrats warn of an outbreak, Gov. Ron DeSantis said he will push the state to oppose recent COVID-19 vaccine mandates from President Joe Biden.

Saying Biden was “acting outside of the Constitution,” DeSantis said he was “going to have the Legislature involved as well” to “fight back and offer protections.”

“You can’t just sit there and hope some lawsuit is going to succeed. You have a responsibility to act. And so we will be acting in the state of Florida to provide protections for people. People should not be cast aside because they make a medical decision for themselves. They should not lose their job. They should not be unable to put food on the table just because they made a different decision than the powers that be are demanding that they make,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis sees the vaccine mandate opposition as “important much beyond this particular issue,” leading him to pose a rhetorical question.

“If the federal government can get away with doing this,” DeSantis asked, “what’s going to come next?”

Vaccinations aren’t required for lawmakers, staff or visitors. The policies also don’t require masks, but visitors are “expected to” wear masks and follow social distancing when asked by a lawmaker when in their offices.

Democratic Policy Chair Rep. Fentrice Driskell, of Tampa, said responsibility would fall on individual members.

“You never know what someone’s going through in terms of their personal health situation,” Driskell said. “So we all need to be thoughtful and mindful that we’re not exposing our colleagues and potentially creating a situation that would delay us from completing the business of the people of the great state of Florida and completing this Session on time.”

Jenne has served in the House since 2014. He also served a stint from 2006 to 2012. However, the Dania Beach Democrat is term-limited and isn’t running for reelection in 2022.

“I really don’t want to leave my last Session mid-Session,” he said. “I don’t want to have to be forced out for two weeks of a 60-day period.”

Renzo Downey covers state government for Florida Politics. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2019, Renzo began his reporting career in the Lone Star State, covering state government for the Austin American-Statesman. Shoot Renzo an email at renzo@floridapolitics.com and follow him on Twitter @RenzoDowney.

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