TALLAHASSEE --- As lawmakers gathered this week in Tallahassee, the scene in the Capitol was a stark departure from the typically convivial initial round of committee meetings in advance of the legislative session.
The marbled halls of the Capitol building in downtown Tallahassee would typically be buzzing during the committee-meeting kickoff, as lobbyists rub elbows with legislators and aides while advocating for issues ranging from medical marijuana to budget items.
But the coronavirus pandemic has transformed the 22-story edifice and adjacent buildings into an eerily desolate landscape as lawmakers and their staff, lobbyists and reporters comply with new restrictions aimed at keeping as few people as possible from roaming inside the Capitol complex.
Lobbyists, who a year ago could be seen chilling in lawmakers’ offices or huddling in the Capitol rotunda, are resorting to Zoom, text messages and off-campus meetings to get the job done.
Lori Killinger, who heads the Lewis Longman Walker law firm’s lobbying team, said she doesn’t plan on hosting meetings at her downtown Tallahassee office.
Instead, Killinger intends to work from her hotel room and, if face-to-face sessions are necessary, meet with lawmakers on the outdoor balcony at the downtown Governors Club, rather than venture inside the Capitol.
“I don’t want to be the soldier that dies on the battlefield the day before they sign the peace treaty. I want to get my vaccine, and then I want to be able to meet in person. Other than that, I’m nervous and reluctant,” Killinger, who lives in Tampa, told The News Service of Florida this week.
The members-only Governors Club --- a popular meeting place in “normal” times for lobbyists, legislators and other Capitol insiders --- is likely to be hopping throughout the five committee weeks in January and February leading up to the 2021 session, which begins March 2.
Lobbyist Missy Timmins has rented an office less than a block from the Capitol, installed protection screens and made lunch reservations at the club for this week.
Timmins, who has had COVID-19 and is considered to be at high risk for complications associated with the coronavirus, predicted lobbyists will engage in a mixture of in-person and virtual meetings with lawmakers.
“It’s going to be all about relationships,” she said. “Obviously, I’m going to be a little more concerned because of my health. But also I have to balance that because I have a job to do and I have clients depending on me. I’ve got to strike that balance, just like other people do in the United States. I’m not alone in that.”
Lobbyists maintain that they’ll do whatever’s required to meet their clients’ needs, while following protocols laid out by House and Senate leaders.
“As the voice of all the professional and ethical lobbyists in Florida, we support leadership and we will continue to work to find safe solutions so our members can continue to lobby on behalf of their respective clients,” Candice Ericks, president of the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists, said in an interview.
But some are discouraging clients from traveling to the capital city right now.
“For the most part, I really feel like we want to limit traffic as much as possible because our job is to do the education and make sure legislators have all the information they need,” Heather Turnbull, managing partner of Rubin, Turnbull & Associates, told the News Service.
Turnbull, who lives in Tallahassee, said her lobbying firm wants to be “fluid” and “nimble” as committee weeks and the legislative session unfold.
She said she intends to restrict her visits to the Capitol complex.
“I’ve been successful so far doing meetings by Zoom,” Turnbull said.
As the numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Florida continue to soar, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, have initiated a series of protocols aimed at protecting lawmakers, staff and members of the public from the highly contagious virus.
Simpson, for example, is urging senators not to schedule face-to-face meetings with visitors throughout the month of January and is limiting in-person testimony at committee meetings to people who are invited by committee leaders, such as state agency staff members. People who want to appear before Senate committees can do so remotely, from rooms reserved at the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center a few blocks from the Capitol.
Under new protocols released by Sprowls this week, people who want to attend meetings where legislation is being discussed will have to sign up at least three hours before the meetings begin, show identification and receive passes at a newly established “Legislative Welcome Center” on the fourth floor of the Capitol.
Sprowls is shrinking the number of days House members will need to be in town for committee weeks leading up to the 60-day legislative session.
The House speaker has banned visitors from congregating in House “open spaces” and “seating areas,” and is encouraging lobbyists to submit electronic appearance records to show their support or opposition to legislation, if they don’t wish to address the committees.
Both chambers are allowing members of the media who have undergone COVID-19 screening --- being offered onsite gratis for reporters, lawmakers and staff --- to attend meetings in person.
In the absence of lobbyists milling about as three Senate committees met Tuesday, the Capitol resembled a ghost town.
“This is so different. Small crowd. We used to get a bigger crowd. I don't know. We have to advertise more or something,” Senate Military and Veterans Affairs, Space and Domestic Security Chairman Tom Wright, R-New Smyrna Beach, quipped to a nearly empty room as he convened his panel Tuesday afternoon.
The practice of lobbying “is no different than any other business where personal interactions are impacted by COVID,” lobbyist Nick Iarossi said.
“Our communications will be shifting from in-person to calls, text, Zoom meetings and office visits, as opposed to face-to-face meetings in the Capitol in order to be responsible and limit person-to-person contact,” Iarossi said in an interview. “The message our firm is sending to our clients is that we need to be respectful of legislators and their staff, and a lot of legislators are nervous about doing in-person meetings.”
But Ellyn Bogdanoff, a former state senator who’s now a lobbyist, said that, while she’s “accomplished a lot” through Zoom meetings and telephone calls, she’s not anxious about meeting with lawmakers.
“If somebody will have a meeting with me in the Capitol, I will take it,” she said.
Bogdanoff, who lives in Fort Lauderdale and skipped the first week of committee meetings, said she wears a face mask, frequently washes her hands and follows “all of the protocols” recommended by health officials.
“I’m extremely cautious,” she said. “But I just feel like there’s certain things you have to learn to live with.”
--- Staff writer Jim Turner contributed to this report.