COVID-19 keeps state lawmakers from capitol

Nine lawmakers were excused from attending the legislative organization session in Tallahassee on Tuesday because they tested positive for COVID-19 or were exposed to the coronavirus in recent days.

The legislators who tested positive for COVID-19 include Republican state Sens. Tom Wright of New Smyrna Beach and Ray Rodrigues of Estero.

Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta said Wright took three separate tests --- and tested positive twice --- at a state-supported testing site that was set up outside the Capitol for lawmakers, guests, legislative staff and reporters. Wright is now quarantined, Betta said.

Rodrigues announced earlier this month that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and would not be attending the largely ceremonial organization session, where newly elected lawmakers were sworn in and House and Senate leaders began presiding over their chambers.

The Florida House of Representatives on Tuesday released a list of seven members who were excused from the one-day session because they either tested positive or were exposed to someone who had tested positive. 

Newly elected Rep. Michelle Salzman, R-Pensacola, was among the representatives on the list.

Salzman said she traveled to Tallahassee to attend the session with her husband and 9-year-old son, who has been attending an Escambia County school. While Salzman tested negative for the virus, her son tested positive. Salzman said her son was tested three times to ensure that the positive test results were accurate, and she was tested three times to ensure that her negative test was accurate.

“We had no idea. Obviously, we never would have traveled to Tallahassee,” Salzman said in a phone interview.

Salzman said her son was upset by the news and started crying. But the state legislator said she was grateful for the information.

“If my son would have infected all those people, I don’t know how I would have slept on my pillow at night,” Salzman said.    

Rep. Mike Giallombardo, R-Cape Coral, told The News Service of Florida that he has self-quarantined for more than a week, staying on the opposite side of the home he shares with his wife and children.

“I’ve also been spending a lot of time outdoors,” he said. 

Giallombardo said he took a COVID-19 test in Cape Coral after he noticed he had a light, dry cough and a headache. 

Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, announced 10 days ago that she had tested positive for COVID-19 and wouldn’t make Tuesday’s organization session in Tallahassee because of the diagnosis.

Thompson "has suffered from fatigue, mild headaches, congestion and lack of concentration," her office said in a press release Tuesday, adding that her symptoms "have diminished greatly and she is improving daily."

Other House members included on a list that was distributed to reporters on Tuesday are Republican Reps. David Borrero, Adam Botana, Demi Busatta Cabrera, and Jackie Toledo. Immediate attempts to contact them Tuesday were unsuccessful. 

Gov. Ron DeSantis, Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, members of the Florida Cabinet, and the 160 members of the Florida Legislature have offices in the Capitol complex in Tallahassee.

The Florida House and the Florida Senate have different COVID-19 infection-prevention policies in place.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, did not require state representatives members to get tested for the virus. But Sprowls’ spokeswoman Jenna Sarkissian said that most of the members at Tuesday’s organization session agreed to the voluntary testing.

She said that all of the 78 Republican representatives agreed to be tested. Sarkissian said four Democrats who attended the organization session were not tested, but she did not disclose the names of the members.

House Minority Office spokesman Jackson Peel told the News Service his office did not track whether caucus members were tested. The House Democrats deferred the tracking to House leadership, Peel said.

“They were the ones setting the policy,” he said.

Meanwhile, Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, required all senators to undergo testing before entering the Senate chamber.

Neither Sprowls nor Simpson required lawmakers to wear face masks during Tuesday’s floor sessions. Even without the mandate, each of the 40 senators wore a mask.

The same was not true in the House, however.

Upward of 20 representatives did not wear a mask in the House chamber.

State Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R- Howey-in-the-Hills, has spearheaded lawsuits challenging mask ordinances, including one in Leon County. Sabatini was among the House members who went without a face covering on Tuesday.

“The efficacy of masks, in terms of a scientific device to slow or spread the virus is nonexistent. They don’t work. More importantly, everybody here was tested. So, it’s superfluous to wear a mask. In fact, if you wear a mask after being tested, it’s almost anti-scientific,” Sabatini said in an interview. “It’s really a silly, circus type of behavior.”

Rep. Tommy Gregory, R-Sarasota, also said that he wasn’t sporting a mask because he tested negative for COVID-19 on Monday.

Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, said she wasn’t wearing a mask because of a medical condition that she did not want to disclose.  

But Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, said the lack of a mask mandate could endanger people who work at the Capitol.

“We are very concerned about people walking around this Capitol without masks. We don’t want to make this legislative session a super-spreader event,” he said.