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Florida Capitol reopens to the public after months of limited access

'Everybody was trying to do the best they could,' Rep. Fentrice Driskell says
Posted at 6:21 PM, May 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-08 13:06:36-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — With vaccines now widely available, Florida's Capitol reopened its doors to the public Friday morning. Officials shut the building down about 14 months ago as the pandemic began.

With weekly testing, access was mostly limited to lawmakers, staff and the press.

While members like State Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said precaution was warranted, she feared democracy may have suffered.

"The Speaker's office and the Senate President, everybody was trying to do the best they could in terms of striking the balance of keeping everyone safe," Driskell said. "Generally, I think whenever government is removed from the people, it runs the risk of being out of touch."

State Rep. Fentrice Driskell
State Rep. Fentrice Driskell talks about the reopening of the state Capitol.

Floridians were only able to weigh in on House bills under strict rules or virtually in the Senate at the nearby Donald L. Tucker Civic Center.

It was a huge concern for a coalition of grassroots organizations. In letters to leadership, they pushed for other options like remote access from home.

"Legislative leadership, limited public testimony, limited how many folks could testify, limited where we could testify," said Ida Eskamani with Florida Rising.

Eskamani said limited access allowed easier passage of controversial policy.

Ida Eskamani, Florida Rising
Ida Eskamani says the Florida Legislature limited public testimony during this past session.

"We saw a wishlist of special interest, of the far-right, just being steamrolled through this process," she said. "Even when folks came to have their voices heard, testimony was limited."

The GOP majority however has a different take on the legislative session. Republicans celebrated it as efficient and effective, given the circumstances.

State Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay
State Rep. Randy Fine says the legislative session was successful given the obstacles due to the pandemic.

"We passed landmark policy," said State Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay. "In a session where nobody knew what it would be like because of COVID, I think we've really made something good out of it."

Regular public comment will return when the Legislature resumes for a special gaming session set to start May 17.

Officials said some safety protocols would remain during the session. That included frequent cleaning and hand sanitizing stations. But, no testing will be required, and masks will be optional.