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Public health emergency changes eyed

Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash

By Jim Saunders

News Service of Florida

April 3, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — Pointing to COVID-19 restrictions imposed in other states, Florida lawmakers Monday began moving forward with a proposal that would require legislative approval of extended public-health emergencies.

The Republican-controlled House Healthcare Regulation Subcommittee voted 13-4 along almost straight party lines to back the bill (HB 1487), filed by Rep. Joel Rudman, a Navarre Republican who is a physician. Rep. Gallop Franklin, D-Tallahassee, joined Republicans in voting for the bill.

The bill comes after a statewide public-health emergency that lasted for more than a year in 2020 and 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I promised my constituents that if I were elected, I would make it harder for one person to ever lock down their home, their school, their office or their church,” Rudman, who was first elected in 2022, said. “This bill does exactly that.”

But Rep. Kelly Skidmore, D-Boca Raton, described the bill as a “colossal overreach.”

“We have a job to protect the citizens of Florida and make sure they’re healthy, and you have no idea what the future could bring,” Rep. Robin Bartleman, D-Weston, said. “And this bill ties the hands of everyone who wants to protect Floridians when something occurs that could be essentially lethal to the population.”

The bill comes after the upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, with Republicans, such as Gov. Ron DeSantis, making a rallying cry of preventing lockdowns and such things as mask requirements.

Under current law, the state surgeon general can declare statewide public-health emergencies and establish requirements. Such emergencies cannot continue longer than 60 days unless the governor concurs in renewing the emergencies. according to a House staff analysis.

After COVID-19 slammed into the state, then-Surgeon General Scott Rivkees declared a state of emergency in March 2020, with DeSantis agreeing to renew the declaration every 60 days until it expired on June 26, 2021, the analysis said.

Under the bill, the surgeon general could declare an initial statewide public-health emergency that would last for 60 days. The emergency could be extended for 30 days with the concurrence of the governor.

Any subsequent renewals would require two-thirds votes of the Legislature, with each renewal lasting 60 days.

The bill also addresses the surgeon general’s authority, making clear that the powers do not include ordering vaccinations.

With DeSantis and other Republicans touting the freedom of Floridians during the COVID-19 pandemic, Skidmore questioned why it is necessary to change the current public-health emergency laws.

But Republicans pointed to other states, such as New York and California, that imposed more restrictions.

“The good news, representative, is that not much went wrong in the state of Florida,” Rudman responded to Skidmore. “But that’s only by the grace of God that we had a governor who did not misuse these statutes.”

According to the Orlando Sentinel, 87,585 people died of Covid-19 with more than 7.5 million cases recorded in Florida.


Dibya Sarkar contributed to this story. 

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