I’ve returned to the Florida lawmaking session this week. It officially began on Tuesday in Tallahassee, the state capital, a government and university town tucked into the rural northern Florida panhandle.
Tallahassee is also where large oak trees grow as if from a story book, complete with luscious hanging Spanish moss, and where I have lived since 2017.
The state legislative session is 60 days long and occurs annually either in January or March, depending on whether it’s an election year. Midterm races will be held this year, so the session is early, so lawmakers can get out early to raise money for their campaigns. They can’t fundraise during session.
I missed the 2021 session while recovering from cancer. It was the first pandemic session, since 2020's had already wrapped by the time the virus spread here, when there were many Covid policies in place.
Those policies are gone now, and I’m back. And, it’s weird.
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I asked my reporter-friend this week if the session mood was more toxic this year, trying to identify for myself exactly what feels weird.
“For me, there are just too many bodies in the building, that’s what feels toxic,” my friend said.
She and I wear masks to the Capitol, but most others don’t. Republicans and lobbyists are almost entirely without masks. Many Democrats and reporters have also gone maskless.
And, so, she’s right. The legislative session is physically more toxic this year than, maybe, ever before.
Two other observations: The buildings are all freezing, something I forgot about, forcing many women to wear their coats inside. And people seem to smile more in the Capitol.
So, many of those maskless faces are grinning, attempting to grease the political wheels of government with friendliness, which I feel like is partially why masks are so rare. People like smiling at each other and that’s hard to do while wearing a mask. I, by contrast, actually appreciated how my mask hid my resting bitch face while I was bored, sitting in committee this week.
In Gov. Ron DeSantis’ State of the State on Tuesday, he promoted antibody treatments but failed to mention masks or vaccines. I never got the chance to ask him in his short gaggle afterward, but I want to know if he really believes treatment is more effective against Covid than prevention?
He’d probably laugh at me in response, or at least that’s what I fear. Covid has become so obviously political that people often do, in fact, laugh when talking about it.
DeSantis has stopped promoting vaccines and he doesn’t wear a mask, and Florida “process people” have followed his lead. He sets the tone, and is the most influential Republican in a state where they have ruled for so long that many young people have never known otherwise.
Even DeSantis’ wife, Casey, a cancer patient with presumably a compromised immune system, was maskless in a crowded Florida House gallery during his Tuesday address.
Given all this, I’ve begun to think of masking — a science-based tool to help prevent the spread of Covid — as a kind of barometer for institutionalization.
Do they wear a mask? Not institutionalized. Don’t they? Institutionalized.
The Covid political dynamic is clashing with reality: There is an Omicron wave in Florida.
Nearly 64,000 Floridians have been contracting Covid per day, on average, as of Thursday, according to the NYTimes. And 66 Floridians have been dying from Covid per day on average.
“The University of Florida says we can expect the peak now, in the next week or so,” a maskless Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls (R-Palm Harbor) told reporters on Tuesday. “No question that this strain has been probably the most contagious of all of them. It feels like almost everyone is getting this at some point. The good news is we’re not seeing the hospitalizations go up, we’re not seeing people getting super sick like we had in some of these other variants where there was real real challenges.
“I’m not a scientist, but it probably has to do with [the fact that] people are vaccinated, it probably has to do with the fact that this strain seems to be a weaker strain of the virus.”
I know of at least one state government worker who was hospitalized for Covid in the past two weeks. That same worker’s husband died from it.
During the November 2021 Special Session called by DeSantis to pass laws that, among other things, make it harder for employers to require vaccines, Rep. Chris Latvala (R-Clearwater) said he spent two weeks in the hospital with Covid, once referring to it as "the plague," before vaccines were available.
"Scared me half-to-death. When the doctor sits you down, after a couple days, and gives you the, 'We're not giving up on you, so please don't give up on yourself,' speech. And, come to find out, the gentleman in the room next to me did not make it," a maskless Latvala said in committee. "Thankfully, due to miracles of science and God's grace, I was one of the lucky ones, and I survived.”
Then Latvala pivoted to why he was voting for the anti-vaccine measure.
“If people don't want to take the vaccine, they don’t have to,” Latvala said. “We shouldn't be making people do something that is against their conscience, against their religion, or against medical advice that their doctors, for one reason or another, told them not to do, or advised them not to do.
"Basically, this is about freedom. We should give people freedom.”
Not incidentally, DeSantis calls his 2022 agenda the “Freedom First Budget.” That sounds a little bit like a 2024 campaign slogan.
But, freedom to do what, exactly? Freedom to move closer to death, faster? To evade our singular evolutionary point — survival?
Regardless, let’s take the Republicans’ argument at face value, and assume being able to choose to forgo the vaccines will make you free. That freedom will last for about five minutes, until you get sick.
And then you’ll be a patient, a second-class citizen, or you’ll be dead.
But, of course, everyone at the Capitol knows this, even if they pretend otherwise. These are educated people, many of whom have been vaccinated.
As a former cancer patient, I know that I do not want to get sick, because I do not want to die, especially from a relatively preventable disease. So, I wear an N95 mask. After the wave peaks, I’ll wear a cloth mask with a filter.
I haven’t contracted Covid, as far as I know, knocks on wood, so all of my antibodies come from vaccines, including the booster. But, probably because of the maskless trend, a lot of process people have caught it (at least two Capitol reporters are out with Covid right now), and are maybe more immune, hence brazenly going maskless during session.
That’s what one lobbyist-friend told me on Wednesday, while I was sitting in the 10th floor Capitol café, the warmest place I’ve found. He caught Covid last year, right before he intended to get his booster.
Instead of the booster, he got the state’s free antibody treatment.
“I just think I’m so chock-full of this stuff right now,” he told me, referring to Covid antibodies, “that I don’t think I need to wear it.”
That same lobbyist told me about how several years ago, before my time at the Capitol, a stomach bug went around.
“People were literally lying down between committees,” he said, motioning around him like there were bodies stacked in the corners of the café.
So getting sick together is a session ritual. And Covid’s already made its rounds, several times over.
But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill stomach bug, obviously. And the fact that it’s business as usual in the Capitol, while so many Floridians are dying, is well, kind of creepy.
And, Republicans talking at the same time about valuing human life to justify further restricting abortions in Florida, a session priority, is even creepier.
The immense cognitive disconnect that goes on here to conduct the business of government is the weirdness. The government should be on the same page as reality, not writing its own.
I saw a lobbyist walk by me on Wednesday while I was sitting on a chair in a hallway corner of the Senate building. The lobbyist was maskless, wearing a fur-trimmed coat, to stay warm. And as she passed, I couldn’t help but imagine her as a defenseless bunny, hopping off to her maskless death.
Nice piece on the weirdness of politics and the hypocrisy of freedom slogans