TALLAHASSEE — Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson, one of the state’s three most-powerful political leaders, has tested positive for COVID-19, Simpson said Monday morning.
Simpson, 54, underwent testing for the virus on Sunday, in advance of a Monday afternoon meeting of Florida electors. The electors were slated to gather in the Senate chamber to cast ballots for President Donald Trump, who defeated President-elect Joe Biden in Florida by more than three percentage points in last month’s election.
In a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis, Simpson said he regretted not being able to attend the meeting because he tested positive for COVID-19.
Simpson, who has advocated for the use of face masks, is experiencing “mild symptoms,” similar to having a mild head cold or allergies, spokeswoman Katie Betta said.
Senate staff members who had contact with Simpson last week were tested Monday morning “out of an abundance of caution,” Betta said in an email.
“Everyone was negative,” she said.
While some other Republican leaders have taken more-cavalier approaches to COVID-19, Simpson has adopted more-stringent protocols for senators and staff to try to reduce the spread of the highly contagious virus, which has resulted in the deaths of more than 20,000 people in Florida since the onset of the pandemic.
The Trilby Republican initiated precautions even before taking over as the Senate’s leader following the November elections.
Simpson, a farmer and contractor who also made part of his fortune in the asbestos remediation industry, signed a two-year contract in October with a team from Tampa General Hospital to make recommendations about social distancing, air filtration and other COVID-19-related precautions in advance of the 2021 legislative session.
Committee meetings for the annual 60-day session, which kicks off March 2, begin next month.
State lawmakers were offered COVID-19 tests at a testing site set up outside the Capitol prior to a legislative organization session on Nov. 17. Nine lawmakers, including those who were asymptomatic, were excused from attendance because they tested positive for the virus or were exposed to COVID-19 in the days leading up to the largely ceremonial session.
Simpson announced this month that no more than three Senate committees will meet at the same time when lawmakers return to Tallahassee next year.
The block scheduling “will allow us to utilize the committee rooms with the largest seating area for senators,” Simpson wrote in a Dec. 3 memo.
But Simpson and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, have not released plans about public attendance inside the Capitol — which has been closed to the public for months because of the pandemic — during the committee weeks and the legislative session.
Simpson’s positive test result also nixed an annual holiday breakfast with reporters, scheduled for Tuesday. In previous years, the gathering was held in the Senate president’s office. Due to the coronavirus, this year’s event was slated to take place in the Senate chamber.
State health officials on Sunday reported more than 1.125 million COVID-19 cases since March. The state has recorded thousands of new cases each day for weeks.
More than 19,800 Florida residents have died of complications related to COVID-19, and 267 non-residents have died, according to Sunday’s report.
Many of the deaths in Florida — more than 7,700— involve residents and staff of long-term care facilities.
The federal government is sending 179,400 doses of Pfizer Inc.’s recently approved vaccine to Florida, with the first doses arriving Monday. DeSantis said that 81,900 doses of the vaccine will be distributed to long-term care facilities. The remainder will go to five hospitals throughout the state.