Amid widespread shutdowns caused by the coronavirus, the Florida Legislature will defy federal recommendations to limit gatherings -- by convening in a one-day session to approve the state budget.

TALLAHASSEE – What may be among the last mass-gatherings in Florida for the foreseeable future is set to take place Thursday at the state Capitol, with lawmakers defying federal coronavirus guidelines and convening to approve a $93.2 billion budget.


The Senate is discouraging the public from attending and the House gallery will be closed; only a few staff members will be on hand. And lawmakers who don’t want to mingle with others during debate can watch via television from their offices.


The traditional sine die ceremony ending the session with a hanky drop amid a throng of onlookers also has been scrapped.


Florida primary: Joe Biden wins, ups pressure on Bernie Sanders as other states postpone


Still, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends limiting any gathering to no more than 10 people, and Gov. Ron DeSantis has closed bars, reduced restaurant seating and has shut schools until at least April 15, most of the 40-member Senate and 120-member House will be on the floors of their respective chambers Thursday.


There is anxiety and mostly off-the-record grumbling about the session – and a handful of lawmakers do plan to stay away.


But House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami, and Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, defend the move as needed to set in place a budget for the year beginning July 1.


Florida primary: 5 takeaways from Joe Biden’s crushing win


Another driver, they add, is that the spending plan – when signed by DeSantis – will immediately direct $27.3 million in federal money and $25.1 million in state funds to the state Department of Health to help combat coronavirus.


The budget also includes $3.8 billion in reserves the state can begin drawing on next fiscal year, although many lawmakers expect a special session will be needed before then to reduce planned state spending in the virtually frozen economy.


But for now, “The Florida House has a constitutional obligation to vote on the budget; we are also obligated to do so in Tallahassee,” Oliva said in a memo this week to lawmakers.


Gov. DeSantis says K-12 schools must stay closed until April 15, classes to resume remotely


The Legislature completed the rest of the work of the 2020 session last Friday, shortly before midnight on the last scheduled day. But efforts to finalize a budget agreement – the lone bill lawmakers are required to approve each year – stalled, forcing lawmakers to extend session into this week.


Oliva and Galvano both said that the state constitution doesn’t specifically allow for remote voting. And Galvano said he didn’t want to risk a legal challenge to the spending plan by not convening lawmakers and holding the session at the Capitol.


It will be different, though.


Among the changes aimed at limiting time lawmakers are seated together, Galvano said that senators wishing to ask questions about the budget have the option of doing so in writing – which Senate budget chief Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, can answer publicly on the floor.


Florida lawmakers going into overtime to finish state spending plan


Senators also can submit a formal statement instead of appearing for debate, with these added to the Senate journal of the day. Galvano is initiating procedural steps to speed up what usually is a labored process of voting on the floor – again, to hold down the crowd.


Both Galvano and Oliva are excusing any lawmaker from attending who may have symptoms associated with coronavirus, or is part of a high risk group. Oliva also encouraged members to travel alone to Tallahassee, without staff and by car, instead of plane.


On Wednesday, a half-dozen senators – four Democrats and two Republicans—had received excused absences. While 70 of the House’s 73 Republicans plan to attend, several Democrats weren’t expected.


Many of those staying way are from South Florida, where the bulk of the state’s coronavirus cases are centered. Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, who is expecting her first child in coming weeks, also said she isn’t attending.


Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, who just turned 66 and deals with diabetes and high-blood pressure, also said he’s not coming to the Capitol. He pitched the idea of allowing lawmakers to cast votes remotely on the budget – but was rejected by Republican leaders.


“I respect the people making the decision,” Geller said. “They’re not trying to punish people. They have a view of what the constitution requires. I don’t agree with it. But I’m not taking the risk.”


He added, “There are not bad actors here, except the virus.”


Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach, also said she won’t travel to Tallahassee, and urged legislative leaders to begin thinking of steps that will allow for long-distance voting in the future.


Berman also said she expected lawmakers to be back at the Capitol soon, for budget-cutting once the depth of the economic downturn becomes clear.


“We’re in for some troubling times,” Berman said.