In response to social distancing and mass gathering restrictions enacted in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers have been forced to use new methods of connecting with constituents.
In addition to governments at every level moving their meetings online, many legislators have turned to social media platforms and video conference calls to help provide information and answer questions related to the COVID-19 crisis.
In the past few weeks, U.S. Congressman Gus Bilirakis and state Sen. Ed Hooper participated in Zoom calls with constituents, and while each admitted it’s not the ideal method of meeting the public, Bilirakis noted politicians understand you have to be able to adapt to any situation.
“I don’t want it to last forever, that’s for sure!” the North Pinellas native said when asked during his May 5 Zoom session with local small business owners hosted by the Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce.
“Social distancing is difficult, especially for a Tarponite. It’s very difficult. But you adapt.”
Hooper, a former Clearwater city commissioner and firefighter who represents Florida’s 16th district, jumped on a 9 a.m. chat hosted by Oldsmar Realtor Quyen Trujillo on May 6, and he joked about Zoom’s sudden surge in popularity.
“Nobody had ever heard of it and in two days it’s the only social media platform around!” Hooper said of the now ubiquitous video communication service that has been utilized by millions of families, businesses and organizations during the worldwide quarantine.
Hooper had a quick response to how challenging it’s been to connect with constituents during the crisis. “It’s not challenging at all, it’s impossible,” he said. “We’re encouraged to work remotely when we can and we telecommunicate every day, but we don’t allow constituents to meet in the office because it’s not safe.”
Despite the inconvenience, Hooper admitted online communication “is all we’ve got” during the crisis.
Afterward, Trujillo explained how the virtual session with the senator, which she noted was held in a mortgage office using social distancing protocols, came together.
“We’re in a pandemic and people are asking what we can learn from this,” she said. “Friends and family don’t have all the answers and they’re not a person of authority, so I immediately thought of Ed because he’s so good at connecting with people and I felt the information needed to be out there.”
The camera-friendly Realtor, who has appeared in seven episodes of HGTV’s popular “House Hunters” series, said she was nervous for her first live broadcast, but Hooper’s relaxed attitude helped her feel at ease.
“I thought he was honest and compassionate,” Trujillo said of the North Carolina native, who
spoke candidly on a wide range of topics, including social distancing, the phased reopening of the state and the “real potential” for a second wave of the virus outbreak. “Ed’s a great guy, and I think it showed.”
Asked if she planned to continue connecting politicos with constituents through her “Conversations with Q” series, Trujillo said she would love to expand her guest list to include School Board members, sheriffs and other local influencers.
“The coronavirus crisis was the driving force, to make sure there’s no misinformation out there, so I would like to see what people are most concerned about because that’s why people tuned in,” she said.
“It’s got to be content driven and I think there’s a real need for this type of content right now and it’s not going away any time soon.”
Jean Hungiville, president and CEO of the Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce, agreed.
“I think Zoom is going to be utilized a whole lot more by our lawmakers because it allows them to connect with constituents visually during a time when they can’t meet face to face,” she said. “Also, you can have a regular meeting schedule and you’re connecting with a wider audience online. So, I think we’re going to see better communication with legislators and organizations like the Florida chambers of commerce with Zoom and other platforms as the coronavirus crisis continues.”