Coronavirus road gets tougher
The impact of the COVID-19 virus is terrible — and sure to get worse over the coming days and weeks. How bad depends upon the success of mitigation efforts President Donald Trump extended through April 30, as well as actions by state and local officials.
Trump had expressed hope that parts of the country could possibly reopen by Easter, but he recently acknowledged cases are expected to spike at that time and instead announced the monthlong extension March 29. Coronavirus cases are now expected to peak nationally around mid-April and perhaps slightly later in Florida.
While the President was applauded for taking that step, plenty want him — along with Gov. Ron DeSantis — to take further steps. DeSantis is urged continuously to implement a statewide shutdown, while Trump hears calls to lock down the entire country.
Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton commented on a petition from 900 health care workers urging a statewide “shelter in place” order. In a tweet, Deutch said: “They’re doing all they can to save lives. The least we can do is stay home. @GovRonDeSantis, make the call.”
Trump’s extension of the mitigation steps does not include any mandatory “stay at home” orders but urges Americans in noncritical roles to do so. While blasting the administration’s efforts, Coral Gables Democrat Donna Shalala would like something much stronger.
“The Trump administration ignored the scientists, the experts and the intelligence briefings,” Shalala said on MSNBC. “Its slow and uneven response has made our country the epicenter of this global pandemic. The time for a national lockdown is now, Mr. President.”
Trump’s 30-day extension is likely the closest to a national lockdown the nation will get. On March 30, DeSantis announced a “safer at home” order for Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe County, Florida’s most populous region and the hub of the state’s coronavirus cases.
With the Florida economy shut down, along with the economies of the other 49 states and the District of Columbia, the enactment of the CARES Act is vital to keeping the economy running at least on fumes. The $2.2 trillion package was signed into law by Trump March 27.
Panama City Republican Neal Dunn said: “This bill is designed to jump-start the economy and help people economically weather the worst part of this virus.” Democrat Al Lawson of Tallahassee said, “There’s funding to shore up our overburdened health system at the local and state level and there’s funding to get small business back on their feet and get North Floridians back to work.”
Some of the contents brought some disagreement (see “Gaetz, Omar debate” below), but the delegation was universally pleased to get the bill done. Even some rare bipartisan praise toward Speaker Nancy Pelosi came forward.
“Thank you @SpeakerPelosi for moving the CARES Act quickly and safely through the House of Representatives, and for your work on this legislation,” tweeted Naples Republican Rep. Francis Rooney. “As Americans, we must come together to defeat this virus. #Coronavirus”
While $2.2 trillion is a lot of printed money, some economists say more is needed. They may be right, because even the United States Postal Service says they may be forced to shutter by June because the bill provided no funding.
“The mail must go through” may be put to a stern test.
Rubio stirs up media
Sen. Marco Rubio has a track record of publicly expressing wonkish conservative views. Over the weekend, he ventured into media bashing, which brought out a torrent of criticism from around the country.
Within the context of believing China is grossly underreporting their coronavirus case numbers, Rubio took to Twitter to blast the reporting on the U.S. now leading the world in the number of COVID-19 cases.
The blowback came shortly afterward exemplified by Daily Beast editor-at-large Molly Jong-Fast quipping, “Marco isn’t allowed to criticize the president, so he’s decided to criticize the media.” GQ Magazine columnist Laura Bassett said, “This tweet is grotesque. Delete it.”
Most of the Twitter-world reacted negatively. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was one of the few supporting the premise behind the tweet.
“We KNOW China is lying … And American media (for $$) willingly repeat the lies,” he tweeted.
As the news will get worse over the coming days, these types of cyber confrontations are sure to continue.
DOJ probes stock trades
The Department of Justice had opened a probe into stock transactions by U.S. Senators shortly before the coronavirus tightened its hold on the U.S. and the world. The investigation, proceeding in tandem with the Securities and Exchange Commission, has so far reached out to GOP Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Recent revelations of questionable sales by Burr, Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, along with Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein of California, brought bipartisan outrage and claims of insider trading. Fort Walton Beach Republican Matt Gaetz wonders why Burr remains a committee chairman, dumping criticism on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for not stripping Burr of his post.
“How can @senatemajldr justify leaving someone as the Chairman of the Intelligence Committee….. who is being investigated by the FBI for criminally abusing their position for personal, financial gain?!?” #wheresmitch,” Gaetz tweeted. “Republicans need to do a better job cleaning our own house.”
Burr has consistently maintained he made his sales based on information available to the public. He was sued last week by a Wyndham Hotels investor.
Gaetz has been a frequent critic of Burr since the story broke. Last week he wondered why Burr still held his position while California Democratic Rep. Katie Hill was forced to resign after inappropriate relationships were revealed.
He has not publicly criticized Loeffler, who was appointed to her seat by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp against the outspoken advice of Trump and Gaetz. The investigation is likely to go on for months.
Gaetz, Omar debate funding
Two of the most recognized faces of their respective parties engaged in a Twitter exchange last week over the contents of the newly enacted CARES Act. Gaetz and Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar aired their disagreement on what should be the focus of the relief.
“Millions of Americans need help now. Dangerous poison pills like $350,000,000 for ‘Migration and Refugee Assistance’ put America LAST,” Gaetz tweeted. “Democrats: This is not the time to advance your legislative agenda. This is the time to put #AmericaFirst.”
Omar questioned Gaetz’s support for the $500 billion for “corporate welfare” provided in the bill.
“Immigrants and refugees, are Americans/pay taxes and as vulnerable communities need the resources.’ to prevent, prepare for and respond to coronavirus,’” Omar replied. “Wonder why this upsets you more than a $500,000,000 billion corporate welfare fund for a select group of large companies?”
Gaetz countered this funding would be “spent on illegal immigrants” and “foreign migrants around the world. Neither of these groups are Americans.’
The bill passed late last week on a voice vote in the House and by a 96-0 vote in the Senate.
PPE stockpile proposed
As the spread of the coronavirus continues to place significant strains on available supplies, the talk of having reserves has increased. Republican Rep. Ted Yoho of Gainesville and Kissimmee Democrat Darren Soto recently introduced legislation that would build a stockpile of personal protective equipment (PPE).
The American-Made Protection for Healthcare Workers and First Responders Act would ensure the United States takes advantage of the nation’s industrial capabilities to build up a reserve of PPE. The bill is a House companion to one introduced by Sen. Rick Scott in the U.S. Senate.
“It is imperative that we provide these brave men and women with the supplies they need to safely perform their important work,” Yoho said in a joint release. “This bill also strengthens our national security by moving the manufacture of critical supplies to the United States and away from Communist China.”
The bill calls for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to work in tandem to maintain a sufficient national stockpile of PPE to respond to a nationwide pandemic. It prohibits all federal agencies from procuring PPE from foreign suppliers and requires HHS to establish pre-disaster contracts for PPE to prepare in advance for any presidential public health emergency declaration.
“The coronavirus pandemic has inevitably shown us the importance of having American-made emergency stockpiles while limiting our dependence on foreign supply chains,” Soto said. “Our bipartisan bill seeks to prioritize the production of resources needed to protect front-line health workers and ensure these catastrophic shortages never happen again.”
Crist warns against layoffs
The CARES Act was designed to assist small and large companies that would allow them to keep workers on the payroll. Some reports are surfacing that some layoffs are underway, prompting Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist to remind them of the primary purpose of the bill.
“The loans, grants, and appropriations included in the CARES Act are specifically intended to help employers make payroll, keep their businesses afloat, and keep their employees working. Companies and organizations availing themselves of this assistance should follow Congressional intent.”
One high profile example came from the Kennedy Center in Washington, who received a controversial $25 million appropriation from the taxpayers. Shortly after the CARES Act was signed, the center laid off the orchestra effective April 3.
The move is also “blatantly illegal,” according to Ed Malaga, the president of the local chapter of the American Federation of Musicians, citing a union contract calling for six weeks’ notice.
“As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I take seriously our oversight responsibility and would welcome any bailed-out executive to testify about why they would accept taxpayer dollars and then put Americans out of work,” Crist added.
Good campaign corrects violations
Candidates may sometimes run afoul of laws and regulations covering the use of campaign funds. A recent example of large-scale violations is the 11-month sentence received by former Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter of California.
Other violations are more innocent, such as one apparently committed by Democratic District 16 candidate Margaret Good. Good, a sitting state representative, promoted a coronavirus town hall on a website and social media by using a state campaign account, which is prohibited.
At the same time, Good’s opponent, Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan, began placing a coronavirus safety message on a local billboard. The billboard was paid for by Buchanan’s federal campaign account.
The Good campaign changed the reference from the state campaign account to her current federal campaign account, followed by the disappearance of the social media posts. Good’s campaign manager, Kevin Lata, indicated the mix-up came through “an issue with the web developer.”
Buchanan’s campaign declined to comment on the issue.
Returning constituents home from quarantine
Buchanan this week wrestled with the administration to return home constituents trapped overseas or on the seas.
With Gov. Ron DeSantis suggesting passengers stay aboard Holland America’s Zaandam cruise ship when it docks for treatment, Buchanan said he wants the 49 Florida passengers off the vessel. Four of the constituents come from Buchanan’s district, he said. (Notably, state Rep. Good has also written the Governor concerned because one of those patients is critically ill.)
Buchanan spoke this week with former House colleague and now White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows asking the State Department and administration to intervene and get Florida’s manifest off the vessel immediately.
“I’m working with the Governor and the White House to get this resolved quickly,” Buchanan said.
At the same time, Buchanan sent a letter on Wednesday to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling for assistance in bringing four constituents home who remain quarantined outside the United States.
That includes a Sarasota 69-year-old asthmatic stuck in Cuzco, Peru, a Bradenton man quarantined in Lima, Peru, and a Sarasota woman stuck in 21-day isolation in New Delhi, India and a Lithia woman stuck, along with her mother, in Medellin, Colombia.
Democrats urge process improvements
Like most states, Florida is facing a tsunami of unemployment applications. That has caused a great deal of consternation among those needing the benefits, prompting delegation Democrats to urge Gov. DeSantis to improve the process.
In a letter led by Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach, the members suggested six areas of improvement to a process suffering from the weight of thousands losing their jobs due to the shutdown of much of the economy. Even without the recent surge in claims, they described the state’s unemployment system as “one of the weakest unemployment compensation systems in the country” with a weekly payment that is “clearly inadequate.”
“We recognize that you submitted a request for a major disaster declaration to the President in order to grant Floridians access to disaster unemployment assistance,” they wrote. “However, we again request that you immediately improve Florida’s unemployment insurance and ease the burdensome application requirements that are preventing Floridians from accessing critical benefits at a moment of crisis.”
Among those suggestions are requests to update the eligibility formula, increase the maximum amount paid out, and extend the length those benefits will be received. The state has already waived work requirements, and applicants no longer must register online or state they are available for hire.
“During this national disaster, we must not only increase Florida’s abysmal $275 a week unemployment benefit, but also ensure all Floridians who have lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic can get the assistance they need,” said Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in a separate statement.
Further testing assistance sought
Part of the secret of fully engaging the fight against the COVID-19 virus is to have the ability to implement a robust testing mechanism. The effort in Florida took a big step when DeSantis announced the launch of a drive-up community-based testing site in Palm Beach County.
The site will be operated by the State of Florida, the National Guard and county partners. Palm Beach County trails only Broward and Miami-Dade County, each of which has mobile testing capabilities, in the number of active cases in Florida. As of March 30, Palm Beach County had 423 confirmed cases and seven deaths.
The Palm Beach County legislative delegation seeks to capitalize on its newest resource. In a letter led by Deutch to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Peter T. Gaynor, the delegation urged them to support the site and expand testing access in the county.
“The new testing site will not be able to operate at full capacity without support from HHS and FEMA,” the letter reads. “We ask that HHS provide technical, medical expertise, supplemental medical personnel, and supplies for testing and sample collection. We ask that FEMA assist with planning, coordination, logistics, and outreach to enable the site to meet its operational requirements.”
The letter was also signed by fellow county delegation members, Democratic Reps. Alcee Hastings and Lois Frankel, as well as Republican Rep. Brian Mast, along with elected members of the Florida House and Senate.
Wilson: Help cruise industry
The $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill spread around significant sums to individuals, state and local governments and businesses, both large and small. Among those not seeing relief is the cruise industry, something Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson would like to see rectified in future bills.
“We’re looking for the next package that perhaps we will be able to get some sort of relief in there for the cruise industry,” Wilson said.
Wilson said there were those among her Democratic colleagues “who are anti-cruise ship, but being anti-cruise ship is different from being anti-people who work on the cruise ship and who are part of the community where the cruise ship is a robust engine for our community.”
The relief bill contained provisions for assistance to large businesses and troubled industries for U.S.-based companies. The cruise lines’ registry made them ineligible.
While three major cruise lines are headquartered in Miami, namely Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Lines, they are all registered in other countries and claim exemption from U.S. income taxes.
“We’re concerned about the workers who work for the cruise industry,” Wilson said. “There are thousands of them who live in Miami, who live in Florida.”
Delegation celebrates Doctors’ Day
March 30 was National Doctors Day, prompting Americans from all walks of life to thank them for their invaluable contributions to society, especially now. The accolades came from around the country and above the earth.
“We’re at our best when we help each other. I’m in awe of your selfless service,” said Dr. Andrew Morgan from the International Space Station, referring to those on the front lines with the coronavirus. “Thank you from @Space_Station.”
Back on Earth, Floridians were eager to express their gratitude as well. St. Augustine Republican Michael Waltz said, “To our doctors and health care workers for bravely fighting on the front lines of this virus: Thank you!”
Mucarsel-Powell said, “From the bottom of my heart: THANK YOU. “You are the heroes on the front lines of this pandemic.”
Rep. Val Demings of Orlando saluted doctors with the hope they have what they need to do their job.
“On this #NationalDoctorsDay, let’s thank our doctors by getting them the lifesaving personal protective gear that they need to stay safe during this pandemic,” she tweeted. “They’re heroes. We can’t ask them to be martyrs.”
The Florida delegation’s only medical doctor thanked his colleagues for their lifesaving efforts during the current crisis.
“These brave men & women are currently on the front lines as we battle the #COVID19,” Dunn tweeted. “Now more than ever, these hardworking individuals deserve our recognition & gratitude. To my fellow doctors, THANK YOU. #FL02”
Delegation advocates for farmers
The recently-enacted CARES Act focused on the plight of individuals, along with small and large businesses. Few, if any, spoke of the plight of farmers, who have the unique problem of producing perishable products that are rotting in the fields due to a lack of buyers.
A bipartisan group among the delegation is seeking help for those farmers. Democratic Reps. Mucarsel-Powell and Shalala led a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue asking for the department to purchase more products from Florida farmers.
“We strongly urge the USDA to consider exercising its Section 32 purchasing authority to procure local fruits and vegetables for federal nutrition programs in Florida and across the country,” they wrote. “Utilizing this authority is especially appropriate given the additional emergency funding Congress recently appropriated for federal nutrition programs.”
Also joining the letter were Democratic Reps. Deutch, Hastings, Murphy, Soto, Crist, Lawson, Mucarsel-Powell, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Kathy Castor. They were joined by Republican Reps. Buchanan, Yoho, Waltz, Bill Posey, Mario Diaz-Balart, Greg Steube, John Rutherford and Ross Spano.
On this day
March 31, 1968 — President Lyndon B. Johnson stunned his party and the entire country when he announced he would not be running for reelection. In a nationally-televised address, Johnson looked into the camera and said: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”
Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who has pounded Johnson on the campaign trail over the war in Vietnam, said Johnson’s announcement “changed the entire political picture,” while Sen. Robert F. Kennedy declined to immediately comment. With the hands of McCarthy and Kennedy now strengthened, Republican front-runner Richard M. Nixon said: “Don’t downgrade Vice President (Hubert) Humphrey.”
March 31, 2015 — The U.S. and five other world powers extended their talks with Iran on its nuclear program for at least one more day after a tumultuous day of back and forth. The talks were in danger of breaking off after representatives described a lack of concessions by Iran.
“It’s time for Iran to make the serious commitments they know that the international community is expecting them to make,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest. An agreement that would forestall Iran’s development of nuclear weapons is high on the priority list of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.
Best wishes to Gov. and former Congressman DeSantis and First Lady Casey DeSantis on the birth of their third child. Mamie DeSantis weighed in at 7 pounds and 4 ounces.