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Takeaways from Tallahassee — Grand re-opening?

Is Florida inching toward getting back to business?

Grand Re-Opening?

After a week of deliberation among the Governor’s Re-Open Florida Task Force, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Office will compile recommendations over the weekend on how to reopen the economy at the end of the stay-at-home order.

Members of the task force met 14 times — a 15th was cut for possibly intentional technical difficulties — between Monday and Friday to deliver recommendations on how the state should reopen the economy in the short term. With the Governor’s Office of Policy and Budget working through the weekend and early next week to compile the recommendations due Sunday by email, the state hopes to settle the initial reopening guidelines by the end of next week.

Ron DeSantis is awaiting recommendations for bringing the state back to business.

Early in the week, DeSantis began shunning the distinction of essential versus nonessential services used by public health officials, calling any job worked by a Floridian essential.

“The more and more I go through it, I think that that’s an illusory distinction,” he said. “Quite frankly, I don’t think it’s terribly helpful even when you’re talking about a pandemic.”

Instead, he preferred identifying industries based on what the associated risk was for contracting COVID-19, usually spread by being in proximity to someone with the disease for a prolonged period.

Similarly, the task force divided industries into three risk levels for economic collapse during an induced recession with each group addressed during a different working group. Tourism, retail and construction were among the top at-risk industries, education, manufacturing, administration and more landed in the middle group while government, health care and agriculture were among the least at-risk industries.

The task force emphasized small businesses that, with slimmer profit margins, will have a harder time recouping lost revenue. Small companies pushed for a swift reopening but with clear guidance from the state on what businesses need to do to reopen with government approval.

Businesses, senior care centers, and local governments alike want protection against lawsuits if they follow the state’s guidelines to a “T” and someone still contracts COVID-19 on their watch.

Only one health expert sits on the overarching executive committee, John Couris, president and CEO of Tampa General Hospital. The lack of public health expert input during the first few days, driven heavily by economic interests, left DeSantis fielding questions over whether public health was a consideration amid the talks.

But as the week progressed, more former and current public health officials, including the Department of Health’s Deputy Secretary of Health Shamarial Roberson, made their presence known. While Roberson gave the executive committee an overview of the White House’s “Opening Up America Again” template and a rundown of the state’s ongoing response, days after the Florida Chamber of Commerce gave its view, other health experts mostly fielded the odd question or congratulated presenters for including federal health guidelines in their plans.

However, the medical industry raised economic concerns of their own as only essential health services remain. Elective surgeries, a significant cash cow for health care, and dental work need to reopen soon, the task force discussed.

And as school campuses look to reopen in the fall or even over the summer, the likelihood of splitting classrooms by in-person students and those learning remotely looks inevitable. Among child care sites, proper social distancing would be nearly impossible, but the task force acknowledged social distancing rules would be eased to suggestions as the state continues recovering from the pandemic.

___

The latest coronavirus numbers:

Positive cases

— 29,707 FL residents (+5,641 since April 17)

— 826 Non-FL residents (+139 since April 17)

Origin:

— 1,686 Travel related

— 9,679 Contact with a confirmed case

— 1,484 Both

— 16,858 Under investigation

Deaths

— 1,046 in FL

Unemployment claims

March 15 through April 23

Claims submitted: 1,818,594

— Filed through CONNECT: 686,351

— Filed through PEGA: 961,669

— Filed by mail: 170,574

Confirmed unique claims: 701,740

Claims verified: 699,941

Claims processed: 218,935

Claims paid: 153,788

Total paid to claimants: $157,507,046

— State money: $69,675,446

— Federal money: $87,831,600

___

The “Takeaway 5” — the Top 5 stories from the week that was:

Re-Open Florida Task Force convenes — The full list of executive committee members wasn’t published until Monday, but the task force started its work this week. Three working groups tasked with a range of industry-specific concerns have been meeting on the needs of agriculture, theme parks, education, and other arenas. DeSantis has caught flak about whether the committees have enough health care professionals appointed. But the first round of recommendations, expected early next week, will be what quickly dominates Florida pandemic response headlines. DeSantis, who has boasted Florida “flattened the curve” without draconian measures, has signaled he would like a return to business as usual soon.

K-12 School canceled for term — Gov. DeSantis announced Monday Florida school campuses would be closed until the end of the school year, ending weeks of speculation if students would return or complete their curriculum remotely. The Governor and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran at times suggested a desire for a return to normalcy by allowing children back in class. Still, DeSantis said concerns about low attendance as parents refuse to allow students to return to class ultimately played a major role. The Department of Education previously announced the cancellation of spring 2020 state assessments.

Unemployment will be retroactive — Department of Management Services Jonathan Satter announced Floridians making unemployment claims will receive them retroactively to the day of their job loss, if that date was later than March 9. Satter recently took on oversight of the troubled unemployment system, which is dealing with a record number of claims from furloughed and laid off employees dealing with the economic fallout from the pandemic. A total of 505,000 Floridians filed for unemployment last week, with 1.16 million having successfully registered since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis. Florida has a workforce of an estimated 10.335 million people.

Fried snubbed amid diversity critique — One notable voice not included in Re-Open Florida Task Force meetings is that of the Secretary of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the only Democrat elected to Florida’s Cabinet. Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, both Republicans, were appointed to the board. Nikki Fried ultimately released her own 10-page report with recommendations regarding the agriculture industry, including the processing of visas for farmworkers, maximizing funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, waiving truck weight requirements, and increasing staff for processing unemployment claims, among other items.

Special Session chatter rises — Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have called for a Special Session of the Legislature, though so far leadership for the House and Senate have held off. At the same time, state economists adjust projection models post-pandemic. The general feeling is a session won’t occur until at least May, in large part because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines still advise against gatherings of more than 100 individuals. The subject of a virtual session with members meeting remotely has been discussed. But notably, Senate President Bill Galvano and Gov. DeSantis have resisted calls for a Special Session in part because of billions in cash reserves.

Do it for the cops

Attorney General Moody says it’s important to continue practicing social distancing, if not for yourself, then for the police and first responders who are clocking in every day during the coronavirus crisis.

“My heart goes out to our law enforcement officers and medical professionals risking their health and safety to fight this pandemic. While most Floridians are obeying the statewide stay-at-home order, some are abandoning the advice of health experts — forcing law enforcement into more face-to-face encounters than necessary,” she said. “Sadly, several of these heroes have already succumbed to this highly-contagious disease, and even more have been exposed and are in quarantine.”

Moody’s renewed call to stick to the rules comes as police and sheriff departments across the state have seen spikes in COVID-19 cases among their ranks, some of them fatal.

On April 4, the Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputy Shannon Bennett died from COVID-19; April 5, the virus killed Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office Sergeant Jose Diaz Ayala; and April 7, three Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Deputies were put under a 14-day quarantine after performing CPR on a civilian who tested positive for COVID-19.

Sheriff’s Deputy Shannon Bennett of Broward County died April 3 from COVID-19, the first coronavirus-related death of a law enforcement officer in Florida. Image via Broward County Sheriff’s Office.

“Please remember that your actions, no matter how harmless they seem, may have unintended consequences far beyond anything you can imagine,” she continued. “Listen to our health experts, obey the stay-at-home order, and help ease the burden on those risking their lives for us every day during one of the worst pandemics in modern history.”

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and Temple Terrace Police Chief Kenneth Albano, who also lead the statewide sheriff and police associations, echoed the Attorney General’s request.

“During this pandemic, it is critically important for all Floridians to take the advice of our medical experts. We need to socially distance ourselves to stop the spread of this deadly disease. Sheriffs strongly encourage you to stay home to stay safe. Your actions today will save lives tomorrow,” Gualtieri said.

Albano added, “Police Chiefs throughout the state are of course very concerned for their Police Officers as well as all other Law Enforcement and First Responders as we all continue to serve the public through this unprecedented crisis in our state and across our nation. We are steadfastly committed to protecting our communities, while at the same time fully aware of the increased risks of exposure it places on our own lives.”

Crime Victims’ Rights Week

Attorney General Moody honored crime victim supporters this week during National Crime Victims’ Rights Week.

Forgoing an in-person ceremony because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Moody presented three law enforcement officers and three crime victim advocates with the Distinguished Victim Services Award.

Ashley Moody doesn’t want crime victims forgotten in the chaos of COVID-19. Image via Orlando Weekly.

“These hardworking and compassionate individuals from across our state have protected and guided victims of crimes through the process, treating each survivor with dignity and respect while helping them cope,” Moody said in a statement. “They have been there to comfort family members who have lost loved ones to murder, and help seniors recover after becoming a victim of a scam.”

Alexander Puga, through the Miami-Dade Police Department; Tania Sanchez, through the Miami Beach Police Department and Yvette Scurry, through the Lee County Sheriff’s Office; received honors as victim advocates. Detective Chastity Burke, Volusia County Sheriff’s Office; Agent Aja Stake, Brevard County Sheriff’s Office; and Sgt. Billy Townsend, Union County Sheriff’s Office were the law enforcement recipients.

“Florida is a stronger, safer place because of their efforts, and I am honored to be able to recognize these outstanding Floridians for their service and recognize that their work continues even as the state fights to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Moody said. “Floridians need to know that help is still available to victims of crime.”

Instagram of the Week

Help the aged

A committee in DeSantis’ Task Force to Re-Open Florida took up elder affairs Thursday.

The committee considering Agriculture, Finance, Government, Healthcare, Management and Professional Services, heard from Elder Affairs Secretary Richard Prudom about the effects of COVID-19 isolation on older adults and long-term care.

Long-term care facilities house 170,000 Floridians, Prudom said, many in compromised health. Seven hundred thousand other older adults are served through community-based services, ways to keep them “in their own homes with some assistance.”

Elder Affairs Secretary Richard Prudom says social distancing makes seniors feel more isolated than others.

Prudom described isolation for older adults, including visitation restrictions at homes and social distancing isolating them further.

As a host of participants on the call had conversations on unmuted lines over his presentation, Prudom continued forward, lauding “home health care heroes,” who are providing a lifeline to these stranded senior citizens.

These include restaurants, delivering meals to seniors, as well as food banks.

Prudom noted a partnership with the Alzheimer’s Association to provide laptops to seniors to help combat social isolation.

The aged population is slated for a continued increase, with Prudom describing a “silver tsunami” theory of old folks’ health care costing more and more as things go on.

However, he noted that they increasingly are working more and that retirees are net contributors to the Florida economy compared to what is spent on services.

People over 50, “the longevity economy,” account for 54% of Florida’s economic activity, Prudom marveled.

No fees

Teachers are lining up to take advantage of the fee waiver for the Florida Teacher Certification Examination.

The Florida Department of Education announced last month that it would waive fees for the Florida Teacher Certification Examination, which typically costs between $130 and $150.

Education Commissioner Corcoran said that, as of April 21, more than 31,000 teachers had applied since applications opened at the beginning of the month.

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has waived the fees for teacher certification.

“I am thrilled that so many educators are taking advantage of the exam fee waivers,” Corcoran said. “Waiving the exam fee is the right thing to do during these difficult economic times to support our well-deserving teachers, and I am proud to provide this opportunity.

“This is another way for us to show our appreciation for the hard work our teachers are putting forth every day, especially during the COVID-19 health emergency. The waiver will not only give our educators a chance to take any necessary exams for their teaching certificate, but will also help alleviate Florida’s teacher shortage.”

In addition to waiving fees, DOE has pushed back deadlines due to test site locations closing during the pandemic. The waiver is expected to save teachers $8 million in all.

HUD cash available

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity has $75 million in grants available to harden essential government facilities.

The Rebuild Florida Critical Facility Hardening Program is open to local governments and state agencies. It is funded through the U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s newly created Community Development Block Grant — Mitigation (CDBG-MIT) program.

Program rules call for at least half the funding, $37.5 million, to be spent in “HUD-designated Most Impacted and Distressed areas,” which includes 51 of Florida’s 67 counties. Funding not allocated in those areas may be spent in state-designated areas.

A new $75M state program allows local governments to increase the resilience of critical facilities. Image via Orlando Business Journal.

A list of eligible areas — based on presidentially declared disasters in 2016 and 2017 — is available through DEO.

Local governments must apply to get a slice of the funding. Applications may be submitted online or physically, though DEO “strongly” encourages applicants to apply online.

Detailed program rules and the application portal are available on DEO’s website. The application window opened April 20 and will continue for 75 days.

Feds come through

Senate President Bill Galvano expressed confidence Friday that the state’s budget could weather the COVID-19 storm.

Federal money, he noted, will help weather the storm.

“$4.6 billion allocated to Florida for state stabilization funds through the federal CARES Act has been deposited into our state treasury. This specific allocation from the CARES Act is available to fund expenses incurred since March due to COVID-19.

“Additionally,” Galvano said, “we expect that the federal government will offer clarification that these funds can also be used to offset revenue losses in the upcoming 2020-21 Fiscal Year, meaning these federal funds would add to Florida’s already robust reserve to fund appropriations made by the Legislature in the General Appropriations Act.”

Senate President Bill Galvano is confident Florida’s economy will weather the coronavirus storm.

What this means is that a Special Session, of the sort sought by Democrats in the House and Senate, is a non-starter for the outgoing Bradenton Republican.

“I believed there was any impact or problem associated with Coronavirus that required the Legislature’s immediate return to Tallahassee, then I would not hesitate to utilize my constitutional authority to join with Speaker Oliva to call a special session,” Galvano said.

Sales tax receipts, meanwhile, are relatively unscathed … for now. The March report was basically flat, reflecting a lot of pre-shutdown activity in February.

 “Collections overall were $61.3 million over estimates for the month and are $202.4 million over estimates for the year-to-date. These dollars were unanticipated and not included in the prior estimate for General Revenue, but will help buffer against the significant revenue losses we are expecting in the April report.”

Uptick in attention

The past two months have been the most demanding in terms of constituent service that House Republican Leader Dane Eagle recalls in his eight years in the Legislature.

In his home district, Eagle said he usually doesn’t receive a lot of complaints from District 77 residents, and typically addresses between two to three calls a week personally. Now it’s a dozen calls a day.

The past two months have been intense for constituent services, says Dane Eagle. Image via Instagram.

“Public health initially was the question, but now it’s a lot about the unemployment benefits and how we are dealing with that,” Eagle said, referencing the bureaucratic woes faced as more than 500,000 filed applications for claims just this week.

Eagle, at this point, devoted a weekly news update to constituents entirely to COVID-19 updates over the last two months. Most recently, he was happy to share most models showed Florida trending in a positive direction over the next 14 days. “Floridians have heeded the call for physical distancing and being responsible neighbors,” he wrote.

Also a candidate for Congress, Eagle has held tele-town halls to speak to constituents throughout Florida’s 19th Congressional District about the coronavirus crisis.

But as majority leader, his office has also provided support to the 73 GOP members of the state House.

Birthday give

Rep. Randy Fine’s birthday was this week. He’s not expecting gifts, he’s giving them.

The Palm Bay Republican announced that he would donate his April legislative salary to Farm Share, a nonprofit that distributes fresh food to needy Floridians.

“Today is my birthday,” Fine said Monday. “Normally a happy time, with parties and presents and laughter and fun. But we are living in a time in which so many of our fellow Floridians are worried about how to put food on the table, how to teach their children, how not to catch this unique virus.

It was Randy Fine’s birthday, but he was giving the gifts. Image via Facebook.

“So, my present to myself is to donate my entire April legislative salary to Farm Share, which is working with my office on a 500-family free food distribution event this Saturday, April 25.”

But Fine is more of a birthday month type of guy. In addition to the April 25 food giveaway, his office plans to hold Farm Share events May 2, 7, 14, 21 and 29.

“Assuming we feed 500 families at each, that will be 3,000 served,” Fine said.

“Details to come, but I can promise you this, we will need help — this will be a lot of work. None of us can save the world by ourselves, but if each of us who can does our part, we can do what Americans have always done in times of crisis — rise together.”

Happy to serve

Democratic Rep. Anika Omphroy has wrapped up her service on a state panel aimed at assessing how and when to reopen amid the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Omphroy was one of 30 individuals named by DeSantis to the Re-Open Florida Task Force Industry Working Group on Agriculture, Finance, Government, Healthcare, Management and Professional Services.

“I’d like to thank Gov. DeSantis for the opportunity to serve the Great State of Florida in this capacity,” Omphroy said this week upon receiving that appointment. “I am looking forward to fighting for Florida’s Present and Future together.”

Anika Omphroy wrapped up her time on Ron DeSantis’ Re-Open Task Force.

The working group was one of several targeted panels aimed at addressing concerns and hurdles within different sectors of the state’s economy and ecosystem as officials continue to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

The panel which Omphroy joined received pushback from Democrats. Though it aimed to focus on agricultural issues, Agriculture Commissioner Fried was not selected for the group. That’s despite other members of the Governor’s cabinet named to additional Re-Open Florida Task Force panels.

Still, Omphroy’s appointment ensured Democrats were represented. She was joined by several colleagues from the Legislature, including GOP Sens. Rob Bradley and Wilton Simpson and Republican Reps. Travis Cummings and Tom Leek.

Those panels met throughout the week to offer guidance. The Governor and other state officials will now make a decision on the state’s path going forward.

Food for front-liners

Delray Beach Democratic Rep. Emily Slosberg is spending her Saturday distributing food to health care workers on the front lines of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

The event will be held on April 25 at 4:30 p.m. at the Delray Medical Center Parking Lot, located at 5352 Linton Boulevard.

“The food distribution will honor the health care workers who have been critical in combating COVID-19 and treating our community’s affected patients and show our gratitude for all the sacrifices they have made over the past two months,” Slosberg’s campaign said.

Emily Slosberg is helping feed those on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis. Image via Colin Hackley.

Lawmakers have long participated in events to feed those in need in their communities, and even more so during the coronavirus pandemic.

On top of typically food-insecure individuals, limitations on social gatherings have heavily impacted the economy. Those restrictions have already left many Floridians out of work. Though the federal government has approved a stimulus package to help people weather the storm, many Floridians are concerned about where they can access their next meal.

That’s led several lawmakers to hold food distribution events in recent weeks to help out members of the community.

March saw Sens. Oscar Braynon II and Jason Pizzo join Reps. Dotie Joseph and Barbara Watson for a Farm Share event in Miami-Dade County. A separate Feeding South Florida event featured Reps. Vance Aloupis, Juan Fernandez-Barquin, Daniel Perez, Ana Maria Rodriguez and Anthony Rodriguez.

‘Thompson Challenge’

Rep. Geraldine Thompson announced this week that she would join many lawmakers in donating her legislative salary to help those in need.

But Thompson’s announcement has a twist.

She’s among the few current lawmakers who were in office in 2011, when the Legislature approved a plan to revamp the state’s unemployment benefits system.

Geraldine Thompson is donating her salary to benefit those in need; she is challenging others to do the same.

Thompson voted against the plan at the time, and she doesn’t regret the decision. Not only because of the current dilemma, but also because of its meager payout.

“The benefit of $275 per week for a maximum of 12 weeks is a sad commentary on how Florida’s workers are valued,” she said.

“Seasonal workers and those who work less than a certain number of hours are deemed ineligible. There are hundreds of seasonal and gig workers in Central Florida. They still have obligations, and the system does not protect them. The system was insufficient in 2011 when I voted against it, and it is woefully inadequate today.”

Still, her foresight hasn’t spared her constituents from dealing with the system’s failings.

“I hear from my constituents throughout the day every day about being unable to log in to the online re-employment assistance portal or being kicked out of the system if they are lucky enough to get online,” she said.

“Many have filed paper applications and have received no information regarding their status. Some have college students at home living with them while they continue to pay rent on spaces near campuses that are closed.”

The Windermere Democrat said she’ll be sending her state paycheck to charities such as Meals on Wheels and Second Harvest Food Bank until the unemployment system is firing on all cylinders.

She wants a subset of her colleagues to do the same.

“I am challenging legislators who voted in 2011 to gut Florida’s unemployment system to own the problem, donate their salaries to charity, and show that we are all in this together,” Thompson said.

Police story

Amy Mercer, head of the Florida Police Chiefs Association, addressed a subgroup of the Governor’s Re-Open Florida Task Force Friday.

Cops need “specific guidelines,” she said, including on how to enforce emergency guidelines on issues like social distancing.

“Placing this burden on law enforcement agencies will cause problems,” she said, including a “loss of support from the community they serve.”

Amy Mercer, head of the Florida Police Chiefs Association, told Ron DeSantis’ Re-Open Florida Task Force that police need specific guidelines on how reopening Florida will occur. 

“Law enforcement agencies will be subject to more litigation … if given the job of enforcing social distancing rules.

“Local governments will bear the burden,” she added, urging a revamp of liability laws.

Regarding clarity of direction, Mercer wants “specific guidance … not open to interpretation” from the state.

Such guidance, she said, will allow the safe implementation of orders.

Phased reopenings are sought, she added, which is better for crowd control.

“The unintended consequences [of doing otherwise] could overwhelm law enforcement across the state,” Mercer cautioned.

Fair elections

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Florida’s voting system was already inequitable; the coronavirus just made it worse.

The group published a new report this week detailing obstacles to voting and offering suggestions for improvement backed up by election data, legal developments and research.

The problems aren’t exclusive to in-person voting.

The report, Let Florida Vote, asserts voting by mail in Florida is neither reliable, nor fair.

The ACLU’s Micah Kubic says COVID-19 is worsening the problem of access to the polls.

In 2016, thousands of mail ballots were tossed over signature issues. The rejection rate increased in 2018, with black voters, young voters, and uniformed service members facing a disproportionate risk of having their vote go uncounted.

“The reality is that the policies in place discourage voter access and promote unjust inequities in Florida’s electoral system. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates this,” ACLU Florida executive director Micah Kubic said.

“It is more critical than ever that we make it as easy as possible for all eligible voters to vote by mail effectively in 2020, prepare for a likely surge in absentee ballots and safely accommodate early voters. If we are to protect our elections and the future of our democracy, then we must take these proactive measures now.”

County elections supervisors set early voting dates, times and locations, and ACLU found rules can vary wildly from one jurisdiction to the next.

ACLU recommended allowing early voting on all possible days and at as many locations as possible. The expansion, along with safety measures such as plexiglass barriers, would help more voters exercise their rights without undermining social distancing guidelines.

Drop the sub?

Florida waters are considered subtropical, but some research indicates they may be going through “tropicalization.”

A study by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission scientists found Caribbean Pederson cleaner shrimp associated with corkscrew anemones in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Several species of tropical fishes were also observed, including damselfish, parrotfish and butterflyfish.

Those species are common in tropical coral reefs, but they’re a rarity in Florida.

Several species of Pederson cleaner shrimp were found in the eastern Gulf, a rarity for Florida waters.

The nonprofit Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida is providing FWC with a $45,000 grant to keep looking into the changing marine ecosystem.

Understanding these changes and the pace at which they’re occurring is essential to predicting future changes to Florida’s marine ecosystems, the group said.

“In the face of such significant change, knowing more about the adaptability of our marine ecosystems is crucial,” said Foundation President and CEO Andrew Walker. “FWC scientists are documenting important shifts in the Gulf of Mexico that will guide sustainable management of our fisheries and marine habitats.”

The grant was approved by the Foundation’s board of directors at its recent March meeting.

The grant funds came from “Conserve Wildlife” license plate purchases. Each tag provides the Foundation with $25 to support the conservation of Florida’s rare species and other nongame wildlife.

Currently, the tag features a black bear, but the Foundation said it is in the process of updating the design.

Corona Directions

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