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Takeaways from Tallahassee — Be our guest, redux

The light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel means back to business for Tallahassee’s finer dining establishments.

Be Our Guest, Redux

As the 2020 Legislative Session wound down in early March, things were looking bright for owners Drew and Kim McLeod and Chef Brian Knepper, operators of downtown Tallahassee’s Savour restaurant.

Patrons, many involved in The Process, crowded into the fine dining restaurant and bar for two months. Savour, which opened in October 2018, won Florida Trend’s coveted Golden Spoon Award as one of the state’s best new restaurants. It earned a AAA Three Diamond Award and Knepper — known for his creative cuisine and eye-pleasing presentations — was nominated as one of Florida’s Top 3 chefs. The business was debt-free.

And then, coronavirus happened.

“The proverbial light switch was on, then it’s off,” is how Knepper described how the shutdown affected their business. “It was an on-and-off, there wasn’t a dimmer.”

Drew McLeod (owner-operator of Savour) and Executive Chef Brian Knepper. Image via Drew McLeod.

Unlike several other local independent restaurants, Savour decided not to offer curbside service during the shutdown.

“We offer a dining experience,” Drew McLeod said. “We weren’t going to do to-go food. It wouldn’t be the same.” Not to mention spending upward of $200 for a family meal packed in plastic foam boxes.

To the confusion of customers, Tallahassee restaurants are easing back into business on different schedules with different combinations of inside, outdoor, and takeout dining options.

McLeod said selling more than a third of Savour’s extensive wine selection at a discount via Facebook helped pay for expenses “that don’t go away” such as electricity, insurance, and phone and cable service.

Thanks to federal PPP money, the restaurant’s employees were paid throughout the shutdown, and Savour reopened May 5 — to a very uncertain future.

Under Gov. Ron DeSantis’ reopening requirements, the restaurant is limited to 40 seats, 25% of the 160 allowed by the fire code. Tables were removed and reshuffled, and bar service eliminated to meet the constraints.

Opening day was close to the maximum, but even if those numbers continue, McLeod said, operating his restaurant at quarter-capacity is a money-losing proposition.

Drew McLeod and Brian arm-wrestling over who gets a strawberry shortcake. Image via Drew McLeod

“It’s got to be a lot more than that for us … or anybody, for that matter, to be successful,” the longtime restaurateur said. “At 25%, I think you will cover labor. We could break even at 50%, and I’m probably OK with that,” he said.

Once restrictions are eased, McLeod and Knepper don’t anticipate Savour, or other restaurants, returning to “normal” anytime soon.

Patrons hesitant to reenter society until they feel the danger of infection has passed could put a damper on business. Other restaurants may find a larger percentage of their revenues will come from curbside service, now that customers have gotten used to to-go during the lockdown.

At Savour, diners will get a gentle questioning about their health, menus are single-use, and servers will be bringing drinks and plates wearing single-use gloves.

Knepper said it’s not business-as-usual in his kitchen. There’s not a shortage of foodstuffs, but many of the purveyors he used before the pandemic were forced to lay off staff such as truck drivers and sales reps, meaning shorter hours for ordering and fewer deliveries.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time. I try not to stress out,” he said. “I tell my staff ‘you’re not allowed to freak out unless you see me freaking out.’”

There was a freak out during the first week of business.

“Earlier in the week, I couldn’t get beef tenderloins,” the key ingredient for Chargrilled Filet Mignon, one of Savour’s most popular offerings, he said. “We didn’t run out, but it was close.”

The management team wasn’t idle during the shutdown: The entire restaurant got a thorough cleaning and painting and did other freshening. Knepper spent the time creating some new menu items, including a Crab and Brie-Stuffed Trout entree and a Burrata and Heirloom Tomato salad dressed with cornbread croutons, aged balsamic and peach-mint vinaigrette.

Bartender Grace Nelson has developed a menu of craft cocktails for the spring, such as The Scarlet Macaw, a bittersweet twist on the classic Junglebird, made with Zaya rum, Campari, ginger, pineapple and lime.

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Coming up, the usual assortment of tidbits, leftovers, and not-ready-for-prime-time moments by Peter Schorsch, Drew Wilson, Renzo Downey, Jason Delgado and the staff of Florida Politics.

Coronavirus Numbers

Positive cases

— 42,940 FL residents (+4,768 since May 8)

— 1,198 Non-FL residents (+171 since May 8)

Origin:

— 1,949 Travel related

— 18,732 Contact with a confirmed case

— 1,823 Both

— 20,436 Under investigation

Hospitalizations:

— 7,959 in FL

Deaths:

— 1,917 in FL

Unemployment numbers

As of May 14:

Claims submitted: 1,995,173

— Confirmed unique claims: 1,521,348 (+285,983 since May 7)

— Claims processed: 1,190,092 (+360,321 since May 7)

— Claims paid: 741,997 (+247,053 since May 7)

Total paid out: $1.86 billion (+$680 million since May 7)

— State money: $669,184,877

— Federal money: $1,191,994,403

Take 5

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

Ron DeSantis announces ‘Full Phase One’ — The Governor on Friday announced a gradual move starting Monday, including opening gyms and allowing 50% capacity in restaurants. The parameters align with the Phase One regulations recommended by the Re-Open Florida Task Force. Somewhat surprisingly, DeSantis has not yet allowed Miami-Dade or Broward counties, respectively the No. 1 and 2 most infected counties in Florida based on known cases of COVID-19, to begin reopening nonessential businesses. As for the next steps, DeSantis continues to express a desire for more professional sports in Florida, but restrictions on mass audiences for events remain in place.

Processed unemployment claims pass 1 million — The Department of Economic Opportunity has clawed through half the two million-plus unemployment compensation claims from workers who said they lost their job during the coronavirus crisis. As of Tuesday, officials said 1.1 million claims were processed and more than 700,000 checks have been sent out to people who lost their source of income since mid-March. The state has continued to reject roughly 30% of all processed claims. Those approved have primarily received paid benefits but some have received re-employment assistance or some type of federal help.

Governor extends eviction, foreclosure moratorium — Gov. DeSantis said he would suspend such actions through June 2. An existing order, which was set to expire Sunday, suspends all statutes “providing for a mortgage foreclosure cause of action.” For evictions, the order only specifies tenants may not be removed for nonpayment, indicating evictions for other reasons will still be in bounds. The Supreme Court had previously ordered a pause on evictions and foreclosures through April 17. But some lawmakers say courts in parts of Florida are continuing to sign off on eviction notices.

Modeling shows June peak for infections — Despite flattening the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation now predicts Florida will see a peak on new infections in the second week of June. Deaths could peak at 152 a day in mid-June or they may peter out from now until August. The widely cited model predicts 5,440 Floridians could die by Aug. 4, around 1,500 more than the most recent update to the model had shown. The recent update was the first to account for the Phase One reopening of Florida, which began in most of the state on May 4.

Prison infections see significant spike — The Department of Corrections reports 843 inmates in state prisons tested positive for COVID-19, about 18% of all tested. Another 6,000 remain in quarantine. Additionally, about 208 prison staff have also tested positive. But Gov. DeSantis, while acknowledging some prison rates have seen as high as 75% positivity rates, the outbreaks in Florida institutes have still been much more controlled than in other states. He has said in news conferences that prisons and nursing homes remain the areas with the greatest concerns about coronavirus spread.

Time to apply

Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried is encouraging Florida farmers to begin preparing their paperwork ahead of a new federal relief program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Funded through the CARES Act, the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program will provide $16 billion in direct financial support for agricultural producers impacted by the global pandemic.

Nikki Fried is encouraging Florida’s agricultural interests to prepare for federal assistance.

“The direct federal assistance provided by CFAP is vital to Florida farmers facing devastating losses from COVID-19,” said Commissioner Fried.

The relief program comes as many farmers across the country are experiencing a loss of demand and a subsequent overstock of supply, affecting prices and disrupting market supply chains.

“With our seasonal crop farmers suffering hundreds of thousands of dollars in daily losses, this program is an important first step toward getting our farmers the support they need,” Fried said.

“We are encouraging all Florida farmers, ranchers, and producers to act now and prepare the necessary documents, as these payments may run out quickly.”

Commodity groups eligible for the relief include livestock, row crop producers, specialty crop producers including horticulture and nursery growers, and other crops utilizing inland aquaculture operations not covered by the U.S. Department of Commerce program.

To apply, producers will need to contact their Farm Service Agency county office to schedule an appointment.

Buyer beware

Attorney General Ashley Moody warned Floridians on Friday to be on the lookout for fraudulent websites purportedly selling Personal Protective Equipment.

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, over 19,000 new websites have emerged since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic claiming to sell PPE. Many of those that have accepted payments consumers and never delivered.

“This is outright fraud,” Moody said. “It’s criminal, and we will not tolerate it in Florida. Imposters are exploiting this crisis and scamming Floridians trying to purchase vital PPE to protect their health and stop the spread of COVID-19.”

Moreover, Moody said her office had received reports that some of the culprits may be operating in Florida.

“Sadly, we have received reports of several of these fraudulent websites that purport to be associated with locations in Florida and are working with website domain hosts to have these sites removed and evidence preserved,” she said. “As our investigations continue, I want to make sure Floridians proceed with caution when shopping for face masks, gloves, and other gear needed to prevent contracting COVID-19.”

Moody offered several tips to help Floridians avoid falling victim to online fraud: always pay with a credit card, only purchase items from trusted vendors, and check with the Better Business Bureau before completing the purchase.

Those who encounter PPE fraud are encouraged to contact the Florida Attorney General’s Office by calling 1 (866) 9NO-SCAM or visiting MyFloridaLegal.com.

To watch the video, click on the image below:

Treasure hunt

April was a good month for Floridians with unclaimed assets held by the state.

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis announced Monday that the Florida Division of Unclaimed Property returned over $25 million in April to Florida residents and businesses.

“I am extremely proud of the hard work that the Division of Unclaimed Property is putting in during these challenging times,” Patronis said. “In March, we had the second-highest month in returns in the program’s history, and with April’s figures in, we are on track to soon return $1 billion to the pockets of Floridians since I took office as your CFO.

Jimmy Patronis wants Floridians to join him on a treasure hunt,

“As COVID-19 continues to impact our communities, this money is critical to helping Florida’s economy and small businesses. I encourage all Floridians to search now for unclaimed property at FLTreasureHunt.gov.”

To date, Patronis and his Division of Unclaimed Property have returned roughly $292.4 million on over 456,000 approved claims.

According to the Department of Financial Services, unclaimed property is a “financial asset that is unknown or lost, or has been left inactive, unclaimed, or abandoned by its owner.”

Financial assets are commonly in the form of dormant bank accounts, uncashed checks, and unclaimed refunds. Since Patronis took office in July 2017, more than $936 million in unclaimed property has returned to Floridians.

Don’t wait

Patronis also reminded residents that it’s time to start preparing for hurricane season in advance, particularly concerning insurance policies.

“As Florida communities continue to face the impacts of COVID-19, unfortunately, severe weather and hurricanes do not care that we’re responding to a pandemic,” Patronis said. “If you haven’t already, conduct a disaster preparedness checkup and make sure you are prepared for the 2020 Hurricane Season by checking your homeowners’ insurance policy to ensure you are adequately covered.”

Hurricane season is coming …

With the hurricane season less than three weeks away, Patronis offered residents five hurricane preparedness tips.

Patronis suggested that residents secure flood insurance coverage and windstorm coverage. For those already holding coverage, Patronis recommended that they verify the home has adequate coverage.

Additionally, Patronis warned that residents should not wait until a storm approaches to contact a property insurance company as most will not accept new applications or increases coverage.

“Now is the time to make sure your home and family are protected,” Patronis said. “Do not wait until a storm is approaching; it may be too late.”

Additional tips and resources can be found at PrepareFL.com or by calling the CFO Patronis Insurance Consumer Hotline at 1-877-MY-FL-CFO (693-5236).

Instagram of the Week

 

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Virtual matchmaking

Enterprise Florida announced Tuesday the launch of a new trade grant program designed for small to medium-sized companies to continue overseas business despite the restriction on international travel.

Through the Virtual Business Matchmaking Grant, qualified companies will be afforded virtual introductions with up to five agents, distributors, or partners in various target markets. All parties are prescreened and prequalified.

“As small and medium-sized companies in Florida begin to reopen and recover from the impacts of COVID-19, EFI is excited to expand our international trade and development programs by offering a grant for Virtual Business Matchmaking,” said Jamal Sowell, Florida Secretary of Commerce and President & CEO of Enterprise Florida, Inc. “This grant will allow Florida businesses the opportunity to engage in new markets while international travel restrictions remain in place.”

Enterprise Florida president Jamal Sowell is doing some matchmaking … for businesses.

The grant will cover the full cost of the matchmaking on a reimbursable basis, making the service completely free, EFI added.

Another similar service will be underway in additional markets via EFI’s partnership with the U.S. Commercial Service and their International Partner Search Plus Virtual Introductions.

Florida is a global trade hub and a commercial gateway for much of the Caribbean and Latin America. Roughly $153.6 billion worth of goods travel through Florida’s airports and seaports.

Local grants available

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity announced Friday that the Rebuild Florida General Planning Support Program would make $20 million in funding available for local governments.

Educational institutions, state agencies, and nonprofits whose proposed projects benefit low- to moderate-income populations are also eligible.

The funding comes through the Community Development Block Grant — Mitigation program, a new program made in response to the presidentially declared disasters in 2016 and 2017.

At least half of CDBG-MIT funds must be spent in HUD-designated Most Impacted and Distressed (MID) areas, and the remaining funds can be used in state-designed MID regions, according to guidelines established by the Federal Register.

The CDBG-MIT funding is available for use in 51 Florida counties.

In May, DEO launched the Rebuild Florida Critical Facility Hardening Program with $75 million in funding for state agencies and local government to better the resilience that serves a public safety purpose in local areas.

Launched in 2018, Rebuild Florida uses federal funding for the state’s long-term disaster recovery efforts.

An informational webinar regarding specific guidelines will be held on May 21 at 2 p.m. Registration for the webinar is available online.

Those interested in applying for the Rebuild Florida General Planning Support Program can find more information on DEO’s website.

Plazas back online

Turnpike travelers are once again able to grab a bite when they stop to fill up at service plazas.

Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise announced this week that it had resumed food services at its eight plazas up and down the toll road.

Procedures have changed, however, with the service plazas adopting the rules outlined in Gov. DeSantis’ reopening plan.

Turnpike plazas will reopen, with some noticeable changes.

FTE said it has thoroughly cleaned the plazas using a disinfectant specially formulated to eliminate viruses and that managers and associates have been trained on how to prevent the new coronavirus’ spread, including a requirement they wear masks and gloves.

As well, visitors will see additional sanitizer stations installed throughout plazas, including in restrooms. Condiment stations will be gone; however — if you need another packet of ketchup, you’ll need to pick it up at the counter.

Social distancing isn’t taking a vacation, either. Following DeSantis’ (initial) Phase One, indoor dining is limited to no more than 25% capacity, and outdoor dining tables have been placed at least 6 feet apart.

As of now, the reopening won’t apply in South Florida, where FTE operates plazas in Snapper Creek, Pompano, and West Palm Beach. Those locations will be limited to take out orders only.

COVID-19 AmeriCorps planning

Volunteer Florida has $300,000 in AmeriCorps Planning Grants available for organizations wanting to create a COVID-19 relief program.

Each organization can receive up to $75,000 per one-year period to prepare and manage a future AmeriCorps program. Proposed programs must touch on one of six focuses: disaster services, economic opportunity, education, environmental stewardship, healthy futures and veterans and military families.

“Nonprofits play a critical role in the success of Florida’s communities and economy,” DeSantis said. “My administration is proud to make this grant program available to support the efforts of those organizations serving communities affected by COVID-19.”

Nonprofits are stepping up in the COVID-19 crisis, says Volunteer Florida CEO Clay Ingram.

Volunteer Florida received the funding through the federal agency for volunteering and national service, the Corporation for National and Community Service.

“Under both blue skies and gray, Florida’s nonprofit community steps up to the plate to provide critical services, from mentoring school children to providing food and housing resources,” Volunteer Florida CEO Clay Ingram said. “This funding is an incredible way for these organizations to continue their mission and increase their impact in the years to come.

Applicants are expected to apply for an AmeriCorps program grant in the 2021-2022 grant cycle.

Applications are due by June 18 at 5 p.m. On May 20, Volunteer Florida will host a technical assistance webinar. Successful applicants will be notified in July for the contract terms expected to begin Aug. 1.

Mental Health Awareness Month

As millions of Floridians continue to navigate the challenges presented by the novel coronavirus, the Florida Behavioral Health Association has noticed a rise in the number of telehealth visits with patients.

“We are strongly encouraging fellow Floridians to connect with their behavioral health provider during these times and to utilize the telehealth and remote services offered by so many providers,” said FBHA President and CEO Melanie Brown-Woofter.

FBHA President and CEO Melanie Brown-Woofter (left) reminds Floridians to be mindful of their mental health during the pandemic.

“May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and we are inspired to see that behavioral health has emerged as a prominent topic of conversation statewide, especially as we all feel the broad impacts of COVID-19 on our communities, not only physically but also emotionally.”

In a survey of FBHA members, roughly 92% reported that telehealth had improved patient service, and nearly 70% reported a decrease in wait times. Moreover, approximately 60% percent of providers reported an increase in patient engagement while using telehealth services.

“As we continue to combat COVID-19 and begin navigating our new normal, many issues impact our mental and emotional well-being — whether it’s a need for a community and connection while in isolation, fear surrounding the illness itself, or anxiety from a loss of employment and financial strain,” said Brown-Woofter. “Telehealth offers an important outlet for our provider members and their patients to connect and maintain the critical conversation around behavioral health.”

Pandemic aside, telehealth services can also remedy various hurdles associated with in-person appointments such as scheduling conflicts, financial barriers, and a lack of access to transportation.

Student aid inbound

Over 12,500 students from Florida State University will receive a slice of the emergency federal funds provided by the CARES Act, the university announced Monday.

FSU was awarded $29.3 million from the CARES Act, and $14.6 million will be delivered as emergency grants to students.

Remaining funds will be used to pay for other unexpected expenses incurred as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the university said.

Florida State University students will receive emergency aid provided by the CARES Act,

For students, the grants will come in waves. The first wave of students will receive grants between $400 and $600 from a pot of $6.24 million. The university said this group would include students who have no family contribution, recipients of the Pell grant, and graduate and professional students with need more significant than $1,000.

To qualify for the first wave of FSU’s CARES Act distribution, students must have been enrolled in the Spring 2020 semester, filed the federal financial aid application for the 2019 -2020 academic year, and must not have received emergency relief funding from the university.

FSU said a student’s financial needs were verified based on their federal financial aid application on file with the university.

The CARES Act was passed by Congress and signed into law to provide economic relief from the COVID-19 pandemic.

It also authorized the U.S. Department of Education to give funding to colleges and universities to provide emergency financial aid grants to eligible students.

Law cares

This month, more than 50 law students at Florida A&M University College of Law received scholarships through the FAMU Law Cares Emergency Relief Fund.

The technological and financial support came in the form of $500 emergency scholarships designed to cover COVID-19 related hardships as well as laptop computers to help ease the mandated transition to online learning.

 “Thank you, so much, for the technology scholarship,” said third-year law student Yasha Osby. “The law school has lightened my financial burden, which allowed me to focus on my final exams and prepare to graduate. In the near future, I hope to be able to help a student in need just as you all have done for me.”

Florida A&M University is one of several state universities where students will benefit from the CARES Act.

 FAMU Law Cares is an arm of the university’s support initiative termed FAMU Cares. Funding for the College of Law program came from donations from faculty, staff, and a $25,000 grant from the AccessLex Institute.

“We know the coronavirus has disrupted the lives of our law students in an unprecedented manner,” said Nicky Boothe Perry, interim dean and professor of law.

“We are so pleased to have been able to provide some level of relief and comfort to students facing extraordinary challenges while pursuing a legal education. We are so grateful for the contribution from AccessLex and the donations from our very own faculty and staff.”

Hurricane recovery volunteering

Volunteer Florida Foundation is awarding $6.65 million in Florida Disaster Fund grants for continued Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Michael long-term recovery efforts.

Nine organizations engaged in Hurricane Irma recovery efforts will receive a combined $3.85 million and ten will receive a combined $2.79 million for Hurricane Michael.

“Since Day One, my administration has been committed to helping individuals impacted by disaster,” DeSantis said. “I am pleased to announce this funding from the Volunteer Florida Foundation, which will help communities continue to recover and rebuild from the devastating impacts of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Michael.”

Ron DeSantis wants to make sure that hurricane prep is not lost in the shuffle of coronavirus. Image via AP.

International Orthodox Christian Charities, Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay, Samuel’s House, Sister’s United Network, the Nonprofit Center of Northeast Florida for Northeast Florida Long-Term Recovery Organization, Treasure Coast Food Bank, United Way of Broward County, United Way of Collier and the Keys, and Volusia Interfaith Agencies Networking in Disaster are leading Irma-recovery efforts.

Bay District Schools, BRACE, Doorways of Northwest Florida, Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, Feeding the Gulf Coast, Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratories, Habitat for Humanity of Bay County, North Florida Inland Long-Term Recovery, Rebuild Bay County and Sleep in Heavenly Peace are receiving funds for Michael recovery.

“As the leader of the state’s agency on volunteerism and service, I have seen firsthand how the impacts of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Michael are still being felt in our communities,” said Volunteer Florida CEO Clay Ingram. “Today, I am thrilled to announce additional funding from the Volunteer Florida Foundation, which will continue to support long-term recovery across the state.”

Florida grasshopper sparrow

The nearly-extinct Florida grasshopper sparrow showed hopeful signs of returning to the wild this month.

Researchers with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and environmental partners identified sparrows the team had released from captivity now breeding in the wild and rearing chicks.

The nearly extinct Florida grasshopper sparrow could be making a comeback soon. Image via Florida State Parks.

With the population of Florida grasshopper sparrows declining sharply in recent years, the finding marks an important milestone. Since 2019, the team has released 150 captive-reared sparrows, 25 of whom have been spotted defending their territories, another critical step.

“The finding that captive-reared sparrows can breed in the wild is a game-changer,” said Juan Oteyza, lead sparrow research scientist at the FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. “This indicates that individuals bred in captivity can supplement wild populations and therefore reduce the risk of extinction.”

Only 30 breeding pairs remained in the wild, researchers found in 2019.

The share of released sparrows that have survived exceeds that observed in many other captive release efforts of similar birds. Also, researchers have found nests of eight captive-reared sparrows, and parents at two of these nests have successfully fledged young so far.

“This initial success with captive-raised Florida grasshopper sparrows breeding in the wild is a testament to and confirmation of all the hard work our partners and individual scientists have put into this groundbreaking recovery effort for more than a decade,” said Larry Williams, a state supervisor with USFWS. “But while this is a major, major milestone, now is not the time to pop the cork on Champagne. It’s more so a signal that we must redouble our efforts to keep this momentum going.”

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