Writing plans in pencil
Leaders in politics and education who participated in a virtual Town Hall meeting Thursday morning were happy to share their plans for reopening Florida schools from preschool through college — but with a big caveat:
“I think all of us who are doing planning right now are writing our plans with a pencil because things continue to change,” said Jim Murdaugh, president of Tallahassee Community College only half-jokingly.
Others participating in the discussion included Tallahassee Mayor John Dailey, Florida Department of Education Deputy Chief of Staff Bethany Swonson, incoming Florida Senate Chief of Staff Kathy Mears — who came to her new position after serving as the lead lobbyist for Florida State University — and FSU Athletic Director David Coburn, who also is a professor at the university.
Swonson said the DOE has overarching mandates schools must meet such as days in the classroom, data collection, and the health and safety of children and school staff.
But local districts will have wiggle room.
“We are such a diverse state … We have so many rural and so many urban and in between districts that look differently. We recognize it’s not a one-size-fits-all, she said.
While Swonson takes a macro look at schooling in her job, Mayor Dailey is living the micro problems that have appeared in his own living room. “The hardest part of distance learning for me is fifth grade geography and third grade math,” he quipped, referring to his two sons’ homework.
With four people using devices at his home, Dailey had to increase the speed of his internet connection — but he is acutely aware of families facing far greater challenges.
“When you hear of K through 12 schools where the students have to go to the library and sit in the car … to be able to get online, that’s an issue of connectivity in the community,” he said. “The best thing that we could do as the city is to work with private industry partners but also work with the school district, do the best job we can to make sure that everyone has access to connectivity.”
Before commenting on how education might change in the upcoming years, Mears described the problems facing the Legislature during the pandemic, including how the body will be able to meet in a way that is safe and open to the public. “We did not come on to prepare for a pandemic, and it’s not because we didn’t care. We just didn’t know,” she said.
Education-wise, virtual learning may be a boon to Florida’s education system, because the funding stream used for brick-and-mortar buildings — taxes on landline phones — has largely dried up.
“I think you’ll see budgets and all of the official state action coming in the next session will sort of track the reality of what we’re dealing with today, so I can’t predict it.” she said. “But I can predict that there will be changes. We can’t just do things the same way.”
The student moderator of the town hall, Jared Young, did sneak in a question on everybody’s mind to Coburn — what are plans for the upcoming FSU football season? “I’m not in a position to say at this point about where we are headed as a conference,” Coburn demurred. “I think now the Big 12, the SEC and the ACC will wait until later in the month to make those decisions and (FSU will) try to coordinate a little with them.”
Coburn said the quick switch to online learning wasn’t as jarring for student-athletes, because many of them were already taking classes virtually and had the technology needed in hand. Putting on his instructor hat, he said during his spring classes his “biggest problem was academic integrity” — aka cheating. He also spoke of losing “the kind of sidebar communications with students before, during and after (class) that are so important.” Also, when meeting with classes online, students would find it difficult to speak and ask questions without talking over each other.
The Zoom meeting was sponsored by Florida State University’s Masters in Applied American Politics and Policy (MAAPP) program, which is designed to provide practical knowledge to those seeking careers as political operatives such as campaigns, fundraising, communications, lobbying and legislative affairs.
TCC President Murdaugh told the students listening in on the forum that the pandemic has provided them with the perfect learning opportunity.
“You are living through a time like no other. And each of you has the opportunity to observe, learning from what we all do right and what we could have done better,” he said. “And I’m really excited that this program exists and that each of you on this call … will emerge as the leaders that we need to carry us forward.”
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.
The “Takeaway 5” — the Top 5 stories from the week that was:
Helen Aguirre Ferré out — Gov. Ron DeSantis’ communications director since his inauguration will leave her position to take over as executive director of the Republican Party of Florida. Party officials announced the move in a conference call to members. Ferré’s departure comes amid criticism over the Governor’s messaging around coronavirus response, which included assertions media wanted the pandemic to spread while the administration pushed for a phased business reopening. Sources indicate to Florida Politics that Fred Piccolo, now the spokesman for Speaker of the House José Oliva, will take over Ferré’s position in the administration.
Education Board pushes back on reopening — At a board meeting in Tallahassee, member Michael Olenick characterized direction from Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to schools to reopen five days a week in the fall “effectively an administrative order without input from the Board of Education.” Gov. DeSantis at the same meeting stressed school districts can offer parents flexibility and a range of choices, both virtual and in-classroom, when it comes to education in the fall. Still, multiple school districts including Miami-Dade, Florida’s largest, say they will not reopen in the fall because of local COVID-19 infection rates.
Hospitals report remdesivir shortage — As several hospitals around the state report a shortage in the supply of remdesivir, one of the most successful treatments for patients hospitalized with COVID-19, officials offered a range of response. Sen. Marco Rubio pushed for the federal government to increase shipments, warning the lack of the drug could reduce hospital discharge rates and leave ICU beds filled. Gov. DeSantis suggested hospitals need to look at dosages being provided to patients and better ration supplies, while stressing the state still wanted to expedite shipments. The Food and Drug Administration says the intravenously administered pharmaceutical shortens recovery time by reducing coronavirus presence in the body.
Lobbyist tests positive after fundraiser — House Speaker-designate Chris Sprowls confirmed a lobbyist who attended a Republican fundraiser at the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club tested positive for COVID-19. Lawmakers in attendance included Sprowls, future House Speaker Paul Renner, Reps. Cord Byrd, Wyman Duggan, Elizabeth Fetterhoff, Jason Fischer, Tom Leek and Clay Yarborough as well as House District 18 candidate Sam Garrison and a handful of lobbyists. The fundraiser was held July 9 but the lobbyists did not show symptoms until July 12 and tested positive the following day. A number at the fundraiser later attended an event with Vice President Mike Pence in Jacksonville.
Medicaid enrollment continues to climb — Medicaid enrollment in June grew by nearly 2% over the prior month, with the program providing health coverage to more than 4.1 million poor, elderly and disabled people. June’s 1.99% growth came after increases in previous months as Floridians lost jobs because of the pandemic. More than 3.2 million Medicaid beneficiaries receive coverage through managed-care plans. Another 914,000 people are in what’s considered a “fee for service” part of the program. The spike in Medicaid enrollment caused by the pandemic is larger than what state Medicaid officials initially anticipated.
— 323,002 FL residents (+82,292 since July 10)
— 4,239 Non-FL residents (+798 since July 10)
— 3,060 Travel related
— 86,177 Contact with a confirmed case
— 2,970 Both
— 230,795 Under investigation
— 20,191 in FL
— 4,912 in FL
As of Thursday:
Claims submitted: 3,147,705
— Confirmed unique claims: 2,936,551 (+166,074 since July 9)
— Claims processed: 2,660,094 (+108,403 since July 9)
— Claims paid: 1,727,838 (+51,983 since July 9)
Total paid out: $10.49 billion (+$956 million since July 9)
— State money: $2,422,168,360
Not a scam
Millions of dollars are still available for thousands of victims of tech support scams, who are running out of time to file for reimbursements from the state.
Attorney General Ashley Moody and her office shut down 16 companies through a recent tech support scam investigation. More than 100,000 people nationwide were victims of the scams.
“Our Consumer Protection Division has worked hard to secure restitution for victims of tech support scams and they continue to diligently reach out to eligible consumers,” Moody said, encouraging people to spread the word.
But despite notices from her office to victims both last year and last month, the state has only distributed $197,000 of the $7.2 million available for eligible consumers until Aug. 30.
Since 2014, the Florida Attorney General’s Office has successfully shut down 13 tech support scams, critical because of the state’s elderly population. Moody filed the most recent case against American PC Corporation.
Tech support scams typically involve fake pop-up messages or impostor phone calls claiming that a consumer’s computer is infected with malware that poses an imminent risk to the device. Fraudsters, who target seniors, will request virtual access to a victim’s computer to supposedly fix the nonexistent problem.
Checks are in the mail
Moody and the Federal Trade Commission announced that more than 27,000 refund checks will be sent to the victims of a debt relief scam.
The $16 million in restitution comes to consumers after Moody and the FTC brought a lawsuit against Helping America Group.
The group is accused of “convincing victims to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars a month by falsely promising to pay, settle or obtain dismissal of debts and improve payers’ credit scores,” Moody’s office said in an announcement.
Instead, the scam led some consumers to be sued by creditors while others were forced into bankruptcy.
“It infuriates me that anyone would take advantage of people trying to pay off their debts and improve their financial situations,” Moody said. “Thankfully, our office, working together with the FTC, has now recovered millions to be returned to the victims of this appalling scam.”
According to the Attorney General’s Office, more money is expected to be collected from the lawsuit and a second round of checks is being planned.
Recipients can expect the checks within 90 days.
Moody encourages Floridians to report suspected scams or deceptive behavior online or by phone at 1(866) 9NO-SCAM.
Make the move
Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis sent a letter to billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk this week asking him to consider moving to the Sunshine State.
Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX, would save some money by ditching California, Patronis said.
“As a Florida resident, you wouldn’t be subject to state income taxes. Also, depending on how your many businesses are organized, you may realize up to a 50% savings on Corporate Income taxes as Florida’s 4.4% corporate income tax is half California’s 8.84% rate,” Patronis said in the letter.
The CFO also highlighted how Florida’s government is looking to grow the electric car and space industries and, during the current economic crisis, the state has the financial security to make ends meet without raising taxes and fees.
If Musk needs more convincing, Patronis said he should take a closer look next time he’s on the Space Coast.
“I know you’re a busy man, but next time you visit the Sunshine State for another successful rocket launch, spend some time with the men and women who live in Florida and work at SpaceX to get their take on what working and living in Florida means to them and their families.
“I guarantee you’re going to hear stories from those folks about how Florida supports, and doesn’t inhibit, their growth and success,” Patronis said.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried took note of a new global survey this week that showed food safety is a significant concern for consumers worldwide.
Of those polled, 55% percent said food safety was a concern with 53% of consumers citing health issues.
“As Florida’s food safety and consumer protection agency, we know that Floridians care deeply about the quality and safety of the food they feed their families,” Fried said. “Particularly with COVID-19 posing a huge threat in Florida, we’re working closely with the businesses we oversee to ensure proper food safety measures are taken, and we’re encouraging consumers to be smart at home about food safety.”
The survey firm, DNV GL, said consumers expressed a desire for more transparency on product content, food safety and hygiene practices.
“As millions of Florida consumers visit food establishments each day, it’s crucial that we communicate with these businesses to ensure the best sanitization practices are being followed. This is critical to reducing the transmission of bacterial and viral pathogens and lessening chances of spreading COVID-19,” said Dr. Matthew Curran, FDACS director of food safety. “We want to remind businesses and consumers to wipe down hard surfaces before use and maintain clean hands with thorough hand-washing or hand sanitizer of at least 60% alcohol content.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no evidence to support the transmission of COVID-19 associated with food.
Two Northeast Florida communities are receiving infrastructure investments from the state government.
The Department of Economic Opportunity is providing Columbia County and White Springs with a combined $900,000 through the Rural Infrastructure Fund, designed to create jobs, diversify rural economies and encourage business investment.
“Rural communities are vital to the development and growth of Florida’s economy and I’m committed to helping them thrive,” DeSantis said. “Infrastructure improvements made available through the Rural Infrastructure Fund will help rural communities be able to attract businesses and provide more resilient infrastructure for the future of their local economy.”
Columbia County is receiving $500,000 to construct a natural gas main loop along the Bell Road Corridor. Both new and existing businesses will benefit from the project, which will provide the necessary infrastructure to the existing distribution center and allow the transportation logistics industry to expand.
The project will attract more than $1 million in capital investment to Columbia County and create 43 new jobs, according to the Governor’s Office.
White Springs will receive the remaining $400,000 to encourage construction, engineering and inspection service improvements for the town’s sewer system.
Hurricane Irma led to overflows in the 40-year-old sewer system. The town’s planned improvements would correct the problems that triggered the overflows.
A handful of drive-thru coronavirus testing sites are getting more lanes.
The Florida Division of Emergency Management announced that Floridians making the trek to War Memorial Auditorium in Ft. Lauderdale, Regency Square Mall in Jacksonville, the Orange County Convention Center, or Hard Rock Stadium in Miami will be able to pull into self-swab lanes as part of a pilot program launched Friday.
Consider it the fast lane — DEM said the option will cut down on wait times. Self-swabbers can also expect to receive their test results faster, as DEM is sending them to a separate lab with 72-hour turnaround time. The results will be delivered via email.
DEM said the Orange County Convention Center and Hard Rock Stadium will get 500 self-swab tests a day, War Memorial Auditorium will get 1,000 and Regency Square Mall will get 2,200. Appointments are available, but not required, at the Jax and convention center sites.
For now, self-swabbing is reserved for those 5 and older with symptoms COVID-19. Self-swabs are administered with a health care professional looking on to make sure it’s done correctly.
If the pilot program is successful, FDEM said it will expand it to more state-run testing sites. The state currently supports 50 COVID-testing sites across the state, with the capacity to conduct up to 29,000 tests per day.
Instagram of the Week
View this post on Instagram
Middle school teacher Brittany Myers, (C) stands in protest in front of the Hillsborough County Schools District Office on July 16, 2020 in Tampa, Florida. Teachers and administrators from Hillsborough County Schools rallied against the reopening of schools due to health and safety concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic. For Getty Images. @gettyimages #teachers #covid19 #hillsboroughcountyschooldistrict #tampa
Strip clubs stripped
State regulators are continuing the crackdown on businesses that flout the COVID-19 booze sales restrictions. Two of the latest businesses stripped of their beverage licenses are gentlemen’s clubs.
Both Show-N-Tail in Panama City Beach and Le Palace Otown in Orlando recently had their licenses suspended for distributing alcohol and for violating social distancing. The Department of Business and Professional Regulation also suspended the license of George and Dragon English Tavern, a Cocoa Village cigar bar and pub.
Patrons were consuming alcohol in all three businesses. To serve alcohol, the businesses must make the majority of their revenue from food, but none of the establishments are licensed to sell food.
In the case of Show-N-Tail, guests paid an entry fee that came with a “free” alcoholic beverage. At Le Palace Otown, customers were in “close proximity” to each other and to performers in addition to consuming alcohol, the order said.
And at George and Dragon English Tavern, the order says the owners refused to close the bar. Since then, the owners have sued the Governor and the department for arbitrarily letting restaurants serve alcohol but prohibiting the sale at bars and pubs.
E-bikes in parks
After DeSantis signed legislation last month linking electric bicycle regulations to that of conventional bicycles rather than motorized vehicles, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is developing rules to allow certain e-bikes on the commission’s land.
The commission will consider rules next week to specify the rules for where electric bicycles can travel and which types are allowed.
Before the new law, low-speed, pedal-assisted bikes in which the motor ceases to engage at 20 mph were classified with regular bicycles if the motor only works while pedaling. Those are now considered Class 1 electric bicycles while Class 2 e-bikes have motors that can always engage up to 20 mph and Class 3 e-bikes can be propelled up to 28 mph.
The proposed Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission rules only let Class 1 electric bicycles on commission land. But under the state’s new rules, more-powerful Class 2 and Class 3 electric bicycles can only be used on named or numbered roads, a commission staff report said about the issue, which is scheduled to go before the commission July 23.
“Allowing Class 2 and 3 electric bicycles on commission-managed lands may lead to environmental damage as well as user conflict and safety concerns,” the staff report said.
Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers recognized Sens. Jeff Brandes and Ed Hooper and Reps. Chuck Clemons and Tommy Gregory with 2020 Clerk Legislative Leadership Awards.
The lawmakers sponsored legislation this past Session that would have benefited the state’s court clerks.
The association announced the awards, recognizing its legislative partners, during its annual summer conference this week. The awards “highlight their direct legislative leadership” and good public policy, according to the member association.
“We are extremely grateful to have support from our partners in the Florida Legislature,” said Tara Green, FCCC President and Clerk of the Circuit Court for Clay County. “Sen. Hooper, Sen. Brandes, Rep. Clemons and Rep. Gregory are incredible servants for this state, and they understand the valuable role Clerks play in the lives of their constituents. We are proud to consider them our Legislative Leaders and to honor them with these awards.”
Brandes filed SB 790, Hooper filed SB 590, Clemons filed HB 591 and Gregory filed HB 967. Those measures, which did not become law, would have fixed glitches in intended clerk fees and changed how courts reimburse jurors.
After this year’s virtual conference, association members presented lawmakers with their awards in small, socially distanced local ceremonies.
FAMM seeks prison furloughs
Families Against Mandatory Minimums, in looking for an avenue to get inmates at-risk for severe COVID-19 infections out of prisons, is highlighting prison furloughs as an option for the Department of Corrections.
Prison furloughs allow a corrections facility to temporarily release prisoners for family or personal business, to benefit their transition or rehabilitation, and for another “compelling reason consistent with the public interest.” FAMM is pointing to that last clause as an option for the department to exert.
However, when the organization presented DOC with that plan in May, the department’s interim general counsel, Dorothy Burnsed, rejected the claim’s legality.
“Instead of serving an individual inmate’s rehabilitative needs through brief extensions of confinement, your suggested interpretation of the furlough rule seeks to broaden the meaning and intent of the
rule to authorize the release of entire subpopulations of inmates for an indefinite amount of time,” she wrote.
But FAMM this week issued a rebuttal, insisting there is no reference to “brief” in the department’s rules.
“We urge you to reconsider FDC’s position in light of the actual text of the rule, and then begin granting furloughs to individuals who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19,” returned FAMM’s Florida director, Greg Newburn. “However, if you remain unpersuaded, we urge you to seek an advisory opinion from the Florida Supreme Court.”
Tallahassee has renamed a pond, previously named after a strict segregationist, after the late Florida A&M University professor and civil rights activist Charles E. Evans.
Evans, a former Tallahassee NAACP president, was one of the first African Americans to settle in the Myers Park neighborhood, where he lived for more than 30 years.
FAMU President Larry Robinson suggested in an August letter to Mayor Dailey and City Commissioners that the city rename the pond after Evans, who died in 2013.
The Myers Park pond was named after Florida Supreme Court Justice Roy H. Chapman, a former resident of the neighborhood, in 1952 after his death. In addition to being a segregationist, Chapman wrote the Florida Supreme Court opinion that upheld the wrongful conviction of the Groveland Four.
“Chapman’s long and disturbing judicial record of authoring unrepentant segregationist opinions and voting to maintain segregation, certainly in one of America’s most notorious, abhorrent and egregious miscarriages of justice with the Groveland Case, strikes a dissonant note in a time when many local and state governments are voting to remove the names and likeness of such individuals from publicly-owned land,” Robinson said in his letter. “It is my belief that such an action would clear the way for reconciliation, and force us to reckon squarely with the not so pleasant past, while righting while righting a historical wrong.”
During a city commission meeting last week and with the Mayor’s backing, Commissioner Curtis Richardson moved that the city rename the pond in Evans’ memory. The commission unanimously approved the decision.
“In memory … to all that he contributed to this community and improving the quality of life not only for African Americans here in the city of Tallahassee but all who call Tallahassee home,” Richardson said.
Women at War
You don’t have to be a student at Florida State University to learn a thing or two from its Institute on World War II and the Human Experience.
The university announced this week that it has rolled out an online exhibit focused on the lives of women during World War II.
“Women at War: At Home and Service in World War II” was originally planned to open as an in-person exhibit at the Chipola Center for the Arts at Chipola College in Marianna, but the coronavirus pandemic put those plans on hold.
FSU, with the help of donors to the Institute on World War II and the Human Experience, helped bring the exhibit online.
“This exhibit not only highlights the extensive holdings of the Institute on World War II but also the talents of a team of exceptional undergraduates who organized it,” said G. Kurt Piehler, associate professor of history and director of the Institute on World War II and the Human Experience. “The exhibit is another example of how the institute offers experiential opportunities to our undergraduate students.”
The organizers used digitized materials, such as photographs, correspondence, military documents and oral histories, from the archival collections housed at the institute to illustrate the experiences of American women in the World War II era.
Featured collections include that of Gertrude Margaritte Ivory Bertram, an African American nurse from Georgia who joined the U.S. Army Nurse Corps after graduating from nursing school at Brewster Hospital in Jacksonville in 1941.
Another woman featured is Editha Anderson Shaw, who graduated high school in 1944 and joined the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps shortly after.
On the UPSIDE
The City of Tallahassee enjoyed national recognition this week for one the city’s unique Senior Center programs.
The Tallahassee Senior Center’s UPSIDE (Utilizing and Promoting Social Engagement for Loneliness, Isolation and Depression in the Elderly) program was awarded the Best Health and Wellness Program in the nation from the National Institute of Senior Centers.
The city said the award is intended to “honor and promote outstanding efforts made by senior centers throughout the nation that offer innovative, creative and replicable programs for older adults.”
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, loneliness and isolation were determined to be at epidemic levels for seniors by mental health professionals.
Now, however, the city said these feelings may be heightened.
“Protective measures for COVID-19, including social distancing and stay-at-home guidelines for vulnerable populations such as seniors, have intensified these negative feelings for some people,” the city said in an announcement. “This has underscored the great importance of and need for programs like UPSIDE that provide social connectedness and promote mental, physical and emotional well-being.”
In response, Tallahassee has made efforts to engage seniors through phone calls and online services.
The program has helped over 300 local seniors connect with others through planned activities and individual counseling since its launch in 2018.
You can’t take a break from the coronavirus, but Corona … err … Capitol Directions can. We’re taking a week off recording the slam dunks and slip-ups in the Capitol to check in on campaign fundraising in the final stretch ahead of the primary. No need to worry. The pandemic, unfortunately, will still be here next week … and the week after that.