On Thursday, the Tampa Bay Rays travel to Miami to open the Major League Baseball season against the Marlins.
In past years, we would have greeted that announcement as a pleasant sign that season was about to begin. This year though, we greet with outright joy mixed with a large dose of trepidation.
About this time last year, no one quite understood how bad the COVID-19 pandemic was about to get. We quickly learned, though, that it was worse than we could imagine. The virus infected thousands and thousands of people.
The sick and dying overwhelmed the health care system.
Businesses closed, people lost jobs, and schools shut down.
Professional and amateur sports alike struggled to respond. The NCAA canceled March Madness and professional hockey and basketball closed their doors. Hockey and basketball finally returned, but no fans were allowed in the arenas to watch the games.
Baseball came up with a 60-game schedule instead of its normal 162. Players performed before cardboard cutouts that took the place of actual fans.
It’s getting better, though.
Last week, I joined my son at a Tampa Bay Lightning hockey game at Amalie Arena. The team limited attendance to 3,800 fans instead of the usual 19,000-plus, but it was a piece of normal – just like baseball spring training this year.
So, say it loud and say it proud.
Now, onto our weekly game of Winners and Losers.
Honorable mention: State businesses. They had a good week. Under a bill sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis, businesses, governments, and healthcare providers will be protected from COVID-19 lawsuits, provided they tried to follow recommended safety guidelines.
It’s also a big win for DeSantis, who made the bill a priority.
And brick-and-mortar businesses in the state could soon find the playing field leveled with online sellers. The Senate approved a bill to require internet retailers to collect sales tax. The measure could put an extra $1 billion into the state coffers annually.
Technically, Floridians are already supposed to send equivalent sales taxes from online purchases to the state Department of Revenue. Few do that.
Florida retailers have long complained the tax issues give online sellers a big advantage.
Almost (but not quite) biggest winner: The Tampa Bay Times. Like every newspaper in the state, economics and changing reader habits buffeted the Times.
Give the newspaper credit, though. Even with significant staff cutbacks and reducing its print product to two days a week, it still packs a punch.
Staff writers Corey G. Johnson, Rebecca Woolington, and Eli Murray just uncorked a remarkable piece of journalism. They spent 18 months tracking deplorable conditions at Gopher Resource in East Tampa, home to the only lead smelter in Florida.
Their reporting, titled Poisoned, detailed how their jobs routinely exposed workers to dangerous levels of toxins, especially lead.
Their finding noted that “Gopher exposed workers for years to levels of lead in the air that were hundreds of times higher than the federal limit. At times, the concentration was considered life-threatening. Workers described regular tasks that left them caked with dust, as though they’d been dunked in powdered sugar.”
Gopher knew, too.
The Times reported, “…but the company disabled ventilation features that captured fumes and moved slowly to fix faulty mechanical systems. Workers were left vulnerable, wearing respirators that couldn’t protect them when poison levels spiked.”
Bravo to the Times for its commitment to this vital local reporting.
The biggest winner: Chris Sprowls. The Florida House generally is the place where Medicaid proposals go to die, but not this time.
The House Speaker announced a plan to extend Medicaid coverage for pregnant women to one year after delivering their babies. Florida has capped coverage at two months.
There was justifiable bipartisan support and praise for the move.
“If we’re going to be truly committed to mothers and the health of their children in the long term, it needs to be signaled in both word and deed that this is a long-term commitment, and that’s what we’re going to do in the Medicaid Conforming Bill,” Sprowls said.
There are a few dark clouds on the horizon. The Senate, facing a budget crunch, considered cutting Medicaid. Lawmakers are willing to listen, though.
“It’s a lot of money to get there. But it’s a noble cause,” said Sen. Aaron Bean, who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services.
Indeed, it is.
Democratic Rep. Kamia Brown, who pushed for this legislation, joined Sprowls for the announcement.
“This problem impacts minority communities disproportionately,” she said. “Disparities in maternal health equality results in mothers of color in Florida being three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than White mothers.”
Dishonorable mention: The Florida Legislature. When asked what they think of the job state lawmakers are doing, Floridians turned thumbs down.
St. Pete Polls, in a survey commissioned by Florida Politics, reported that 32% of voters rate the Legislature’s job performance as “poor.” Another nearly 27% shrugged and graded the Legislature “only fair.”
That combines to 55% in the “meh” column.
The remaining 45% rated the job as good or excellent.
Almost (but not quite) biggest loser: Florida prison system. The Department of Corrections could be looking at $140 million in budget cuts, along with closing four state prisons. That’s bad.
Even worse, though, is the warning from Corrections Secretary Mark Inch about chronic understaffing throughout the system continues to go unaddressed.
As far back as 2019, Inch warned lawmakers that the state prison system could be heading toward catastrophe. He sent a book entitled “The Devil’s Butcher Shop” to lawmakers and every warden. The book detailed the deadly 1980 prison riot in New Mexico, where 33 inmates died, and corrections officers were held hostage and tortured.
“They had a lot of the warning signs that we have,” he said then, adding, “The status quo is not sustainable.”
The proposed budget passed the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee by one vote. Sens. Jeff Brandes, Jason Pizzo, and Victor Torres strongly objected,
The Tampa Bay Times reported that Brandes, a Republican, asked how the department should operate with a severely reduced budget.
“I can’t let this go without objecting,” he said. “If it was a long-term plan, maybe. But this cuts without a plan. There is no plan here. This says we are going to make the cuts, and DOC, you make the plan.”
The biggest loser: Fox News Channel. The company that claims its news coverage is “Fair and Balanced” could soon need a new slogan: “Broke and Battered.”
Dominion Voting Systems filed a $1.6 billion (with a B) lawsuit against Fox, claiming it knowingly aired false stories that the company manipulated votes in the 2020 election to Donald Trump’s detriment.
As the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported, the lawsuit claims “with Fox’s ratings in freefall and Fox viewers fleeing to Newsmax and OAN at then-President Trump’s behest, Fox, through its most prominent on-air personalities, cynically exploited these lies to lure viewers back.”
Another voting technology company, Smartmatic USA, based in Boca Raton, sued Fox, three of its hosts, and lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell for $2.7 billion.
Powell, who promoted baseless claims of massive voter fraud across multiple states along with other bizarre statements, sings a different tune now. In a defense filing last week, her lawyer said, “No reasonable person would conclude that the statements were truly statements of fact.”
Wait! Did he essentially say that anyone who believed that in a stolen election is stupid?
Sure seems like it.
Back to Dominion.
Its lawsuit noted, that company employees received death threats and calls for jail time. It blames what it called the “disinformation campaign” by Fox.
The company said that someone left this message on Dominion’s customer support line: “You’re all f—ing dead. You’re all f—ing dead. We’re bringing back the firing squad and you f—ers are all dead, everybody involved up against the wall you m———ers.”
It sounds like at least somebody bought what Fox and other right-wing media outfits were selling about election fraud.