Good morning, dear readers.
This is the final edition of Sunburn for the year. The stockings are hung by the chimney with care and the knowledge that Session will soon be here; we plan next week to stay nestled all snug in our beds, with visions of the 2022 campaign cycle dancing in our heads.
Merry Christmas from the greatest gift Michelle and I ever received, Ella Joyce. Michelle had these very cool photos taken of her, and I hope you’ll forgive me for sharing a couple of them with you. Most of you have watched, in this email, Ella Joyce grow up, one Christmas season after another, so I trust you don’t mind.
I hope these photos of Ella Joyce — and her almost-back-at-full-strength mother — help you feel the magic of Christmas all around you!
Here are some other Christmas and year-end notes and nuggets:
— 21 headlines that define 2021: The year opened with the tumultuous riot in Congress as scores of pro-Donald Trump protesters stormed the Capitol and took it under siege. It was a sign of things to come: The year that was supposed to represent a return to post-COVID-19 normalcy would be anything but. POLITICO compiled a list of headlines that remind those of us with short memories just how much the nation has endured, from the rise of Marjorie Taylor Greene from the periphery of politics into the halls of power, to Trump’s refusal to leave the national stage and the resulting culture wars. Democrats battled too, finding difficulties getting their footing, even with one of their own now occupying the White House. Embattled New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo makes the list, so too do crises at the border and over climate change. But it’s all amid the backdrop of a persisting pandemic that refuses to relent. Take a trip down memory lane here.
— 21 things to feel good about in 2021: It’s easy to get caught up on all the things that sucked in 2021, but it wasn’t all bad. In fact, there’s much to celebrate. A wired roundup takes a moment to spotlight the good, even as so many remember the bad. For starters, nearly 8.5 billion people worldwide have been vaccinated against COVID-19, the largest mass vaccination campaign in history, and one that is literally saving lives. And while it might be hard to reflect back on the damage inflicted to so many who lost their jobs amid the pandemic, there was a positive effect later. Throughout the spring and summer of 2021, waves of workers began resigning their jobs, indicating the pandemic had caused them to reflect on their work-life balance and know when to call it quits in a toxic work environment. China eliminated Malaria, so at least that’s one less malady to worry about. Bee Hotels surfaced to help shrinking bee populations stabilize. NASA made oxygen on Mars and the Oscars finally found some diversity. But in perhaps the best news, scientists revealed that cheese isn’t bad for you. Read more good news here.
— Whose nose grew the longest this year?: Each year The Washington Post compiles a list of its biggest Pinocchios of the year, a reference to the wooden puppet whose nose grew each time he told a lie. Last year, WaPo optimistically projected it would be the last year Trump landed on the list. The paper’s analysis typically focuses on those in positions of power. They kept their word, yet despite rarely fact-checking the former Commander in Chief, Trump finds himself on the list yet again. Trump’s inclusion is largely buoyed by his continued insistence that the 2020 election was stolen, and that he was the rightful winner of a second term. His misleading statements on the Jan. 6 insurrection also earned a mention. Also appearing on the list is President Joe Biden, who, as WaPo describes, makes “an assertion with specific numbers that appears to have no source.” Referenced are “puzzling statements” claiming “every single” hospital bed would be filled with Alzheimer’s patients within the next 15 years, a claim that he had traveled 17,000 miles with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, another that the Second Amendment bars cannon ownership, and one that argued ending a minor tax break for racehorse owners would raise enough money to pay for free community college. Read about all of the Pinocchios here.
— The year in photos: A barren Times Square filled with raining confetti, an ominous image of protesters scaling the walls of the U.S. Capitol, soldiers sleeping on the floor, the nation’s first woman and Black Vice President gazing out at the Washington Monument, dying COVID-19 patients, mass vaccination sites. Those are just a few of the images that punctuate 2021 and all that it had to offer. Compiled by The New York Times, the year in pictures documents a series of reminders of tragedy, chaos, perseverance and historic moments. Some images are renowned, such as those showing the chaos and violence that unfolded Jan. 6, others are more obscure highlighting a way of life that has become all too normal in a pandemic that won’t go away. See the photos — some inspiring, some anger-provoking, but all spectacular in their own rite — here.
— 10 photo essays to show we endure: Everyone is sick of it. Many of us are sick from it. But the pandemic has shown the power of resilience, even in the face of maddening frustration. The Washington Post highlighted 10 photo essays that “capture a full tableau of human responses.” The highlight “trepidation, but also a sense of renewal, celebration, but caution as well.” The compilation includes images of life on the road with a rock band, a mother’s struggle — and triumph — amid isolation with her son, life after war in Gaza, a photo diary documenting the challenges of home life amid a pandemic and others. Most are relatable to anyone. Some offer a glimpse into realities many would struggle to understand. But each offer emotional narratives and thought-provoking images that give a human face to real-world struggles and joys.
— The best inventions of 2021: Audible text. Mobility for immobile tykes. Hands-free shoes. A space-saving wheelchair. These are just some of the 100 best inventions of 2021, some of which you didn’t know you needed, but might now want. Inventions include an app for sonograms and automated building inspections, a 911 alternative, new digital maps, high-tech glasses to maximize screen potential, sustainable water savers and much, much more. Each invention is linked to its own page, where readers can learn details about the invention, who created it and who might benefit. The inventions are broken into categories ranging from tech to beauty products. And the sheer volume of head-turning creations reminds us the 21st century is full of innovation. Catch the entire list here.
— Best books of 2021: Year two of the pandemic might have represented at least some return to normalcy. Pro sports got back into full swing. People started going to concerts again. Vaccinated Americans celebrated holidays with loved ones. But if 2020 taught us anything, it’s the power of a good book. And 2021 had plenty. The Washington Post compiled a list of must reads (or re-reads for the most zealous book worms among us). The list includes both fiction and provides something for everyone, touching on cultural issues of the day, including through Craig Whitlock’s The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War and Tiya Miles’ All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. There are also deep stories of discipline, such as in Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads, and social satire, including the soon-to-be TV series Gold Diggers, by Sanjena Sathian, a tale of a son of Indian immigrants who wilts under the pressure of his parents’ impossible expectations. Build your New Year’s reading list here.
— The 50 best albums of 2021: NPR’s annual list of best albums looks a little different this year. It emphasized music from artists who made breakthroughs, “moving forward with clarity, without balking at the obstacles falling in their way.” “Everywhere on this list you’ll find the thrill of artistic revelations, musicians finding themselves, willing something new into reality,” NPR explained of its list. It includes some much-talked-about releases, including Silk Sonic’s An Evening with Silk Sonic, and some artistic departures from previous work, including in Circuit des Yeux’s -io album, which steps away from typical harsh sounds and traumatic themes into the realm of empathy. Lil Nas X, the rapper who exploded into the mainstream two years ago with his instant hit Old Town Road, also makes the list with his MONTERO album, debunking expectations he’d fade into one-hit-wonder oblivion. There are some classic names on the list, including Adele with her latest album, 30, but most are at least relatively new to the music scene and offer a chance to expand anyone’s musical repertoire. Find out who topped the list here.
— 10 best films of 2021, according to Vanity Fair: As Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson reentered the world of viewing films on the big screen, he celebrated the art of moviemaking. “They’re invigorating reminders of how transformative, transporting, and enlightening the art form can ben — especially when viewed in the dark, finally away from the couch,” Lawson wrote. The list, he notes, could be a lot longer, but he dug deep to produce the Top 10. At the bottom, Lawson includes Bergman Island, a tale of a filmmaker struggling to create a new film. The movie includes captivating characters and “meta layers” that create “ a story within the story.” Also included is Fran Kranz’s Mass, a film Lawson describes as feeling like a play, but in a good way. There’s also an animated documentary included in Flee, a film that tells the harrowing story of a man’s flight from Afghanistan in the 1980s. Topping the list is The Worst Person in the World, which touches on the “agonies of turning 30” as well as “the unbridgeable chasms of heterosexual coupling” and “millennial malaise.” Check out the full list, and its rationale, here.
— Top 10 flicks of 2021, according to the American Film Institute: Looking for movies to catch before ringing in the new year? You might want to check out this list from AFI, which includes popular 2021 blockbusters CODA, West Side Story, The Power of the Dog, Don’t Look Up, Dune, King Richard, Licorice Pizza, Nightmare Alley, tick … BOOM and The Tragedy of Macbeth. AFI’s annual list is often a rough approximation of eventual Academy Award favorites. The list is chosen through a jury process. Honorees from this year’s list will be celebrated at a Jan. 7 event at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California.
— Best television series of 2021: If 2020 was the year of not-so-interesting Zoom-based television, 2021 was a breath of fresh air. The Washington Post’s roundup of the best television series of the year includes nine shows that could offer an escape from the impending omicron variant, and one that is a painfully accurate tribute to a year lost. The list includes Netflix’s original series You, about a serial killer who falls in love, HBO’s Nuclear Family, a docuseries chronicling a lesbian couple who decided to become mothers in the 1980s and FX on Hulu’s Reservation Dogs, a comedy featuring Native American talent. Also on the list is Oprah’s worldwide famous interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, which launched an instant talking point on the issues of race in the royal family and mental illness.
— SITUATIONAL AWARENESS —
—@JoeBiden: If you’re over the age of 18 and six months have gone by since you got vaccinated, go get your booster. Go get it now.
—@NikkiFried: This Holiday season, like past seasons, my office is working tirelessly to feed the people of our state who need it the most. From schools to rural food deserts, no Floridian should go without a meal.
—@GwenGraham: Absolute last row. Bright side — next to the bathroom.
—@EricTopol: You know it’s a good day in the pandemic when: The 1st anti-COVID pill is cleared; More indications that omicron is associated with less severe illness and tends to come down from its big surge as quickly as it ascends; The 1st pan-coronavirus vaccine is ready for Phase 2 trials
—@timmarchman: Conspiracy theorists who got sick after attending a conspiracy theory conference are convinced their COVID-like symptoms are the result of an anthrax attack.
Here's a plot of the "no smell" complaints for the top three Yankee Candles on Amazon. pic.twitter.com/EFUsGil5k4
— Nick Beauchamp (@nick_beauchamp) December 22, 2021
—@NatStechyson: A shoutout to all the parents out there still trying to make Christmas magic while navigating the omicron shit show. I see you with your festive sweater and your dead eyes.
—@Zeynep: Sad that we did not spend the billions of dollars wasted on plexiglass barriers — which is associated with higher transmission because it can impede ventilation, as documented in studies — on proper masks of correct fit and filter, ventilation, HEPA filters and other tools that help.
—@DouthatNYT: So far as I can tell even under winter-surge conditions the biopolitical order still dissolves soon as you leave the professional-class core; I went into a nice supermarket in Orange CT, a Biden 52-47 town 15 mins from downtown New Haven, and mask-wearing was maybe at 5 percent.
’The Book of Boba Fett’ premieres on Disney+ — 6; Private sector employees must be fully vaccinated or tested weekly — 12; final season of ‘This Is Us’ begins — 12; CES 2022 begins — 13; Ken Welch’s inauguration as St. Petersburg Mayor — 14; NFL season ends — 17; 2022 Legislative Session starts — 19; Florida’s 20th Congressional District Election — 19; Special Elections in Senate District 33, House District 88 & 94 — 19; Florida Chamber’s 2022 Legislative Fly-In and Reception — 19; Florida TaxWatch’s 2022 State of the Taxpayer Day — 20; Joel Coen’s ’The Tragedy of Macbeth’ on Apple TV+ — 22; NFL playoffs begin — 23; ‘Ozark’ final season begins — 29; ‘Billions’ begins — 31; Red Dog Blue Dog charity event — 33; XXIV Olympic Winter Games begins — 43; Super Bowl LVI — 52; ‘The Walking Dead’ final season part two begins — 59; Daytona 500 — 59; Special Election for Jacksonville City Council At-Large Group 3 — 61; CPAC begins — 63; St. Pete Grand Prix — 64; ‘The Batman’ premieres — 70; the third season of ‘Atlanta’ begins — 91; The Oscars — 96; federal student loan payments will resume — 129; ’Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ premieres — 139; ’Top Gun: Maverick’ premieres — 158; ’Platinum Jubilee’ for Queen Elizabeth II — 161; ’Thor: Love and Thunder’ premieres — 198; San Diego Comic-Con 2022 — 209; ‘The Lord of the Rings’ premieres on Amazon Prime — 253; ’Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ sequel premieres — 288; ‘Black Panther 2’ premieres — 323; ‘The Flash’ premieres — 326; ‘Avatar 2’ premieres — 358; ‘Captain Marvel 2’ premieres — 421; ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania’ premieres — 582; ‘Dune: Part Two’ premieres — 666; Opening Ceremony of the 2024 Olympic Games — 946.
— TOP STORY —
“Two Department of Education leaders resign after investigation, conflict of interest” via Jason Delgado of Florida Politics — An investigation unearthed a plan to pursue a state contract for a company they managed. According to an Inspector General report, the two employees — Vice Chancellor of Strategic Improvement Melissa Ramsey and State Board Member Richard “Andy” Tuck, father of Rep. Kaylee Tuck — sent a proposal to FDOE in November after the department asked 25 vendors for quotes on a bid to take over operations at Jefferson County Schools. The bid solicited vendors who have “demonstrated experience with successfully operating schools of similar status.” Ramsey and Tuck applied to the request under the banner of Strategic Initiative Partners, though not among the 25 vendors solicited. The Strategic Initiative Partners proposal was “almost identical” to a related master agreement that described a preexisting list of services.
“Supreme Court agrees to consider Marsy’s Law dispute between city of Tallahassee and police union” via Karl Etters of the Tallahassee Democrat — The Florida Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether the identity of law enforcement officers can be shielded by the victim’s rights constitutional amendment Marsy’s Law. The case brought by the Florida Police Benevolent Association against the city of Tallahassee will test the state’s broad open government laws in determining whether an officer can be a victim of a crime during the course of his duty and is thus afforded protection under Marsy’s Law. The legal fight over Marsy’s Law and police officer accountability grew out of the May 27, 2020, fatal shooting by a Tallahassee police officer of Tony McDade, who stabbed a neighbor’s son to death before threatening the officer with a handgun.
“South Florida poker rooms drop a Seminole Gaming Compact challenge” via Scott Powers of Florida Politics — Two South Florida poker rooms have withdrawn their case in a federal appeals court, essentially closing one of their legal challenges to Florida’s 2021 Gaming Compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. That suit had apparently become unnecessary to the poker rooms’ effort to invalidate the Compact, as they’re pursuing a different legal path in another court, where they are winning. West Flagler Associates, which does business as Magic City Casino, and Bonita-Fort Myers Corporation, which does business as Bonita Springs Poker Room, asked the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals last Friday to dismiss their appeal in a case against Florida. The court granted the request Monday.
“Dueling sides on Florida gaming report physical fights, arguments” via Romy Ellenbogen of the Tampa Bay Times — The battle to expand Florida’s gambling landscape escalated to physical confrontations three times in the past month. Petition gatherers for two groups seeking an amendment expanding gaming on the 2022 ballot were accused in Duval, Hillsborough and Broward counties of physically assaulting people handing out flyers encouraging people not to sign the petitions. The incidents come as the Feb. 1 deadline nears for the required 891,589 signatures to get an amendment on the ballot. To certify it in time, most need to be turned over to elections officials by Dec. 30.
“More than 4.6M got health insurance through ACA in 2021” via Reuters — More than 4.6 million people gained health coverage in the United States in 2021 through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Biden said in a statement. Biden, who reopened the nation’s online insurance marketplace created by the 2010 law when he took office in January, added that “an all-time high” of more than 12.6 million Americans signed up in the six weeks following Nov. 1. Americans can still sign up for health insurance under the marketplace through Jan. 15 via healthcare.gov, he added.
“State has received 131 grant applications for Medicaid home- and community-based services” via Christine Jordan Sexton of Florida Politics — Home- and community-based service providers to some of the state’s most vulnerable residents are rushing to take advantage of a one-time windfall of federal money that is being handed out by the state. Just days after it started allowing people to apply for the hundreds of millions in dollars that’s available, Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration by Wednesday already had received 131 applications. Under its current plans, the state has made $403.7 million available for one-time provider stipends to support program activities and another $266.6 million in one-time stipends to providers to grow and retain their workforces through bonuses and incentives.
“Eckerd Connects children were sexually abused through a pornographic Instagram account” via Daniel Figueroa of Florida Politics — The Florida Department of Law Enforcement received more than one gigabyte of data associated with an Instagram account allegedly used to distribute sexually explicit images of children in foster care under Eckerd Connects care. It’s the latest sign of trouble for Tampa Bay’s beleaguered foster care and child services agency. The private, state-funded organization recently lost its contracts with the Department of Children and Families in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties. And Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced a criminal investigation into Eckerd shortly after. Gualtieri held a news conference where he told of gruesome injuries, drug overdoses, shuffling between unlicensed facilities and conditions that were “disgusting and deplorable.”
“‘Families die by a thousand cuts.’ Companies like JPay make big bucks billing Florida inmates for essentials” via Tom McLaughlin of Florida Daily News — The Florida Department of Corrections defends its decision to turn to a company called JPay to digitize inmate mail by arguing the delivery system is crucial to preventing the flow of dangerous contraband like fentanyl into its 143 state prison facilities. Left unsaid is that JPay controlling the flow of mail to 80,000 Florida inmates is likely to greatly enhance company profits with dollars spent by inmates and their loved ones, a segment of the population often hard-pressed to make ends meet. The toll of the constant billing can be devastating for families without the means to keep up. An FCC report found that as many as 34% of families will go into debt in order to maintain communication with an incarcerated family member.
— DATELINE TALLY —
“Ron DeSantis worries voter groups, local officials with elections police proposal” via John Kennedy of the USA TODAY Capital Bureau — DeSantis’ call for a $5.7 million, 52-person Election Crimes and Security investigative force within the Florida Department of State has emerged as one of his attempts to lift the cloud he, Trump and others have kept swirling around U.S. elections. Others aren’t so sure. “This is a solution in search of a problem,” said Orange County Elections Supervisor Bill Cowles. While DeSantis said the team will ensure that Florida campaign laws are followed, elections supervisors say it could blur existing legal lines of authority when wrongdoing is suspected. Other groups that promote expanded voter access and get-out-the-vote efforts fear the proposed office’s targets could be singled out for a variety of reasons — among them, their politics.
“Department of Education removed LGBTQ resources from website; Nikki Fried fills info gap” via Danielle J. Brown of the Florida Phoenix — Following the removal of anti-bullying resources from the Department of Education website, including information regarding LGBTQ students, Agriculture Commissioner Fried is providing that information instead. In a Tuesday news release, Fried announced a set of LGBTQ resources hosted on the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services website. “Improving the health, safety, and prosperity of all Floridians, including the hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ Floridians, is my top priority as a member of the Cabinet,” Fried said in a written statement. “That’s why I believe it’s imperative that we make these resources available.” Advocates complain that removing resources for LGBTQ students is the latest attack on LGBTQ Floridians by the DeSantis administration.
“After critical race theory dissertation, DJJ Secretary Eric Hall explains pivot” via Jason Delgado of Florida Politics — The newly arrived Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) Secretary is shedding light onto academic writings he authored more than half a decade ago. As a doctoral student at the University of South Florida (USF), DJJ Secretary Hall penned a 272-page dissertation that involved an emerging study: critical race theory (CRT). Then, he says, CRT was simply a theoretical lens on the issue of race. Today, however, it is among the most controversial topics in American politics and a top target of his boss, DeSantis. In speaking to Florida Politics, Hall insists he underwent a yearslong renaissance on the issue after the dissertation. In fact, he laments the theory as both a harmful and “divisive” means of indoctrination.
“Florida lawmakers discuss military duty as replacement for jail time: report” via Garfield Hylton of the Orlando Sentinel — A new proposal from Florida lawmakers offers offenders the option to join the military instead of serving time in jail. Sen. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat, filed the measure Tuesday. It would allow offenders 25 years old or younger facing less than four years of incarceration the option to enlist in the U.S. armed forces. The limitations on age and possible jail time would eliminate the option for habitual offenders of violent career criminals.
“Leon lawmakers’ 2022 Session agenda: Work, new jobs, aid to North Florida counties” via James Call of the USA TODAY Capital Bureau — In a Legislative Session being shaped by a proposed $99 billion budget and all 160 legislative seats on the 2022 ballot, Leon County’s four-member statehouse delegation will focus on work and fighting rural poverty. The three Democrats and one Republican all list workplace issues among their top three agenda items for the Session that begins Jan. 11. DeSantis laid much of the groundwork for the 60-day Session with a budget proposal that includes pay raises for first responders, teachers, and state workers. Meantime, each legislator is making a list and checking it twice, hoping the Governor that supporters joke is “DeSanta” will deliver.
“Inside ‘Our Tallahassee’: Website with links to Jack Porter, Jeremy Matlow aims to upend 2022 election” via James Call, Jeff Burlew and Karl Etters of the Tallahassee Democrat — A self-described “new multimedia outlet” with a “progressive” agenda and obvious animus for the power structure at City Hall and Blueprint is attempting to position itself as a player in the local political scene while making no bones about trying to upend it. “Our Tallahassee” has ties through its principals and contributors to City Commissioners Matlow and Porter, who comprise a minority voting block on the five-member City Commission. However, Porter — who is dating Max Herrle, one of the website’s founders — and Matlow deny any involvement in Our Tallahassee. The online-only publication went live over the summer, timed to coincide with the federal public corruption trial at the federal courthouse, which heaped plenty of embarrassment on the city.
— CORONA FLORIDA —
“Largest single-day increase since August as 20,194 more cases reported” via Devoun Cetoute of the Miami Herald — Florida saw 20,194 COVID-19 cases Tuesday. This is the largest single-day increase of newly reported cases since Aug. 28, when 21,189 were reported. Cases have now reached the record-breaking days of the delta variant in August, when over 20,000 new daily cases were reported several times. No new deaths were reported for Tuesday, though it is likely the Florida Department of Health will add deaths to Tuesday’s total. The state has done this in the past when it has added cases and deaths to previous days during the pandemic. In all, Florida has recorded at least 3,799,661 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 62,264 deaths.
“Bay County sees surge in COVID-19 cases leading into Christmas; Florida cases skyrocket” via Mike Stucka of the Panama City News Herald — Bay County and Florida saw a surge in new COVID-19 cases the week before Christmas. According to the latest data, the county’s COVID-19 cases rose 13.5% while the state’s cases skyrocketed by 122.1%. The data shows the county reported 59 cases last week after reporting 52 cases a week prior. The county saw a significant spike in cases during the summer, routinely reporting cases in the hundreds each week before they began to lessen in late August. The county has reported 32,944 COVID-19 cases to date. Meanwhile, Florida reported 28,841 cases last week compared to 12,984 cases a week earlier. Florida ranked 39th among the states where coronavirus was spreading the fastest on a per-person basis, a USA TODAY Network analysis of Johns Hopkins University data shows.
“UF study projects COVID-19 omicron surge with record infections but perhaps not as deadly” via Douglas Ray of The Gainesville Sun — The omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is projected to drive a new spike in infections that could peak in February at more than 150,000 a day in Florida, well above any previous peak since the pandemic began, according to modeling from the Emerging Pathogens Institute at UF. Researchers produced four different scenarios that may play out between now and through spring 2022. While infections could be three times as high as during the delta variant spike in late August and early September, the number of associated deaths may be much smaller if early indications are correct that omicron cases lead to less severe complications.
“Florida pulls $3.5M fine over vaccine mandate as Leon County agrees to consider rehiring fired employees” via William L. Hatfield of the Tallahassee Democrat — The Florida Department of Health is pulling back its $3.5 million fine against Leon County for its vaccine mandate after the state and administrator Vince Long signed a settlement agreement. As part of the agreement, Long agreed to consider rehiring the 14 employees who were terminated for refusing to comply. “The county strongly contends that our employee vaccination requirement was not only completely legally justifiable at that time, but was also a necessary and responsible action to take to protect our employees and protect the public,” Long wrote in a statement. The agreement came on the same day the county reinstated its mask mandate for its employees and hours after the first six cases of the omicron variant were detected locally.
“Orange County’s monoclonal antibody vendor stops giving Regeneron, switches to another brand amid ‘unprecedented demand’” via Caroline Catherman and Stephen Hudak of the Orlando Sentinel — Monoclonal antibody sites in The Villages, Orange County and other locations across the state will pause Regeneron treatments starting Wednesday as they wait for more treatment. CDR Maguire, a vendor that has taken over several formerly state-run monoclonal antibody treatment sites, will offer Bamlanivimab/Etesevimab monoclonal antibody treatments in the meantime, spokesperson Tina Vidal said in an email. Brevard County announced in a news release Tuesday that The Villages site has adjusted its operations to appointment only. Vidal attributed the holdup to a larger amount of people with COVID-19 seeking the treatment. “With the omicron being a more transmissible variant, all sites have seen unprecedented demand and Florida has requested additional allocations from the federal government,” Vidal said.
“Patt Maney delays North Florida monoclonal antibody site closure” via Jason Delgado of Florida Politics — A state lawmaker came to the rescue in North Florida last week, intervening in a plan that would’ve shuttered a monoclonal antibody treatment site at the Northwest Florida Fairgrounds. The intervention came after Okaloosa County Commission Chair Carolyn Ketchel caught news the Florida Department of Health planned to close a treatment site Dec. 18. Wanting to stop the closure, Ketchel buzzed Rep. Maney asking for help. Maney, the newspaper reports, got DeSantis’ blessing to delay the closure another 30 days. The Northwest Florida Fairground site is among the dozens DeSantis opened earlier this year amid a rising wave of COVID-19 cases.
“Miami-Dade to open more test sites, require masks in county buildings as omicron surges” via Samantha J. Gross of the Miami Herald — Amid a surge in coronavirus cases across Miami-Dade County and the United States, County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava announced new public health protocols Wednesday and urged residents to take safety precautions against the highly contagious omicron variant. Masks will be required in county buildings starting Wednesday, the Mayor said, bringing back a restriction she put in place during the surge of the delta variant in July that was lifted Nov. 5. She also urged people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and to receive booster shots, which research shows are helpful protection against omicron.
“Memorial Healthcare System stops visitation for most patients as COVID-19 cases rise” via David J. Neal of the Miami Herald — Hollywood-based Memorial Healthcare System announced “Severe Risk — Extremely limited visitation” rules Wednesday for its hospitals as COVID-19 cases rise again amid the spread of the omicron variant. This means no visitation for patients hospitalized as a standard patient; in intensive care units; for behavioral health issues; having outpatient procedures, or being treated in emergency rooms. For “end of life” patients with COVID-19, “caregiver/support person of patients who have special needs will be considered.” Those dying patients who don’t have COVID-19 will be allowed one visitor and unvaccinated visitors are allowed.
“Universal Orlando reinstates indoor mask requirement starting Christmas Eve” via Lisa Maria Garza of the Orlando Sentinel — Beginning Christmas Eve, all Universal Orlando Resort visitors and staff must wear face coverings at indoor facilities amid news that omicron is now the most common COVID-19 variant in the U.S., the company announced Wednesday. The mask policy applies to all guests and team members regardless of vaccination status and includes restaurants, shops and indoor hotel public areas, Universal said in a statement. “Face coverings are also required at all attractions from the moment guests enter the queue to when they exit the experience,” the company said.
“Amid omicron spread, churches warily proceed with Christmas plans” via Gary White of The Lakeland Ledger — Christmas Eve is a time when churches welcome visitors who might not enter their sanctuaries often or at all throughout the year. Many churches in Polk County ceased holding communal services in summer 2020, when the first wave of the coronavirus swept through Florida. Most churches resumed holding services in person by fall 2020 and have continued to do so since then, even amid the delta spike in August and September. Most larger churches, including Lakeland’s First United Methodist, also broadcast services online for congregants who don’t feel comfortable coming to the sanctuary. First United Methodist also adopted a custom of holding services outside on its lawn near Lake Morton. The church is still doing that, and one of Friday’s Christmas Eve services will be held on the lawn.
“2022 in Florida means high-stakes campaigns for Governor, Senate and House” via Steven Lemongello of the Orlando Sentinel — When the calendar flips to 2022, Floridians will be facing one of the most important election years ever, even without a presidential contest, because of major races for Governor, U.S. Senator and the U.S. House. “Floridians will be inundated with political ads, [including] a lot of attack ads,” said Aubrey Jewett, a professor of political science at the University of Central Florida. “And they will have an opportunity to help decide the course of Florida and the country.” Off-year, nonpresidential elections usually see a smaller turnout. That gives the Republicans an advantage, especially since they just passed Democrats in registration for the first time. But the state’s 3.8 million non-party affiliated voters will have a big say in the results as well.
“With Donald Trump’s endorsement, Vern Buchanan shuts the door on fledgling Primary challenger” via Peter Schorsch of Florida Politics — I would say it was fun while it lasted, but that would imply it even started. When Trump gave U.S. Rep. Buchanan a “complete and total endorsement” Monday, it effectively eliminated any chance that Martin Hyde’s circus act of a campaign for Florida’s 16th Congressional District would get off the ground. It’s not like Buchanan needed the former President’s endorsement to destroy Hyde’s chances of winning the Republican nomination. Hyde did that to himself the moment he called Trump “wretched” and said he was “horrified” by the “bigotry and bullying” of Trump supporters. He may as well have called them a “basket of deplorables.”
“Democratic push on voting rights becomes more urgent as midterms approach” via Theodoric Meyer of The Washington Post — Senate Democrats not only failed to push their social spending bill over the finish line before the Christmas holidays. They also fell short on another of the party’s top priorities this year: approving a landmark package of voting rights measures. And while Democrats argue the changes are critical to safeguarding democracy, strategists in both parties say the package could also reshape the battle for control of the House next year, potentially bolstering Democrats’ chances of hanging onto their House majority in a year when Republicans have the edge. Democrats have said they’re hustling to pass voting rights legislation to block threats to voting rights, not to gain partisan advantage.
Save the date:
“Ileana Garcia banks $64K in November for three-way SD 37 battle” via Jesse Scheckner of Florida Politics — Sen. Garcia enjoyed her third-best fundraising month since winning election last year, adding $64,000 to her campaign coffers in November to defend her Senate District 37 seat from two Democratic challengers in 2022. Garcia now holds nearly $408,000 between her campaign and political committee, No More Socialism. Garcia kept spending sparse in November, paying out just $436 for gas and other travel expenses. That’s more than opponent Janelle Perez and the race’s newest entry, Rep. Michael Grieco, have raised combined. The current three-way race is likely to switch to a two-way one for another district once redistricting occurs.
— CORONA NATION —
Breaking overnight — “Supreme Court will hear challenge to Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates” via Dan Mangan of CNBC — The court, in an order, said that its consideration for requests to stay those mandates would be deferred until oral argument Jan. 7. Both mandates remain in effect until then. The Supreme Court consolidated the applications of both challenges, which were considered by Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Justice Samuel Alito, and both will be heard Jan. 7. Last week, the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reinstated the mandate for large businesses, under which employers must require their workers to either get vaccinated or face weekly testing for COVID-19. Shortly after the 6th Circuit ruling, the groups challenging the large business rule asked the Supreme Court to review the case.
“Pfizer pill becomes first U.S.-authorized home COVID-19 treatment” via The Associated Press — U.S. health regulators Wednesday authorized the first pill against COVID-19, a Pfizer drug that Americans will be able to take at home to head off the worst effects of the virus. The long-awaited milestone comes as U.S. cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all rising, and health officials warn of a tsunami of new infections from the omicron variant that could overwhelm hospitals. The drug, Paxlovid, is a faster, cheaper way to treat early COVID-19 infections, though initial supplies will be extremely limited. All of the previously authorized drugs against the disease require an IV or an injection. An antiviral pill from Merck also is expected to soon win authorization.
“Omicron is just beginning, and Americans are already tired” via Patricia Mazzei of The New York Times — The Omicron variant has turned a season of joy into one of weariness and resentment amid a new coronavirus surge. With days to go before Christmas, Americans are sick and tired of being sick and tired. Of reworking plans to adapt to the latest virus risks. Of wondering whether, after two years of avoiding COVID-19, or surviving it, or getting vaccinated and maybe even boosted, omicron is the variant they inevitably catch. A sense of dread about omicron’s rapid spread has swept through the Northeast and Upper Midwest, which were already swamped with Delta variant cases and hospitalizations. Americans are simply exhausted by the emotional pandemic roller coaster and confused by mixed messages from experts and leaders about appropriate precautions.
— CORONA ECONOMICS —
“Biden extends student loan payment pause until May” via Ivana Saric of Axios — The Biden administration announced Wednesday that it will extend its moratorium on student loan payments until May 1, citing the ongoing pandemic. The current pause would have expired Jan. 31, when millions of borrowers were set to resume payments after a nearly two-year hiatus. The move is a reversal of the administration’s previous stance. The White House said in August that the extension until Jan. 31 would be the final pause on federal student loan payments.
“Secret Service: Nearly $100B stolen in pandemic relief funds” via Jennifer McDermott of The Associated Press — Nearly $100 billion at minimum has been stolen from COVID-19 relief programs set up to help businesses and people who lost their jobs due to the pandemic, the U.S. Secret Service said Tuesday. The estimate is based on Secret Service cases and data from the Labor Department and the Small Business Administration, said Roy Dotson, the agency’s national pandemic fraud recovery coordinator, in an interview. The Secret Service didn’t include COVID-19 fraud cases prosecuted by the Justice Department. While roughly 3% of the $3.4 trillion dispersed, the amount stolen from pandemic benefits programs shows “the sheer size of the pot is enticing to the criminals,” Dotson said.
— MORE CORONA —
“While omicron explodes around the world, COVID-19 cases in Japan keep plummeting and no one knows exactly why” via Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Julia Mio Inuma of The Washington Post — As the omicron variant surges around the world, Japan’s overall coronavirus cases and deaths have been plummeting. And no one seems to know exactly why. Call it the hunt for a potential “X-Factor,” such as genetics, which may explain the trend and inform how Japan could deal with the next wave. While the new highly transmissible omicron variant has appeared in the country and experts suspect there is already some community spread, the overall transmission rate of the virus and coronavirus-related deaths in Japan have remained low. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Japan has had much lower rates of infection and death than in many Western countries, though there was a severe spike over the summer that overwhelmed hospitals.
“South Africa’s huge omicron wave appears to be subsiding just as quickly as it grew” via Max Bearak of The Washington Post — South Africa’s huge wave of omicron cases appears to be subsiding just as quickly as it grew in the weeks after the country first announced to the world that a new coronavirus variant had been identified. South Africa’s top infectious-disease scientist, who has been leading the country’s pandemic response, said Wednesday that the country had rapidly passed the peak of new omicron cases and, judging by preliminary evidence, he expected “every other country, or almost every other, to follow the same trajectory.” Just a week ago, South Africa was seeing skyrocketing positivity rates and massive lines for testing. But during the first days of this week, there has been a turnaround in rates and stress on testing facilities.
“Real-world data from U.K. suggests omicron is less likely than delta to send people to the hospital” via William Booth of The Washington Post — Early evidence from Scotland and England suggests that omicron is sending fewer people to the hospital. That surveillance tracks well with the latest observations from South Africa, where public health officials have reported that the omicron variant is tending to result in milder illness. Scientists had not been sure whether that finding would hold elsewhere. “This is a qualified good-news story,” said Jim McMenamin, national COVID-19 incident director at Public Health Scotland and one of the co-authors of the Scottish study. Experts remain worried that a sudden, massive surge of a highly infectious but less virulent omicron variant could still flood hospitals with very sick patients.
“Israel says it will become first nation to offer fourth coronavirus vaccine dose: ‘The world will follow us’” via Shira Rubin and Lateshia Beachum of The Washington Post — In what it’s calling a global first, Israel’s Health Ministry on Tuesday announced that it will offer a fourth coronavirus vaccine shot to citizens 60 and older and other at-risk groups as concerns about the omicron variant proliferate. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said he ordered the government to immediately prepare for distributing fourth doses. “As we did with the booster in the delta surge, we intend to be active and groundbreaking, and do everything to win,” he tweeted. “The world will follow us.” The Health Ministry’s advisory committee recommended the fourth dose to people 60 and older, those with compromised immune systems, and health care workers. It required all eligible recipients to have gone four months since their third dose.
“Shut out during the pandemic, Wisconsin woman recreates Universal rides on social media” via Katie Rice of the Orlando Sentinel — Mandy Slaback has been going to Universal Orlando almost every year since she was 10. When the resort shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Janesville, Wisconsin, resident didn’t know when she would be able to visit again, so she decided to bring the parks home. Using her degree in broadcasting and film, Slaback, 24, put her production skills and love for Universal to work by making videos recreating some of the resort’s most popular rides. Her projects created a theme park COVID-19 time capsule viewed hundreds of thousands of times across social media. Her latest video, a miniature recreation of the Jurassic Park River Adventure, was posted on Twitter earlier this month and is her most detailed yet.
— PRESIDENTIAL —
“Biden seeks to recast pandemic fight, rejecting lockdowns and school closures as omicron surges” via Tyler Pager, Dan Diamond and Andrew Jeong of The Washington Post — Biden sought to recast the fight against the coronavirus pandemic on Tuesday, insisting the United States would not lock down or close schools despite surging cases driven by the new, highly transmissible omicron variant. Instead, Biden argued that Americans who are vaccinated and boosted remain largely protected from severe illness and should plan to celebrate the holidays with family and friends as normal. The President still issued a grave warning to unvaccinated Americans who he said have a “patriotic duty” to get vaccinated, but he spent much of his speech reassuring Americans the country has the tools to avoid the extreme measures that typified the early months of the pandemic response.
“Biden aides see March 2021 rescue package as initial economic buffer against omicron” via Jeff Stein of The Washington Post — At this point, Biden administration officials have not requested additional federal funding as the omicron variant rapidly spreads. And they are optimistic that the March 2021 stimulus package provides policymakers with the financial flexibility to mitigate the economic damage that might be caused by the new variant. A few weeks ago, Mark Zandi, an economist frequently cited by the White House, was projecting that the economy would grow at a breakneck pace of 5% in the first quarter of 2022. As the omicron variant spread, however, Zandi revised his growth estimate down to 2%. Now he thinks odds are uncomfortably high that the economy may in fact contract at the start of next year.
— D.C. MATTERS —
“Democrats ‘not giving up’ on Biden bill, talks with Joe Manchin” via The Associated Press — Biden appears determined to return to the negotiating table with Sen. Manchin, the holdout Democrat who effectively tanked the party’s signature $2 trillion domestic policy initiative with his own jarring year-end announcement. Biden, responding to reporters’ questions Tuesday at the White House, joked that he holds no grudges against the conservative West Virginia Senator whose rejection of the social services and climate change bill stunned Washington just days ago. Instead, the President spoke passionately about the families that would benefit from the Democrats’ ambitious, if now highly uncertain, plan to pour billions of dollars into child care, health care and other services. “Sen. Manchin and I are going to get something done,” Biden said.
— CRISIS —
“2 from Middleburg get probation, restitution orders for roles in U.S. Capitol riot” via Steve Patterson of the Florida Times-Union — A Middleburg pair who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol were sentenced to probation Monday by a federal judge in Washington. Rachael Pert and Dana Joe Winn took plea deals in October where they acknowledged entering and remaining in a restricted building in return for prosecutors dropping charges that included felony counts of obstructing an official proceeding. On Monday, U.S. District Judge Trevor N. McFadden sentenced Pert to 24 months of probation, and Winn was given 12-month probation, a court docket shows. Both were ordered to pay a $25 court fee and $500 in restitution.
“GOP’s Jim Jordan is asked by Jan. 6 panel to explain Trump talks” via Billy House of Bloomberg — The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday asked Ohio Rep. Jordan to voluntarily agree to a meeting. The request to speak to Jordan raises the stakes in the panel’s probe, because Jordan is one of Trump’s highest-profile congressional allies. Jordan, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, has publicly acknowledged talking on the phone with Trump on Jan. 6, as rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol building. Jordan, who appears often on conservative news outlets and has been highly critical of the Jan. 6 committee, is now the second sitting lawmaker the committee has asked for an interview.
“Proud Boys member pleads guilty to conspiracy in Jan. 6 case” via Dareh Gregorian of NBC News — A Proud Boys member who federal prosecutors said “played a substantial role in the breach of the Capitol” on Jan. 6 pleaded guilty Wednesday to felony conspiracy and obstruction charges. Matthew Greene of Syracuse, New York, admitted to plotting with other members of the far-right group to stop Congress from certifying Biden as the winner of the 2020 presidential election. As part of his plea, Greene, an Army National Guard veteran, agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. He’s the first member of the extremist group, which describes itself as a “pro-Western fraternal organization for men who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world,” to plead guilty and cooperate in a Jan. 6-related case.
“Michael Flynn sues Jan. 6 panel to block access to phone records, testimony” via Rebecca Beitsch of The Hill — Former Trump national security adviser Flynn is suing to block the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack from subpoenaing his phone records along with other documents and his testimony. Flynn did not appear for his scheduled deposition Monday, filing the late Tuesday suit challenging the committee’s subpoena for his Verizon phone records. The suit also notes that Flynn planned to plead the Fifth. The suit details a breakdown in communication with the committee after months of negotiations, with the Flynn team frustrated by a refusal to narrow the scope of its request, with Flynn’s attorney arguing litigation is needed to stymie any criminal contempt of Congress charges the committee might pursue.
— EPILOGUE TRUMP —
“Donald Trump’s big border wall is now a pile of rusting steel” via John B. Washington of The Atlantic — Tens of thousands of heavy steel slats, once destined to become part of Trump’s border wall, are slowly rusting in the open air throughout the southwestern borderlands. The bollards, 18- or 33-foot-long hollow posts, most of them reinforced with concrete and rebar, are worth at least a quarter of a billion dollars. The Department of Defense owns most of that steel, but it’s unclear what will or can be done with it. For now, it remains in spider-webbed stacks sunning themselves in vast staging areas along the wall. Halting a project of this scale is never easy. A report claims that the Biden administration is spending as much as $3 million a day paying subcontractors to guard border-wall materials and keep worksites safe.
“Prosecutors want four years for convicted Chicago banker” via Larry Neumeister of The Associated Press — Chicago banker Stephen Calk should spend at least four years in prison after he was convicted of delivering $16 million in loans to Paul Manafort in a bid for power in the administration of ex-President Trump, prosecutors said Wednesday. Calk is set to be sentenced Feb. 7 for his conviction in July on financial institution bribery and conspiracy charges in Manhattan federal court. Calk’s lawyers in a sentencing submission in early December argued for a noncustodial sentence for Calk, saying he has led a “thoroughly decent and law-abiding life.” But prosecutors said Calk deserved a sentence of 51 months to 63 months in prison because he “corruptly abused” his position as chair and CEO of The Federal Savings Bank.
— LOCAL NOTES —
“A lost ‘Champlain’ tower languishes in Surfside. Residents don’t know if they’re safe” via Ben Conarck, Aaron Leibowitz, Nicholas Nehamas and Sarah Blaskey of the Miami Herald — In the late 1970s, a group of Canadian developers swooped into Surfside. There they laid the foundations for a cluster of high-rise condo buildings along the coastline just north of Miami Beach, three of which would carry the “Champlain” name. Their fourth tower, the Mirage on the Ocean, doesn’t have the same branding as Champlain Towers South, which partially collapsed in June, killing 98 people, or its sister towers, Champlain Towers North and East. But the Mirage does share disconcerting similarities with Champlain South, including an L-shaped design by the same architect, a cracked pool deck that leaked water into a below-ground garage and a condo association described by some residents as secretive and inept.
“‘Very emotional moment.’ Alberto Carvalho on leaving Miami and challenges ahead for school district” via Sommer Brugal of the Miami Herald — Earlier this month, Carvalho announced he’d be leaving to helm the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest school district in the country with about 450,000 students. Miami-Dade, the fourth largest, has about 335,000 students enrolled, with almost 75,000 students in charter schools. His final day in Miami remains unknown. Carvalho’s departure, seen as a shock to many, places renewed attention on the progress the district has made under his administration but also raises questions about the challenges it faces as it seeks to find new leadership and as the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic become clear. Although he recognizes there’s still more work to be done, Carvalho applauded how far the district has come in closing the achievement gap.
“Gulf Power is transitioning to FPL on Jan. 1. Here’s what customers need to know” via Jennifer Rich of the Pensacola News Journal — Gulf Power customers in Northwest Florida will see the final, long-awaited transition to Florida Power & Light Company as their new service provider starting Jan. 1. Customers should be aware that service through GulfPower.com no longer will be available beginning the evening of Dec. 30. The transition to the new web experience at FPL.com will take a few days and is expected to be available starting Jan. 3. “Our goal is to make this transition as easy and seamless for our customers as possible,” said Sarah Gatewood, spokeswoman for Gulf Power. Customers will see the new FPL logo branding on their bills, as well as company offices, service vehicles and uniforms.
“Records show Jacksonville Inspector General’s office divided, dysfunctional under Lisa Green” via Nate Monroe of The Florida Times-Union — An office that is shrouded in secrecy and has sweeping powers to investigate and interrogate any employee or elected official in Jacksonville’s consolidated government has been quietly riven with personal and professional grudges, jealousies, sexual innuendo, dysfunction and anger, much of it emanating from its embattled leader, Green, the city Inspector General. Green faces potential firing next month for a litany of accusations lodged in four whistleblower complaints. City lawyers believe those accusations were largely corroborated by evidence gathered in their workplace investigation of Green’s leadership, and an oversight committee last week converted those allegations to formal charges that could lead to her termination.
“MQ-4C Triton drone arrives at Mayport, 1 of 4 at new Navy squadron in Jacksonville” via Dan Scanlan of The Florida Times-Union — And as the Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton flew in last week from California to its new home at Naval Station Mayport, one other thing was obvious to observers — there’s no cockpit for a pilot. That’s because the Triton is an unmanned drone aircraft, flown remotely from a Naval Air Station Jacksonville operations center. The first of up to four planned for the VUP-19 drone squadron’s new Mayport home port, it will handle the Navy’s East Coast surveillance and search-and-rescue operations. “This is the U.S. military’s largest drone that we fly, and it’s now homeported in Jacksonville, and that’s the excitement for the local area,” Cmdr. Brian Conlan said, with the 130.9-foot-wingspan drone behind him on the runway.
“He wore a wire, risked his life to expose who was in the KKK” via The Associated Press — For nearly 10 years, Joseph Moore lived a secret double life. At times, the U.S. Army veteran donned a white robe and hood as a hit man for the Ku Klux Klan in North Florida. He attended clandestine meetings and participated in cross burnings. He even helped plan the murder of a Black man. However, Moore wore something else during his years in the Klan — a wire for the FBI. He sat in his living room recently amid twinkling lights on a Christmas tree, remembering a particularly scary meeting in 2015. The married father of four would help the federal government foil at least two murder plots.
“Jaguars and Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office begin program to build community-police relationships” via Dan Scanlan of The Florida Times-Union — A voucher for free repair of a faulty headlight or taillight instead of a ticket — that’s the year-round Christmas gift the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office is offering with an assist from the Jacksonville Jaguars. Part of the Lights On! program that started in 2017 in Minnesota, it’s a way to defuse uncomfortable or potentially dangerous interactions that can occur when a police officer stops someone over a burned-out light. Jacksonville officers on traffic stops can provide a voucher for a free repair up to $250 on mechanical problems rather than citing the driver, said Sheriff’s Office Assistant Chief Paul Restivo. No taxpayer money is being used, with the Jacksonville Jaguars funding the initial launch and Lights On! matching it to make sure the program remains free, officials said.
“‘Really, really difficult’: I-110 homeless camp neighbors anxious to see camp closed” via Emma Kennedy of the Pensacola News Journal — The encampment of homeless people started growing in early 2021 and the Pensacola City Council voted to prohibit evicting them from the area around Hollice T. Williams Park under the I-110 overpass because of pandemic restrictions and guidelines. Last week, however, the council voted against extending the moratorium for another 90 days, with Mayor Grover Robinson promising to wind down the camp during the next few weeks. A group of nonprofits and officials called the Homelessness Reduction Task Force of Northwest Florida met soon after that and began working on resources and case work for the people living under the overpass, but the camp has not been regulated and has been growing to close to 200 people as of this month.
“Leon County moves ahead with local laws to address homeless camping, solicitation” via Karl Etters of the Tallahassee Democrat — Hoping to address the needs of people experiencing homelessness and maintain public safety, Leon County Commissioners moved forward with crafting ordinances and allocating funding for additional staffing on the community’s street outreach team. They voted 4-3 at the Commission’s Dec. 14 meeting to repeal local ordinances barring soliciting in the median of any street, develop a draft ordinance to address camping in public places, solicitation and urinating or defecating in public areas. They also approved allocating $490,817 in federal COVID relief funds to support two additional Leon County Sheriff’s Office deputies to work with the local street outreach team through 2023. Commissioners Kristin Dozier, Jimbo Jackson and Nick Maddox voted against the measure.
“Pensacola airport USO takes in dozens of military members stranded due to flight delays” via Colin Warren-Hicks of the Pensacola News Journal — The Northwest Florida USO at Pensacola International Airport has become a refuge this week for hungry and tired military service members trying to get home for the holidays. On the second floor of the airport just outside the security lines, the USO office has stayed open 24 hours a day since Friday and will continue to keep its doors open to service members until Thursday. “Every year, it’s called ‘exodus,'” said Nicole Boonmast, center manager for the Northwest Florida USO. “The bases in this area let everyone out for holiday week. They let them out Friday, and they brought them over here to the airport no matter when their flight was. For a lot of them, their flight wasn’t until a day or two later.”
“More private rocket companies are set to light up Space Coast with launches in 2022” via Richard Tribou of the Orlando Sentinel — While SpaceX and United Launch Alliance have been sending rockets up at an increased pace the past several years, the Space Coast is about to get much busier with more commercial rocket companies set to join the launch party. The first half of 2022 is slated to see two companies launch for the first time from Cape Canaveral from two older launch complexes while some massive new rockets are waiting on new engines in the hopes of lifting off before the end of the year. For one company, Relativity Space based in Long Beach, California, its first planned launch from Space Launch Complex 16, will be its first liftoff ever.
“Orlando beltway nears 73-year journey to completion, but more roadwork lies ahead” via Kevin Spear of the Orlando Sentinel — The final piece of the beltway, a 25-mile project called the Wekiva Parkway that spans the Wekiva River between Lake and Seminole counties, is scheduled for completion and use by motorists in 2023. When done, Orlando’s beltway will be a far bigger beast than the relatively modest outer-belt route envisioned 71 years ago. Under construction for more than 30 years, the beltway consists of about 111 miles of state roads 417 and 429, which are tolled expressways, and a short length of Interstate 4. The expressway authority owns 63 miles of beltway, resulting from five, major projects going back to the 1980s, and with price tags that — not adjusted for inflation — add up to more than $850 million.
Trulieve opens Port Richey location — The new medical cannabis dispensary in Port Richey is at 10523 U.S. Hwy. 19; doors open at 9 a.m. The Port Richey Trulieve is the 112th dispensary in Florida and 159th nationwide. There will be deals and specials throughout opening day, including a 25% discount for all registered patients at the new dispensary in Port Richey. Grand opening festivities will include St. Petersburg-based Craft Tee custom T-shirt printing, Sarasota-based Pop Craft Pops, music and numerous partner giveaways. For the event, Trulieve and statewide brand partner Blue River will offer one-day deals on Blue River concentrates, with additional specials for the 11th day of the 12 Days of Cannabis promotion, running through Friday. All first-time guests are eligible for a 50% new customer discount at any Florida-based location. Trulieve also offers statewide home delivery, convenient online ordering and in-store pickup.
— TOP OPINION —
“Joe Henderson: Christmas Eve is a night to reflect and recharge” via Florida Politics — When Friday evening arrives, after we extinguish the candles at church and the echoes of Silent Night subside, it will be time to savor the peace of Christmas Eve. That’s right. Christmas Eve is perhaps my favorite night of the year. Yes, we know what’s going on throughout our state, nation, and globe. Divisions that are here today will still be there Monday. I’ll care about them then, but for a few days at least, I won’t play along. It’s the first Christmas for my new grandson. Do I have to say more? We need Christmas — this year more than ever. We all need to take a huge, deep breath and exhale slowly. We’ve had more than our portion of bad news in 2021, but Christmas reminds us there were also moments of joy.
— OPINIONS —
“A new generation of vaccines could turn COVID-19 from a pandemic to just a problem” via The Washington Post editorial board — After nearly two years of the pandemic, the first wave of vaccines has performed magnificently but also showed their limitations. But vaccine efficacy began to wane, the need for boosters arose, and a new coronavirus variant is upending everything all over again. Is this the new normal? Not necessarily. After two years of research, scientists at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research are making progress toward the development of a pan-coronavirus vaccine, one that might work against all variants, including the new omicron and those potentially emerging in the future. Add to that the research elsewhere and it might be that the coronavirus will go from being a pandemic to just a problem. Rest assured; the end of history is not yet upon us.
“After Surfside, why wait 40 years to inspect buildings? We’re not the only ones asking” via the Miami Herald editorial board — Six months after the tragedy, three independent groups tasked with looking into condo safety concluded that waiting 40 years to ensure buildings are safe is too long. The Miami-Dade County Commission appears to agree and is expected to hear legislation in January to require inspections every 30 years instead of 40. Some might call that change the low-hanging fruit, easily fixed with a stroke of a pen. But not so fast. Imagine if thousands of those suddenly had to undergo inspections and the needed maintenance? Would there be enough engineers to conduct them, contractors to do the repairs, city and county staff to issue permits and review paperwork? Would affluent condos monopolize all the needed labor and drive costs up, while low- and fixed-income residents were priced out of their homes?
“Where’s Biden?” via Charles M. Blow of The New York Times — Biden’s poll numbers keep sliding. Americans, including many of the people who voted for him, are not happy with him. They want him to be something different, to be someone different. Some may think that these Americans misjudged the man they sent to the White House. America didn’t misjudge him. As President, he has been exactly who he said he’d be. But America did misjudge the kind of leader it wanted in this moment. Calm resolve may well be the working mantra of the Biden administration, but Americans are now dealing with a virus that won’t go away, rising inflation, progressive legislation that is either stalled or abandoned. The Biden administration needs a pinch of cayenne.
— JINGLE, JINGLE —
“DeFuniak Springs actor Teance Blackburn to appear in Lifetime Christmas movie” via Savannah Evanoff of Northwest Florida Daily News — Blackburn celebrated Christmas in July. That was when the DeFuniak Springs resident filmed the Lifetime holiday special, “Rebuilding a Dream Christmas,” during the course of a five-day trip to Weston, Missouri. The movie not only will mark the actor’s first time appearing on the Lifetime channel, but also her first time watching a Lifetime holiday movie. Blackburn will appear as cafe owner, Joyce, in “Rebuilding a Dream Christmas,” which premieres at 7 p.m. Thursday on Lifetime. She plans to attend a viewing party with her friends that night and celebrate Christmas again with a fishing trip.
“Sustainable gift-giving is on the rise. Here are a few ideas for the holiday season.” via Tik Root of The Washington Post — ‘Tis the season of joy, hot chocolate and, it turns out, an avalanche of consumer waste. Bows, bags and other holiday material add 1 million tons of trash to landfills each week, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Producing and shipping gifts also involves the release of planet-warming greenhouse gases. And giving certainly doesn’t stop after the new year — there are birthdays, anniversaries and a plethora of additional occasions that contribute to the problem. “Historically, our culture has really strong associations between things and status,” said Alex Truelove, zero waste program director at the nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Research Group. But, he added, the holiday season can be a perfect time to reexamine that paradigm.
“In these Christmas-obsessed towns, miles of lights deliver ‘all the feels’” via Hannah Sampson of The Washington Post — Most neighborhoods have that house that treats Christmas decorating like a competitive sport. But in a handful of places, the townspeople go a step — or several steps — further. Think 35 flavors of hot cocoa. Think advent calendars come to life. Think miles and miles of lights, where Buddy the Elf’s dreams come true. After a subdued and social-distanced holiday season last year, three cities that double as Christmastime attractions are celebrating in a more robust way this year. Many activities are outdoors, making them well suited for pandemic-era precautions. Santa Claus, Indiana, and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, both have identities built around the holiday. And McAdenville, North Carolina, grew its Christmas reputation over the past six decades.
— “Christmas lessons. From my parents … and an Orlando man struck dead on the street” via Scott Maxwell of the Orlando Sentinel
“The stars of your favorite Christmas movies share their most beloved holiday films” via Donald Liebenson of The Washington Post — The holidays just wouldn’t be the same without hearing Zuzu Bailey tell her father that every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings, or seeing Flick accept a triple dog dare to put his tongue on a frozen pole, or cheering on Scott Calvin as he accepts his destiny to become Santa Claus. I have to go with “White Christmas,” Tim Allen said about his favorite Christmas film. “It’s a Wonderful Life” reminds us of the importance of being grateful and showing appreciation for life, Kim Novak says. Courtney Vance says his favorite Christmas film is, naturally, “The Preacher’s Wife.”
“This retired couple spends every day of the year making Christmas toys for kids in need” via Cathy Free of The Washington Post — Mike Sullivan took up woodworking after he and his wife, Judy, retired, and he was enjoying carving butcher blocks, wizards and dragons in his workshop but he wanted to create something with more purpose. “I talked about it with Judy, and we decided we’d start making wooden toys to give away to kids the following Christmas,” he said. “That first year, we made 360; cars, trucks, cradles, puzzles, pull toys, rocking horses — you name it.” Eight years later, the Sullivans now crank out about 1,500 handmade toys each year to donate to local children’s charities, school districts and homeless shelters throughout Southern California’s Coachella Valley.
“‘Someone who looks like you:’ It’s more than a red suit for this Santa and Mrs. Claus” via Matt Soergel of the Florida Times-Union — Mrs. Claus opens the front door, and in come Grace and Larry Williams, along with daughters Laila, 3, and Vivian, 1, who wear holiday dresses and shy smiles. The Williamses said they wanted their daughters to meet this Mr. and Mrs. Claus, in particular, because Laila recently noted to her parents, for the first time, that her father is Black, and her mother is white. So, what is she? Larry Williams told her: You’re both. You can be anybody you want to be. That’s one reason why the family came to see this Santa and Mrs. Claus, who are Black. “We wanted to show her that she can be anything she wants to be,” Larry Williams said.
— ALOE —
“Orlando Jai Alai Fronton owner pitches ‘high end’ development with poker room, gambling” via Martin E. Comas of the Orlando Sentinel — Richard Birdoff, the owner of the old Orlando Jai Alai Fronton property in Fern Park has teamed with one of the country’s largest gaming developers with plans to build a venue that offers a poker room and other forms of wagering as part of a residential and retail development on the nearly 40 acres off U.S. Highway 17-92. Live! Oxford Town Center would feature dining and lounges with large-screen televisions, company representatives said. It also would include a sportsbook, where participants could wager on televised sports competitions. A separate room would offer poker tables. “It’s really a high-end sports venue where you can watch sports,” Birdoff said. “The [wagering] is not a major component.”
“Texas A&M opts out of TaxSlayer Gator Bowl; alternate opponent sought for Wake Forest” via Gary Smits of The Florida Times-Union — The nation’s sixth-oldest bowl game is now in jeopardy after Texas A&M announced Wednesday that it cannot play in the 77th TaxSlayer Gator Bowl on Dec. 31 against Wake Forest because of a COVID-19 outbreak on its team. Gator Bowl President Greg McGarity said the game isn’t being written off yet, but the clock is ticking. An alternative replacement team is being considered, in consultation with ESPN, the game’s broadcast partner, the NCAA and conference presidents — but it needs to be selected by Friday. The NCAA has allowed teams with a record below .500 to play in bowl games in the past, with a priority on the team’s Academic Progress Rate. The teams that finished 5-7 this season among Power Five conferences are Florida State, Syracuse, Texas, TCU, Rutgers, Illinois and California.
— HAPPY BIRTHDAY —
Celebrating today is the classiest of former state Senators, Lizbeth Benacquisto and the merriest of political consultants, Erin Isaac. Also celebrating today are Anne Gannon, Mark Hanisee, Nikki Lowrey, and our dear friend, Amy Zubaly. Happy Christmas Eve birthday in advance to Barney Bishop and the very considerate Dave Murzin. Those with Christmas birthdays include former Gov. Bob Martinez, Rep. Ralph Massullo, Chris Arbutine, Tim Miller, and Jamie Yarbrough, as well as our friends Logan Lewkow, Winn Peebles and Patrick Slevin. The day after Christmas belongs to Mark Herron and Jake Hoffman. Celebrating on Dec. 27 is Emma‘s dad, Skylar Zander, as well as Kim Hawkes, Lindsay McGee, and Michelle Ubben, the force behind Sachs Media Group. More birthday wishes going out to Reps. Nick Duran and Chris Latvala, Geoff Becker, Ted Bridis, Brian Crowley, former Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, Ana Navarro-Cárdenas, Michael Danish, Jennifer Fennell, Amy Hollyfield of the Tampa Bay Times, Kyle Parks, and Ali Vincent.
Sunburn is authored and assembled by Peter Schorsch, Phil Ammann, Renzo Downey and Drew Wilson.