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COVID-19 Morning Report

Florida Department of Health

State health officials reported 10,347 new cases of COVID-19, Monday, increasing the statewide total to 360,394 cases.

Monday marked the 27th consecutive day of single-day increases of at least 5,000 cases.

The Florida Department of Health also reported 90 new coronavirus-related deaths, July 20, bringing the statewide death toll 5,072 fatalities.

Of the 3,055,922 tests that have been performed in the state so far, 11.79% have been positive for the virus. 97.99% of Florida's overall caseload has come after phase two of Governor Ron DeSantis' reopening plan went into effect June 5.

State health officials reported 292 new coronavirus-related hospitalizations, yesterday, increasing Florida's total number of hospitalizations to 21,263 patients since the start of the pandemic.

Here in the Southwest Florida region including Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota Counties, the Florida Department of Health reported 654 new cases of COVID-19, Monday and three new fatalities including one new death each in Charlotte, Manatee and Sarasota Counties.

A Broward County public school teacher who spent three weeks on a ventilator in a medically-induced coma battling COVID-19 is among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging a state order to physically reopen schools to all students for five days a week starting next month.

The lawsuit filed Monday morning in Miami by the Florida Education Association, a statewide teachers’ union, argues the recent order from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration is unconstitutional.

The state’s governing document includes particularly strong language guaranteeing the right to “safe” public education and ensuring locally elected board members maintain authority over the public schools in their counties.

Stefanie Miller, 53, the 22-year veteran of Broward schools with asthma, said she contracted COVID-19 in March. After spending 21 days on a ventilator, the second-grade teacher at Fox Trail Elementary is recovering at home now, while continuing physical and occupational therapy.

“It’s a long journey. I don’t wish this on anyone,” Miller said during a virtual news conference led by the teachers’ union on Monday afternoon. “I, of course, want to go back to teaching, but it needs to be safe.”

Another local plaintiff is Mindy Festge, 51, a Miami-Dade teacher who has worked for the district for nearly three decades. Her husband is also a teacher, and their son is immunocompromised.

DeSantis said he hasn’t seen the lawsuit but defended his administration’s stance for schools to reopen during a news conference in Orlando on Monday.

“We see the problems that have already developed not having kids have access to the mentorship and the in-person instruction,” he said. “We don’t want folks to fall behind, and we really, really want to focus on the best interest of our students and giving parents the maximum amount of choices to be able to make the best decision that they can.”

“If a parent has a child who may have underlying conditions, of course they should be able to opt for virtual. … And the same with employees,” DeSantis said.

In a statement, state education commissioner Richard Corcoran argued his July 6 executive order offers families a necessary choice regarding whether to attend school in person or virtually.

The order also included flexibility for districts to receive funding that might otherwise be threatened if schools need to close or change their educational strategies due to the fluid nature of the pandemic. Corcoran said if the union’s complaint is successful, that funding would be in jeopardy.

“The FEA frequently states that schools are underfunded, and if this frivolous, reckless lawsuit succeeds it will eliminate these funding guarantees — completely contradicting their normal outcry,” Corcoran said in the statement.

A spokesperson for Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who is also named in the complaint, said in an e-mail that the county does not comment on pending litigation.

South Florida school districts leaders have already asserted their authority to keep school buildings closed until COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and other measures are under control. The Broward and Palm Beach county school districts are planning to begin the school year fully online, and Miami-Dade intends to do the same unless conditions change drastically between now and the first day of school in late August.

The state will help promote voting by mail under a settlement reached Monday between Florida and a group of voter rights organizations. The case stemmed from concerns that the coronavirus could make voting more difficult this year. WFSU’s Blaise Gainey has the details.

"Florida has finally done one thing right about the COVID crisis. Florida is settling this case," said Judith Brown-Dianis. She’s the executive director of the Advancement Project.

Under the settlement reached Monday morning, Florida’s Secretary of State will be responsible for sending out registration information to eligible, unregistered voters in the run-up to the general election. Voters' rights advocates had been pushing for changes to the state’s election practices because of concerns about the impact the coronavirus could have. Getting people signed up to vote is a task typically taken on by voter advocate groups. But because of COVID-19, elections supervisors say the practice has largely dropped off. Stuart Naifeh works with the voters’ rights group Demos.

“One county official during the litigation in the deposition stated that voter registration in her county had fallen essentially to zero," Naifeh said. "Having the state pick up the slack and reach out to unregistered voters and make sure they know what their options are, they know they can register, and that they understand how they can vote by once they are registered is a critical part of this settlement.”

The settlement also requires the secretary of state to encourage elections supervisors to use drop boxes for vote-by-mail ballots and to maximize early voting days. This is something voter advocacy groups like New Florida Majority say will help make sure ballots arrive on time. Senior Program Director Mone Holder explains.

"We do not want the second pandemic to be the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of voters in August and November," Holder said. "Voters are rightfully concerned whether their vote by mail ballots will arrive on time and will be counted and many are discouraged by Florida’s election system. And many are questioning what are their options."

Under the settlement, the state will also send information to voters about requesting and turning in their vote by mail ballots.

The state’s attorney, Mohammad Jazil, called the settlement a victory for all Floridians.

The deadline to register for the general election is October 5. The last day to request a vote by mail ballot is September 19.

One part of the case hasn’t been settled yet. That’s how Florida officials will implement a program designed to allow blind and visually impaired voters to secretly fill out ballots from home. A trial on that matter is set to begin July 27.

Protesters interrupted a media briefing from Gov. Ron DeSantis in Orlando today. DeSantis was at OneBlood to talk about the use of convalescent plasma as a COVID-19 therapy.

A few minutes into his remarks calling for more plasma donors, DeSantis was interrupted by a small group of protesters shouting ‘shame on you’ and ‘you’re lying to the public.’

“We’re not going to be defunding the police, don’t worry about that, we’re going to be supporting our men and women in law enforcement,” said DeSantis as law enforcement officers escorted the protesters outside.

They continued to bang on the windows and shout as the press conference continued.

“I hope they never need convalescent plasma, I can tell you,” said OneBlood CEO George Scholl as he talked about the need for plasma donations.

“We’ve distributed thousands of units to date and there’s no end in sight,” said Scholl.

He said there’s been a 500% increase in hospital orders for convalescent plasma, which has only recently been approved as an experimental treatment for COVID-19 patients. The idea is that plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19 contains antibodies that could help sick patients fight the disease.

Last week a protester shouted down DeSantis during a press conference in Miami, accusing him of doing nothing as coronavirus cases rise.

The Winn-Dixie grocery store chain is reversing its policy and will now require customers to weak face coverings in its stores to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. In a statement, Winn-Dixie's parent company, Southeastern Grocers Inc., said in a statement that the mask requirement will go into effect Monday, July 27.

The AP reports, the company initially rejected a face covering mandate because it didn't want to put its employees in the position of having to ban customers, but now says its position has “evolved.”

Other large retailers like Walmart, Kroger, Publix and Kohls have also imposed mask requirements for customers.

Meanwhile, the Board of Collier County Commissioners is holding an emergency meeting Tuesday morning to discuss whether the county will mandate the wearing of face coverings in public.

Lee County School District Superintendent Greg Adkins wants to delay the start of the coming school year by two or three weeks amid the current surge in COVID-19 patients.

Currently, Lee County public school students are set to return for the fall semester on August 10, but in a memo, Monday, Adkins recommends pushing the start date back to August 24 or August 31.

The News-Press reports, ultimately a decision on whether to push back the start date would come down to a vote by school board members.

The school board plans to hold an emergency meeting Thursday afternoon to review how a new school year calendar would look with a delayed start date.

Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams says local law enforcement is not prepared for the Republican National Convention planned for next month.

On Monday Williams said his department does not have enough officers, money, or clear-cut directions to be able to plan for a safe convention.

“I've penned- to-paper on not one contract, not one piece of procurement. Nothing we need is in route,” said Sheriff Williams.

“And we're just past the point of no return.”

Williams said he’s only gotten a quarter of the resources he needs to prepare and that he hasn’t been able to finalize any security contracts. In an interview with Politico, Williams also said a $50 million grant for RNC preparations had been cut to $33 million.

He stopped short of calling for the 4-day event to be cancelled, however.

The Republican sheriff said he’s expressed his concerns to Mayor Lenny Curry, and has been doing so for weeks.

Aging advocatessent a letter to Florida U.S. Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott urging Congress to pass an additional coronavirus relief package for long-term care facilities.

“We have a category five hurricane bearing down on millions of older adults in Florida and across the state. It's been six months and the pandemic is still raging. In fact, it's growing worse by the week,” said Katie Smith Sloan, President and CEO of LeadingAge, a national association of more than 5,000 nonprofit aging services providers who serve older adults at every level of care including nursing homes, assisted living settings, federally assisted housing, and home health care.

Their newestsituation reportsays that COVID-related increases are causing operating losses at facilities that range from $100,000 to $3 million a month, depending on the size.

Jay Solomon, the CEO at Aviva - A Campus for Senior Life, said the non-profit facility in Sarasota is facing some hard choices.

"Do we just continue to dip into our reserves or are we going to have to change the model in which we provide care to our most vulnerable population?” Solomon asked.

Solomon said those extra costs include things like purchasing their own personal protective equipment. He says gowns and masks provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency were “substandard” and too flimsy to use.

LeadingAge members also need the government's help with costs associated with extra staffing, treating infected patients, ongoing staff testing and affordable housing.

Steve Bahmer, president and CEO of LeadingAge Florida, said its past time to start dealing with this like a hurricane.

“Floridians know how to deal with hurricanes through local, state and federal partnerships that identify and deploy the necessary resources to get communities back on their feet as quickly as possible," Bahmer said. "And a similar effort is needed now.

“Nearly 2,400 residents and staff have died as a result of the virus. We're just under 50% of all deaths in the state. Like a hurricane, this much was predictable. We've known for months that seniors in long-term care settings were at the greatest risk from the virus, not because of any failure on the part of providers. Because older adults living together in these settings tend to have underlying conditions that make them more susceptible.”

Bahmer said without additional funding, when state-funded coronavirus testing ends in September, providers will need to pay between $25,000 and $300,000 a month to keep testing employees.

The Monroe County Commission is holding an emergency meeting Tuesday morning to talk about additional restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Monroe County Mayor Heather Carruthers said the commission will discuss changing their plan for allowing vacation rentals. Miami Beach last week ordered short term rentals to close.

“It does seem that a lot of the problems that we're having are stemming from vacation rentals,” said Mayor Carruthers.

The Monroe County Commission will also consider asking the state to cancel lobster mini-season, planned for July 29-30. That event usually brings thousands of people to the Keys. The commission will also discuss whether to close some public facilities during and after mini-season and asking hotels to reduce occupancy.

“Those are the things that we're talking about right now because we're not seeing this going in the right direction,” said Carruthers.

The village of Islamorada has already requested that the state cancel mini-season. It's also closing public boat ramps, parks and the causeway known as the Fills from July 24 through August 8.

Monroe County has ordered restaurants and bars to close at 11:00 p.m. from July 24 through August 19. All alcohol sales at stores are also banned between 11:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. during that period.

Jessica Bakeman reports on K-12 and higher education for WLRN, south Florida's NPR affiliate. While new to Miami and public radio, Jessica is a seasoned journalist who has covered education policymaking and politics in three state capitals: Jackson, Miss.; Albany, N.Y.; and, most recently, Tallahassee.
Blaise Gainey is a Multimedia Reporter for WFSU News. Blaise hails from Windermere, Florida. He graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He formerly worked for The Florida Channel, WTXL-TV, and before graduating interned with WFSU News. He is excited to return to the newsroom. In his spare time he enjoys watching sports, Netflix, outdoor activities and anything involving his daughter.
Daylina Miller, multimedia reporter for Health News Florida, was hired to help further expand health coverage statewide.
Matthew Peddie
Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.