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COVID-19 Morning Report

Florida Department of Health

State health officials reported 186 new coronavirus-related deaths, Tuesday, setting a new record high for the number of deaths reported in a single day.

Yesterday's deaths bring Florida's statewide death toll from the virus to 6,117 fatalities.

2,760 deaths, or 45% of Florida's total COVID fatalities have been among staff and residents of long-term care facilities. Even so, Gov. Ron DeSantis says he's considering a possible relaxation of the state's ban on visitation to long-term care facilities like nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

The Florida Department of Health also reported 9,230 new cases of COVID-19, Tuesday, for a total of 441,977 cases. Tuesday marked the 35th consecutive day of single-day increases of at least 5,000 cases.

Of the 3,485,141 tests that have been reported in Florida so far, 12.68%have been positive for the virus.

State health officials reported 585 new coronavirus-related hospitalizations, Tuesday, increasing the total to 24,917 hospitalizations since the beginning 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 678 new cases of COVID-19, Tuesday, for a total of 40,911 cases.

There were also 17 new deaths reported July 28 in the Southwest Florida region including 13 new deaths in Lee County and two new fatalities each in Collier and Manatee Counties for a total of 786 deaths.

Restaurant workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 could soon return to work without needing a negative test result. Governor Ron DeSantis says he wants to let restaurant workers who are no longer showing symptoms get back to work. This comes after a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the dead virus can show up in tests weeks after a person stops being contagious.

“CDC said that can be up to 12 weeks. Where an infection can be 12 weeks old obviously you’re no longer infectious, you don’t have a live virus. But it could pick up some of the dead virus in a PCR test," said DeSantis. "So that obviously is not something that should keep somebody out of work.”

Under an executive order passed in March, restaurant workers who tested positive for COVID-19 were required to get two consecutive negative test results before employers could let them back in the building. DeSantis says he wants to “tweak” the state’s “guidance” on the issue but did not say how the change would apply to people who are asymptomatic but could still be contagious.

Gov. DeSantis said, Tuesday he's considering extending a statewide ban on housing evictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The current moratorium is set to expire on Saturday.

The AP reports, DeSantis indicated he's considering the possible extension during a coronavirus roundtable discussion in Orlando. The ban was put in place in April. It allows people to avoid eviction from their homes amid the pandemic. DeSantis has previously extended the ban twice.

The start date for schools in Collier County has been pushed back to August 31. Collier School Board members voted unanimously, Tuesday, to push back the start date for students for a second time.

The Naples Daily News reports, the new start date for teachers in the Collier school district will now be August 17. The initial start date for students had been August 12, and had previously been pushed back to August 19.

Teachers and other district employees are now under pressure to decide whether they're comfortable returning to physical classroom learning amid the current surge on COVID-19 cases.

The Collier School District's plan includes an option for students to attend brick and mortar schools as well as distance learning options.

Safety measures in the plan include a mandatory mask requirement, optional safety goggles and increased sanitation efforts.

The Florida Department of Education, Tuesday, approved the Sarasota County School District's reopening plans.

The Sarasota school district's plan calls for beginning the fall semester on August 31 with three options for students including in-person classroom instruction, a virtual option that follows the same schedule as their in-school peers, and a second virtual learning option that's more self-guided and allows students to advance at their own pace.

The Herald Tribune reports, the district plans to use $5.1 million in federal CARES Act funding to pay teachers for an additional week of training to learn about new safety protocols in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

With a storm in the Atlantic pointed its way, South Florida could soon get its first real test of a hurricane season during a pandemic and one of the more difficult things to manage: evacuation shelters.

To try to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in shelters, emergency operations chiefs say they’ve rewritten game plans.

“I would say, as my daddy used to say, we're in pretty good shape for the shape we're in,” said Frank Rollason, Miami-Dade County’s operations director.

For starters, everyone will be screened by being asked basic questions about exposure and have their temperature checked. Those at risk will be separated. For those not sick or at risk, they’ll be allotted more space in gyms, libraries and other large facilities provided at schools where most shelters are staged.

Miami-Dade County’s 82 shelters won’t be able to meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that call for 60-square feet per person, Rollason said. That’s just not possible for the 112,000 spaces needed. But he said the county will double the space to a minimum of 36 square feet.

The county is also working on installing other protective measures, including dividers used at the county’s field hospitals.

“It's feasible to do,” he said. “The big thing is having the crews simultaneously at 20 locations.”

The county also hopes to install fans equipped with ultraviolet lights to help kill airborne virus particles.

Evacuees should bring their own supplies, but Rollason said shelters will also have a supply of masks, gloves and hand sanitizer.

“We have stocked up on a tremendous amount of PPE,” he said. “I've got over four million surgical masks in stock now, but it’s just been buying wherever I can find them. We got a lot of hand sanitizer. Wipes are hard to come by.”

Both Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties have also designated county employees to staff shelters.

In Miami-Dade, Red Cross volunteers who normally staff eight shelters will not be provided because the county can’t meet the CDC social distancing guidelines, Rollason said. Event staff who work Marlins Park, Hard Rock Stadium and other venues are also being hired to staff shelters.

“We've asked them for a thousand people,” Rollason said, but so far the contractor has come up short. “He says I don’t have a thousand. I said, hey, get me 500. You get me 250. It's what I don't have.”

Palm Beach County, which operates 17 shelters with a capacity of 50,000, should be able to meet CDC distancing guidelines by grouping families, said emergency management director Bill Johnson. That means every family member will get 20 square feet, with families spaced six feet from other families. Individuals will get 60 square feet.

“We're working on ways to maximize our space, yet as we add more square footage, you reduce your capacity,” he said.

By providing the space, the county will reduce its capacity to about 17,000. But Johnson said it’s unlikely the county would run out of space.

After county workers failed to show up to staff shelters during Dorian — after also failing to show up during Irma — the county docked them a week’s pay.

“I have my fingers crossed that we'll have staff available and that we won't be in the same situation,” Johnson said.

A bigger concern, both Johnson and Rollason say, is residents refusing to evacuate to shelters over concerns of exposure to the coronavirus.

“The risk of not evacuating if you live in an evacuation zone far outweighs the risk of getting COVID when we have implemented all the procedures and the mask wearing and the social distancing,” Johnson said. “The risk of being injured or in storm surge far outweighs the risks of being in a shelter.”

The weather doesn’t care that there’s a pandemic and as we head into what are typically the busiest months of the Atlantic storm season, how are nursing homes preparing for rough weather during the pandemic?

Director of Communications at the Florida Health Care Association Kristen Knapp said providers go through a process to gear-up for hurricane season.“They have a comprehensive emergency management plan that outlines the various steps they take to keep the residents safe, to make sure their facility is prepared, make sure their staff are properly trained. So that’s something that they do on an ongoing basis throughout the year,” said Knapp.

However, Vice President of Long-term care for SEIU United Healthcare Workers East Margarette Nerette said caregivers aren’t prepared.“What we’re dealing with right now is too much. If something else comes up, like the hurricane, we’re in big, big, big, big trouble,” said Nerette.

Right now, she’s hoping for the best -- for the sake of nursing home patients and caregivers.“We hope hurricanes stay away from Florida. We don’t think we have capacity to endure anything else right now.”

Hurricane season ends November 30.

As state and local officials debate reopening Florida schools to children, another core government service remains operational at a significantly reduced capacity: Driver License and Motor Vehicle Service Centers, or DMVs for short.

State DMV offices originally closed shop in mid-March and reopened their doors in June, albeit by appointment only.

“But good luck getting an appointment,” said Evan Hoffman, a Miami-based attorney who handles traffic and driving cases.

The rollback on access to DMV offices has brought about some unintended consequences for people who need to renew licenses, get new state identifications, and on voter registration efforts. In many cases, the rollbacks have impacted people trying to resolve their outstanding criminal cases.

Some of Hoffman’s clients are facing charges of driving with a suspended license, or driving without a valid license. In order to clear those legal hurdles and get on with life, those clients have to go to the DMV in person, and can’t do the necessary tasks online.

“In Broward there’s something called the initiative program where they’ll give you 90 days to get your license and the case will resolve favorably. In Miami, usually it’s a non-accident citation and usually you can produce a valid license and they’ll drop the charges,” said Hoffman. "I have clients that are in the programs and they are freaking out that they can't get appointments."

One of Hoffman’s clients is a 90-year-old who was given a citation for driving after his license expired during the pandemic, he said. The man was unable to get an appointment.

Another one of Hoffman's clients was arrested in Key West for driving without a valid license, but he was unable to find an appointment to reinstate his license in Miami-Dade County, where he lives.

“He actually went to Palm Beach County to take care of it,” said Hoffman.

“It’s kind of like a catch-22. You have people that need to do certain things to fulfill certain legal requirements, but they can’t get access to the offices,” said Brett Schwartz, a Miami-based attorney. “You have to wonder if having [a] fully operational DMV office should be considered an essential service.”

Next Monday, noted Schwartz, his daughter plans to travel several counties away in order to get a driver’s license for the first time, which cannot be done online.

In the wake of people traveling across the state in order to access DMV offices, some counties have started to restrict in-person service to people who live inside that county.

DMV services in 64 of Florida’s 67 counties are handled by county tax collector offices, and they set their own rules, said Aaron Keller, the director of communications for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

The state handles DMV services in Miami-Dade, Broward and Volusia counties, and those offices are open to residents of any county.

However, in early July the state had to “temporarily reduce the number of appointments available” in those counties due to the sharp uptick in COVID-19 cases, said Keller. Some of those appointment slots are now starting to be added.

A series of orders issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis extended the expiration dates on licenses and identifications that expired between March and April. But those extensions have not been continued.

The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles told WLRN that more than 2 million transactions have taken place online since March.

A separate consequence of reduced access to DMV offices and other government agencies is the slashing of a major avenue for registering voters for upcoming elections.

Between March and June of 2019, a total of 145,980 people registered to vote in DMV offices, according to data kept by the Florida Department of State.

In 2020, that statewide number dropped down to 94,455. Only 4,869 people registered to vote at a DMV in all of April, down from 2019’s average of around 35,000 registrations per month.

Some third-party groups, like the Washington-based Center for Voter Information and the Voter Participation Center, have stepped into the void. Combined, the groups have sent more than 1.5 million voter registration forms across the state.

“It’s really really incumbent upon groups like ours to help people register, because the state doesn’t send out voter registration applications to unregistered people,” said Page Gardner, the chair of the board for both the Voter Participation Center and the Center for Voter Information. “In-person [registration at elections offices] has shut down, DMVs are shut down, public libraries where people go, or other agencies — all of that has been shut down.”

As Florida’s primary election draws near, voting rights advocates urge people to cast their ballots before election day.

All Voting is Local encourages people to vote early, whether by mail or in-person. The group’s Florida director, Brad Ashwell, says Florida should learn from the challenges other states saw during this year’s primaries:

“We’ve seen long lines. We’ve seen lots of problems. In Georgia, they had almost every problem you can imagine and we don’t want to see that relived in Florida.”

Ashwell explains early voting takes the pressure off election officials, who he says are short on poll workers this year because of concerns about the coronavirus. He says mail-in ballots are the safest way to vote this year.

However, there are three main ways a mail-in ballot could be rejected in Florida: One is if the envelope isn’t signed. Another is if it’s not received on time. And lastly, if the signature on the ballot doesn’t match the signature the elections office has on file. Brad Ashwell says voters can go to their supervisor of elections office to update their signatures:

“Voters should be able to go into the office, do a signature update form, or they can print the voter registration form offline and sign it, update it and send it in.”

Ashwell explains the way people sign their names can change over time, and that could keep their vote from getting counted. But he says if someone’s mail-in ballot is in question, the elections office should notify them so they can fix it. The deadline to request a mail-in ballot for the primary is August 8. Afterward, voters can pick up a mail ballot at their supervisor of elections’ office. Early voting for the primary elections begins August 3.

Andrea Perdomo is a reporter for WGCU News. She started her career in public radio as an intern for the Miami-based NPR station, WLRN. Andrea graduated from Florida International University, where she was a contributing writer for the student-run newspaper, The Panther Press, and was also a member of the university's Society of Professional Journalists chapter.
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.
Robbie Gaffney is a recent graduate from Florida State University with degrees in Digital Media Production and Creative Writing. Before working at WFSU, they recorded FSU’s basketball and baseball games for Seminole Productions as well as interned for the PBS Station in Largo, Florida. Robbie loves playing video games such as Shadow of the Colossus, Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. Their other hobbies include sleeping and watching anime.
Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.
Daniel Rivero is a reporter and producer for WLRN, covering Latino and criminal justice issues. Before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.