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COVID-19 Morning Report

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Florida Department of Health

State health officials reported 3,779 new cases of COVID-19, Sunday, increasing the statewide total to 573,416 cases. Aug. 16 marked the lowest single-day increase in cases of the virus so far this month, and marked the first time in August, health officials have reported fewer than 4,000 new cases in a day.

The Florida Department of Health also reported 107 new coronavirus-related deaths, yesterday, bringing the statewide death toll to 9,452 fatalities.

Of the 4,239,309 COVID-19 tests that have been performed in Florida so far, the overall positivity rate remains unchanged from Saturday at 13.53%.

Since the start of the pandemic, health officials report there have been 33,928 people hospitalized with the virus.

Here in the Southwest Florida region including Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota Counties the Florida Department of Health has reported a total 49,440 cases of COVID-19 and 1,087 coronavirus-related deaths since the start of the pandemic.

A Leon County Judge has declined the state’s request to throw out a lawsuit over school reopenings. Judge Charles Dodson is sending the state and Florida’s largest teachers union to mediation. If no deal is reached, the sides are preparing to go to trial. At issue is an order by the Florida Department of Education mandating schools to offer in-person classes.

According to the Florida Department of Health, there have been more than 560,000 cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. More than 9,000 people have died because of the virus. And that’s why the Florida Education Association says the school year should start with virtual classes only.

“We are Wuhan as far as the rest of the world is concerned. We’re going to make a political judgment apparently at the state level to rush to open state schools," said Meyer. "Damn the torpedoes, who cares whether it’s safe or not. And that’s just simply not right and it’s not constitutional.”

That’s FEA Attorney Ron Meyer. The FEA wants the state to allow each district to determine when school begins in-person. Meyer says returning to face to face learning is dangerous for kids and also the staff.

“Look we all want to go back to school. All of the teachers in this state are wanting to go back to school, but they’re not dying to go back to school and that’s what they’re confronted with," said Meyer

David Wells is an attorney for the state. He says distance learning isn’t a good way to adequately teach students.

“Virtual education is no substitution for education in person," said Wells. "We end up with missing students, we end up with students with folks with individual learning programs that suffer, English language folks that suffer, the financially disadvantaged that suffer."

Wells says the state must balance providing high-quality education while keeping kids safe. The FEA argues opening brick and mortar violates that because it puts children in harm’s way.

Leon County Judge Charles Dodson has scheduled a hearing for Wednesday and Thursday but is trying to avoid it. He’s pushing the sides into mediation in an effort to work out the disagreement.

"This is a case that cries out for the parties to get together at this mediation and come up with an agreement," said Dodson. "It’s a very complicated case I know that. And between the Governor and the education commissioner and the plaintiffs, I’m confident that if you all work really hard you can do that."

In the meantime, some school districts have already resumed in-person learning. In Wakulla County school started Thursday. Superintendent Bobby Pearce says residents and staff are happy to get back to some form of normalcy.

“Kids are social and they want to see their friends and even though they can communicate digitally and they might have had the opportunity to see kids away from during the pandemic in different environments," said Pearce. "There’s nothing like school to have that routine and that social opportunity.”

But not all school districts are following that path.

The Chicago-based Drift Net Securities hosted an online school safety summit last week. The goal was to try to address some of the challenges schools across the U.S. are facing as a new year gets underway during the pandemic.

Drift Net Chief Product Officer Ryan Petty his daughter Alaina in the 2018 high school mass shooting in Parkland. He’s also a member of the State Board of Education. Petty presented at the summit about the state's plan for reopening schools.

“"My thought is that every student should have the opportunity, and parents should, to send their student to in-person instruction if possible,” said Petty.

“Some parents don't want to do that so, we wanted there to be options. So, we see lots of different plans submitted to the Department of Education.”

The department, school districts and teachers’ unions are now battling over a state mandate to open schools for in-person learning. South Florida districts are planning to start the year online.

High school athletes will get a chance to compete on the field this fall after all. A contentious vote came amidst concerns about playing contact sports during the pandemic.

The Florida High School Athletic Association voted 11-5 Friday to allow students to play sports beginning August 24. But any schools that have qualms about playing because of spiking coronavirus numbers will be allowed to opt out of the state playoff series by September 18.

The motion, which was made in Gainesville hotel, passed by a split vote. Other options that were considered included delaying games until October or November.

FHSAA Board members agreed to begin games the first week of September, which is a week earlier than what was proposed at the group's last meeting.

Under a normal schedule, fall sports practices would have started last month, with the regular season beginning August 20.

Board member Susan Tortora of Montverde said she has received about 300 emails, with almost all of them asking the board to set a date to begin play.

"Our people in this state are crying out for a date," she said. "These are parents, these are coaches and so on that want their kids to get out there and play sports. Now I agree that this is a worrisome time. But kids are going to do what kids are going to do."

Jaime and Tami Kent, parents of a football player at Cambridge Christian School in Tampa, spoke during the public comment period that preceded the vote. The couple started an online petition that got more than 40,000 signatures urging the FHSAA to allow sports.

"Let these kids play. Students need sports for their mental, physical, emotional well-being," said Jaime Kent.

But board member Chris Patricca, who serves on the Lee County School Board, said schools will have enough to deal with just trying to keep students healthy.

"Throwing sports on top of that, if feels like it's setting us up for failure," she said. "We can't do it all correctly. We don't have the bandwidth, we don't have the resources, the additional safety measures that have to be put in place."

Members of the FHSAA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee - doctors, athletic trainers, and other medical professionals from around the state - recommended caution.

SMAC chair, Dr. Jennifer Maynard of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, told directors that, while the numbers are improving around Florida, only one county in the state - Hamilton - is beneath the five percent positivity test rate recommended by experts for reopening.

"Until the virus is given the respect it deserves, by introducing sports, it adds fuel to the fire," said Maynard.

But board member Chalmus Thomas voted in favor of the plan, saying its time for the country to move on.

"Of all the emails that I've received, I don't know of any parent that's not thinking of safety," he said. "I can't think of any communities that aren't thinking of safety. I don't think there's any superintendents today that's not thinking about safety first. But we can't sit in a shell."

However, school districts in South Florida hit hardest by the coronavirus will likely not be playing during the fall. Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties will all offer online classes only at the beginning of the fall semester.

While districts and counties that pull out of the state series will have the ability to work with the FHSAA to put together their own regional calendars, the Miami-Dade County School Board voted unanimously Wednesday to look at pulling its schools from the association.

Board members also voted 10-6 to make a COVID-19 waiver available to schools. It will not be required or recommended for the students to sign them to be able to play in the fall. All coaches will be required to watch an instructional video about the coronavirus before their season starts.

High school sports played in the fall include football, cross country, golf, swimming and volleyball.

Floridians are choosing to vote by mail in the Aug. 18 primary elections in larger numbers, likely due to the coronavirus pandemic. Before the weekend, 1.9 million people had already voted by mail and more than 370-thousand had cast ballots at early voting locations.

The AP reports, vote by mail totals far exceed the rate of mail-in voting during the 2016 primary, when about 1.3 million people cast ballots through the mail.

There are no statewide races on the 2020 ballot, but Floridians will be electing at least two new members of Congress this year including a new U.S. Representative for the state's 19th congressional district in Southwest Florida.

Movie theaters in Southwest Florida are preparing to reopen amid the pandemic for the first time since closing back in March.

The News-Press reports the Regal Cinema theater chain plans to begin reopening locations across the country on Friday, Aug. 21, including four theaters in Charlotte, Collier and Lee Counties.

The following Friday, Aug. 28, Regal plans to reopen its location at Coconut Point in Estero.

AMC plans reopen its location at Merchants Crossing in North Fort Myers on Aug. 27. The theater will open at 30% capacity and masks will be required of employees and guests unless they're eating or drinking.

The Marquee Cinemas Coralwood 10 in Cape Coral has not yet announced a reopening date.

Movie theaters were permitted to reopen at half capacity in early June as part of phase two of Gov. Ron DeSantis' reopening plan. Prado Stadium 12 in Bonita Springs reopened at that time and has remained open.

Regal Cinemas new rules include a mask requirement for people in lobbies, restrooms and hallways. Regal is also imposing daily health screenings for workers including mandatory temperature checks. Regal is also adding new contact-less payment options and the ability to purchase tickets and concessions through the new Regal mobile app.

WGCU is your trusted source for news and information in Southwest Florida. We are a nonprofit public service, and your support is more critical than ever. Keep public media strong and donate now. Thank you.

Tom Urban is the Assignment Manager for .
Steve Newborn is WUSF's assistant news director as well as a reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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.
Caitie Switalski