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COVID-19 Morning Report

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Florida Department of Health

\State health officials reported 2,470 new COVID-19 cases, Tuesday, bringing Florida's total to 687,909 cases. The Florida Department of Health also reported 99 new coronavirus-related deaths, Sept. 22, increasing the statewide death toll to 13,579 fatalities.

Of the 5,139,472 COVID-19 tests that have been reported in Florida so far, the overall positivity rate now stands at 13.38%. The latest single day positivity rate increased slightly to 5.83%.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the total number of coronavirus-related hospitalizations in Florida has now increased to 42,771 patients.

Here in the Southwest Florida region including Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota Counties, health officials reported 91 new cases of the virus, Tuesday, for a total of 57,252 cases.

There were also five new coronavirus-related deaths reported in the Southwest Florida region, Tuesday, including three new fatalities in Collier County and one new death each in Manatee and Sarasota Counties for a total of 1,366 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

An environmental law group wants the Florida Public Service Commission to issue an emergency order preventing electric utilities from shutting off overdue accounts.

In a petition filed Tuesday, Earthjustice argued that shutting off power during the COVID-19 pandemic creates unsafe living conditions. Cutting electricity in steamy Florida essentially forces people to move, the group said, violating an order from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention to suspend evictions until December.

“Florida law has recognized that cutting off electricity amounts to an eviction because of the necessity of electricity to safely live in Florida,” said Earthjustice attorney Bradley Marshall “What we're trying to do here is prevent an end-run around the CDC moratorium.”

In March, when businesses were ordered to close as the disease spread, the state’s major utilities, including Florida Power & Light, suspended disconnections. As the pandemic has dragged on, more than 550,000 accounts have fallen past due, Marshall said. That’s left more than 1.25 million people at risk of losing power.

This month, some utilities resumed disconnections. On Sept. 11, FPL said it planned to begin cutting off power on Oct. 1 to customers with overdue accounts who do not make payment arrangements. It plans to shave $200 off overdue bills.

Duke Energy and Tampa Bay Electric have also resumed disconnections, Marshall said.

FPL did not respond to a request for comment.

Since the PSC has agreed to allow utilities to ask to recover costs by hiking rates, Marshall said relief should also be extended to customers. The petition does not include a request, but Marshall said at some point the state will need to deal with the backlog.

“Debt relief is certainly something that we're going to have to be thinking about in order to get a lot of these people back on track,” he said. “One of the people we're representing is over $2,000 behind on her electricity bill. And even on a bill repayment plan, she has no way of making that up.”

Across the U.S., 23 states still have moratoriums on disconnections in place, Marshall said. In Florida, utilities voluntarily suspended disconnection so no order was needed, Marshall said. If granted, the emergency order would prevent disconnections for 90 days.

That would give the state enough time to come up with a broader plan under a more permanent rule, Marshall said.

“We launch the emergency petition for emergency rule making action to stop the disconnections as soon as we can,” he said. “Then we can think about hitting the pause button and about how to deal with all those problems that are still going to exist and need a longer-term solution.”

Since the pandemic began, 3,032 corrections staff working in Florida's prisons have tested positive for the coronavirus. Most of the staff testing positive come from prisons in North Florida and Miami-Dade County. That includes the Wakulla Correctional Institution, which has more than 140 positive test results from staff. Three corrections staff and more than 100 inmates have died from the virus.

Tens of thousands of students headed back to brick-and-mortar schools in Palm Beach County Monday. It was their first time back since March.

Robert DeGennaro teaches fifth grade at Hagen Road Elementary School in Boynton Beach. He said it's been difficult to juggle between face-to-face students and distance learning students for some of his colleagues.

The Palm Beach County school district has taken the hybrid approach, allowing parents to decide whether to keep their children home for distance learning sessions or enter physical classrooms. Either way, teachers in the county have to simultaneously instruct students through both methods.

DeGennaro said it will take time to get used to the act of dividing a teacher's attention and resources, but he remains optimistic. He added that despite wearing a mask during the length of the pandemic, wearing one for a full work day has already made in-person teaching "exhausting."

“Today was the first day I had the mask on for that long. I’ve obviously been to the store. I’ve been to Home Depot and what have you,” DeGennaro said. “But I haven’t had it concentrated for that many hours and it’s not wonderful. But it’s better than getting COVID.”

DeGennaro says he’s lucky to have well-behaved students but he worries about the long-term mental effects that physical distancing will have on kids in classrooms. He says his students, like his own children at home, are social beings who are bound to explore spaces around the campus.

"We’d be foolish to assume that kids aren’t going to transgress some of these COVID restrictions either by accident or on purpose,” DeGennaro said. “So, we’d just have to take it when it comes.”

Jessica Estel teaches fifth grade at Poinciana Elementary School in Boynton Beach. She said she maintains a positive outlook about the future of virtual teaching and in-person instruction but worries about the inability for teachers to monitor body language, behavior and comprehension through a computer screen.

"The teaching monitoring piece is lost because a child can decide to turn off their camera. Are they paying attention? Are they working? Are they writing? Are they frustrated?” Estel said.

"Body language has decreased a lot because sometimes you can pick up if a child needs help by their body language — the way they’re sitting." She said teachers usually can see whether students are "attentive or not attentive."

"If they’re gazing into space. Usually if they’re gazing into space you can snap them back."

Estel says most students are digitally savvy. She's more concerned about technical issues like bad Wi-Fi, which would prohibit a child from keeping up with the rest of the classroom. Estel asked her students about some of those difficulties and made assessments.

"They only said that the hard part is the technical part,” she said. "If they’re losing internet connection or if they just don’t know how to type on a Google document or anything like that — it’s the maneuvering of the technology, not the receiving of the information."

The Palm Beach County school district launched a COVID-19 dashboard Monday to keep track of confirmed cases in schools.

Gov. Ron DeSantis is expressing concern that small businesses in Florida and the commercial real estate market will continue to suffer even after the coronavirus pandemic is over.

The AP reports, DeSantis said, Tuesday, the pandemic has been a boon for big businesses like Amazon, but that many mom and pop businesses in the state may never come back. DeSantis also said businesses may decide to continue having employees work remotely after the pandemic as a cost-saving measure, but notes that could hurt the commercial real estate industry.

DeSantis made the comments during a Florida cabinet meeting, Tuesday.

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