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COVID-19 Morning Report

Florida Department of Health

State health officials reported 5,838 new COVID-19 cases, Wednesday for a total of 858,012 infections. The Florida Department of Health also reported 52 new coronavirus-related deaths, Nov. 11, increasing the statewide death toll to 17,512 fatalities since the start of the pandemic.

Over the past seven days, the single-day average number of new infections reported has increased to nearly 5,270 cases. The average number of daily deaths reported over the past week comes to 54 fatalities a day.

The latest single-day positivity rate reported by the Florida Division of Emergency Management, using the formula recommended by the World Health Organization, has dropped slightly to 9.14% on Tuesday. Over the past two weeks, the single-day positivity rate has ranged between 10.00% and 6.01%.

Here in the Southwest Florida region including Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota Counties, health officials have reported a total of 73,141 COVID-19 infections and 1,719 coronavirus-related fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic.

Coronavirus prevention measures likely contributed to historically low transmission of the flu in Southern Hemisphere countries this year. Doctors in Florida hope the same thing happens here.

Some health experts are warning of a "twindemic" as winter approaches with the flu spreading at the same time as the coronavirus.

So far in Florida, doctors say the flu hasn't had much of a presence, and some hope safety measures in place to prevent COVID-19 will help keep things that way.

Dr. Manuel Gordillo, medical director of infection control and prevention at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, said promising signs are coming from Southern Hemisphere countries like Australia and New Zealand.

Their winter is during our summer, and flu transmission was historically low this year as they battled the coronavirus.

“And this is attributed to social distancing, physical distancing, hand hygiene and mask use, and on top of that, all those countries did a lot of promotion of influenza immunization,” Gordillo said.

Gordillo warns if Floridians don't model those behaviors, then both viruses could spread through communities. This would pose challenges as the two are difficult to tell apart.

He's urging everyone to keep up with coronavirus prevention efforts and to get a flu vaccine.

While flu shots won’t protect people from the coronavirus, curbing the spread of the flu can help prevent health care systems from being overwhelmed.

Gordillo said that will be crucial as the nation awaits a COVID-19 vaccine.

Like many people around the world, he celebrated the recent promising announcement from Pfizer that early data about its vaccine suggests it is more than 90 percent effective.

Gordillo said those are great results, but that there is a lot more work to do.

Once a vaccine is available, he said Florida will face distribution challenges and other hurdles.

“Vaccine hesitancy, opposition to vaccines,” he said. “You know we need to do a better job in messaging people and explaining how this vaccine is safe, how this vaccine has been developed using the best technology, the best science.”

Coronavirus Relief Aid for Florida Renters, Homeowners Still Available

Floridians recovering from pandemic-related income losses can still get help paying past-due rent and mortgage bills.

“As long as folks can attest that they’ve lost income, they’ve lost employment, they’ve been negatively affected by the pandemic - then they’re likely to qualify,” said Trey Price, executive director of the Florida Housing Finance Corporation. “Perhaps they’ve seen hospital or health care bills pile up.”

Price says household earnings don’t factor into who qualifies for rental assistance. Homeowners, however, must earn below 140 % of the area median income to qualify.

Since local housing offices began disbursing funds over the summer, more than 9,600 households statewide have gotten help with rent and mortgage payments through the program. That's in addition to the number of households that have received assistance through separate coronavirus relief programs in the state’s major cities, Price said.

“Orlando, Miami and Tampa have been doing this for quite some time,” he said. “We’re an extra shot in the arm for those towns.”

Price says it's not too late for people to apply for assistance. Funding is available through local housing offices across the state through Dec. 30 - the deadline to apply.

“Even those local governments that have moved all of their money, there’s going to be more available for them to move before the deadline.”

Right now, a federal halt on evictions is helping keep many tenants who've lost their jobs or income as a result of the pandemic in stable housing. Price says it’s important for renters who are behind with their payments to seek assistance before that moratorium expires at the end of the year.

“Just because you don’t pay doesn’t mean that it’s not owed,” Price said. “What we’re trying to do is get those folks who have been affected by COVID to be squared up with their accounts before the eviction moratorium runs out.”

Landlords and mortgage lenders receive payments directly from the local housing office on behalf of tenants and homeowners whose applications are approved.

Some banks have temporarily stopped requiring mortgage payments from homeowners who’ve taken a financial hit during the pandemic.

“There are some folks who aren’t paying their mortgage right now because they’re in forbearance,” Price said. But other lenders aren’t offering homeowners a break on their payments. “Those are primarily the folks that we’re trying to target.”

Using federal CARES Act dollars, the state established a $250 million Coronavirus Relief Fund for housing assistance over the summer.

Almost half of the fund - $120 million - was set aside for past-due mortgage and rent payments. Florida Housing has so far distributed $115 million to cities and counties across the state.

Here’s a glimpse at what the program looks like in Bay County, according to statistics from ReHouse Bay:

  • Sixty-five households in Panama City have received help paying their rent or mortgage bills.
  • The city has collected $295,252 for the program from Florida Housing. Most of that - $189,465 - has been spent to assist renters and homeowners recovering from economic hardship related to the pandemic.
  • Bay County has received $795,874. Almost all of that funding - $769,540 - has been paid to assist 211 households.

Local housing officials say the county is expecting to get an additional $100,000 for mortgage and rent payment assistance later this month, Caitlin Lawrence, the city’s public information officer, wrote in an email.
County residents can apply for rent and mortgage assistance online or at City Hall in downtown Panama City.

He says that’s because some of the funding originally set aside for affordable housing assistance will likely be reallocated to the rent and mortgage payment assistance program.

“With Florida Housing’s portfolio, we were committed more money than we were going to be able to put out,” he said.

Local governments can apply for those dollars after they’ve spent the funds they’ve received so far.

“If they’ve exhausted those funds - they’re going to be able to tap into more funds that we’re making available.”

And ultimately that money will help renters and homeowners catch up on their payments ahead of the new year.

Key West Mayor Backs Off from Booze Curfew, Asks Businesses to Help with Mask Ordinance Compliance

Key West officials are frustrated with how to get visitors to wear masks when they can't socially distance — like on crowded Duval Street sidewalks.

Mayor Teri Johnston proposed closing bars and restaurants and stopping alcohol sales at midnight.

More than a dozen people spoke against the idea. They said the industry was being singled out.

"Why is it only bars and restaurants that spread COVID after midnight?" said Amy Lay, speaking on behalf of the Benihana restaurant in Key West.

"Why is it midnight? Are bars and restaurants like those cute little critters in Gremlins — feed them after midnight and then they turn nasty?" Lay said.

It wasn't just bar and restaurant owners who objected to the curfew. Hotel and attraction owners also said it would hurt their business.

The Key West Chamber of Commerce answers the phones and fields any questions posed to the local tourism development agency.

"The number one question since all of this happened is 'What are the restrictions in Key West?'" said Scott Atwell from the chamber. "And they're asking these questions because it's a competitive travel environment out there. And people are going to go where they feel welcome."

Johnston withdrew the curfew proposal. But she says she wants the business community to work with the city to get tourists to wear masks and socially distance.

That's the message Monroe Health Administrator Bob Eadie says they need to get.

"Just because you're in Key West doesn't mean you leave your brains, your ethics, your common sense behind," he said. "Yes, you may be on vacation but we live here. And if you're here, you're part of our community now."

Commissioner Jimmy Weekley said keeping the number of COVID-19 cases down should help tourism.

"If we become a safe community, believe me, people are going to want to come. That's our number one priority, is the health and safety of this community," he said.

Commissioner Gregory Davila said it's not just tourists spreading COVID downtown — that it's also happening with locals at house parties, birthday parties and other gatherings.

"Our Key West community, we're very social. We love each other and we want to see each other and hug each other," he said. "But this isn't over and we're spreading this through our own COVID fatigue."

Moving forward, the Key West commission will also get an update on COVID at every meeting.

Travel Industry Feels Pinch of Cruise Industry Shutdown Due To COVID-19

Cruise operations around the U.S. will remain shut down for the remainder of the year to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

This decision, made by members of the Cruise Lines International Association, will force companies to wait until 2021 to start sailing, with new precautions set in place.

Janice Sinardi is owner of Cruise Planners Travel Agency in Temple Terrace, and said the coronavirus is affecting her business more than one might think.

“I don’t think people realize how much it has impacted not only the cruise industry, but the travel industry, the hospitality industry because it’s all kind of connected in a way,” said Sinardi.

Travel agents are paid commissions from the cruise lines after customers take their trips, which has cut into the bottom line for people like Sinardi.

When cruise lines get back up and running, ships will be required by the CDC to have coronavirus testing on board while also mandating passengers stay physically distanced during their trip.

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Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters,WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.
Valerie Crowder is a freelance reporter based in Panama City, Florida. Before moving to Florida, she covered politics and education for Public Radio East in New Bern, North Carolina. While at PRE, she was also a fill-in host during All Things Considered. She got her start in public radio at WAER-FM in Syracuse, New York, where she was a part-time reporter, assistant producer and host. She has a B.A. in newspaper online journalism and political science from Syracuse University. When she’s not reporting the news, she enjoys reading classic fiction and thrillers, hiking with members of the Florida Trail Association and doing yoga.
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.
Courtney Holland