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COVID-19 Morning Report

Florida Department of Health

State health officials reported 1,606 new COVID-19 cases, Monday, for a total of 2,311,941 infections. The Florida Department of Health also reported 28 coronavirus-related deaths May 24, increasing the statewide death toll to 37,235 fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic.

The latest single-day positivity rate reported by the Florida Division of Emergency Management stood at 5.48% on Sunday. Over the past two weeks the single-day positivity rate has ranged between 4.67% and 6.52%.

The Agency for Health Care Administration reports that as of this morning the number of patients with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19 admitted to hospitals throughout the state has dropped to 2,065. In Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota counties combined there are currently 196 admitted patients with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19.

Lee Health reported Monday afternoon that 99 patients are being treated for COVID-19 throughout the health system's hospitals. Currently 73% of Lee Health's ventilator capacity and 20% of ICU rooms are available. The health system reports having 6 COVID-19 patients on ventilators and 16 COVID-19 patients in intensive care.

As of Monday morning, the Florida Division of Emergency Management reported more than 10 million (10,035,446) people have been vaccinated including more than 2 million (2,039,602) people who have received a first dose, and more than 7.9 million (7,995,844) who have either completed the two-dose series or who have received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Florida Is Latest State To End Federal Jobless Benefits Early

Jobless Floridians will no longer get an extra $300 a week in federal pandemic-related unemployment benefits starting in late June.

Florida is the latest GOP-controlled state to announce plans to cut off the payments early.

Unemployed workers in Florida were supposed to continue receiving the extra $300 weekly federal supplement through Sept. 6, according to a state Department of Economic Opportunity press release.

A report released Friday showed that an estimated 487,000 Floridians were unemployed in April out of 10.24 million. DEO called the move “another key step to returning more Floridians to work,” dubbing it the “Return to Work” initiative.

“More Floridians, including some who completely left the workforce, are now eagerly reentering the workforce," said DEO Secretary Dane Eagle.

There are still plenty of job openings across the state, according to the department, which has tracked roughly 450,000 online job postings.

"Transitioning away from this benefit will help meet the demands of small and large businesses who are ready to hire and expand their workforce,” Eagle said.

Florida will become at least the 22nd state to announce plans to cut the federal pandemic-related benefits early. A number of Republican-led states will cut benefits next month, including Georgia, Texas and Alabama.

Several industry groups are praising Florida’s decision to join them. The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, the Florida Retail Federation and the Florida Chamber of Commerce all issued statements supporting the move. They say the extra benefits incentivize people not to work.

“Even though our industry is open for business, we are facing a dire labor shortage,” Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association President and CEO Carol Dover said in a statement. “Strong demand, coupled with this staffing shortage, has left many businesses forced to limit operating days and hours in addition to reducing capacity in both food service and lodging.”

Labor unions, however, have long argued that employers should raise wages and provide better benefits to fill the hiring demand.

The state is ending its participation in the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program on June 26.

The department is continuing other federally-funded pandemic-related assistance programs, including the Mixed Earners Unemployment Compensation and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation programs, which are set to expire on Sept. 6.

Florida pays a maximum of $275 a week in state benefits to unemployed people. Eagle has said people are taking advantage of the combined state and federal assistance, which is competitive with weekly pay at many restaurants and tourism businesses.

“You've seen restaurants that have had to close earlier or open later or close certain days of the week,” Eagle said during a recent news conference outside downtown Tallahassee’s Metro Deli. "The 2021 pandemic is unemployment, not being able to hire. So, we've got to put an end to that.”

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, quickly posted Monday on Twitter that ending the federal assistance is a “terrible idea that feeds into Florida's already broken unemployment system.”

During the legislative session that ended April 30, the Senate pushed to increase the maximum state benefits to $375 a week. But while Florida’s current benefits are among the lowest in the nation, the GOP-backed proposal died amid opposition from House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Sprowls and DeSantis said their focus was on getting people back to work.

The state’s unemployment rate in April was 4.8 percent, up from 4.7 percent in March. The number of people employed increased by 59,000 from March to April, while the workforce grew by 73,000 in the same time.

Since March 15, 2020, the start of the pandemic, the state has paid out more than $28.3 billion to 2.37 million unemployment claimants. The Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program has accounted for nearly $17.3 billion of the money distributed, while the state program has accounted for more than $5.9 billion. The remainder of the money has come from two smaller federal programs set to expire in early September.

Restaurant Workers Look For Greener Pastures As Florida Experiences Hospitality Hiring Crunch

Restaurants across Florida are experiencing a labor shortage. Many COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, and more tourists and residents are heading out to eat. But there aren't enough workers to serve them.

Jazz Salm was starting a new job at a Chili's in Plantation when the pandemic struck.

"I had only literally had a shift on the floor for them for a week, and then on March 15, we were put on furlough," Salm says.

Salm says she had to move home to Sarasota because she couldn't afford her rent. During that time, she contemplated working at another Chili's but says shifts were slim and everyone was fighting for them.

"The best bet was to have [a] stable income, to have the hours constantly and a full week of hours which I knew I was getting that paycheck and I wasn't going to sit there and beg for shifts and not get them. So that's why I ended up going to Walmart and kind of dropping the restaurant industry," Salm says.

Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association's Geoff Luebkemann says demand at restaurants started picking back up in late February of this year. The problem went from workers fighting for shifts to not enough workers now to fill them.

"Unfortunately, the labor pool is such that we are unable to fill the positions that we have open, and that's across all positions: Hourlies, front of the house, back of the house, and food. All positions in lodging and management positions as well," Luebkemann says.

Luebkemann says that's making it difficult for businesses to meet the rising demand as people become more comfortable going out.

"If you're operating on 20% or 30% of the staff that you're usually operating with, those people are working insane hours just to keep the business going, and in order to give those folks a breather and some time off, many businesses, especially in food, are choosing to close one or two days a week that they would normally be operating because the business demand is there, but their staff is simply exhausted," Luebkemann says.

Luebkemann says there are many reasons for the labor shortage. But one factor he's hearing from business owners is that they can't compete with unemployment benefits, which the federal government boosted because of the pandemic.

"The state component of unemployment benefits is $275 a week, and there's currently an enhanced federal component to that, which is an additional $300 per week. On a 40-hour week, that averages to just under $14.50 an hour. So, in a smaller labor market like Tallahassee where line cooks might be paid $12 and $13 and $14 an hour, mathematically, they come out better staying at home and collecting unemployment," Luebkemann says.

But for many former workers, the problem isn't that restaurants can't compete with the unemployment benefits. It's that those former workers have found other jobs that often pay more or better fit their needs. That's the case for Zyaire Brooks. At the beginning of the pandemic, she was working at a Tallahassee McDonald's while pregnant with her second child.

"I had to work almost every holiday, and I understand that I signed up for that, but I have kids, and I would request off ahead of time, but even on those days off, I just didn't want to be there anymore," Brooks says.

Brooks says a big reason she left was the pay. At McDonald's, she was making $8.60 an hour. Now, as an office assistant, she makes $13 an hour and gets to spend more time with her kids.

Bonita Violette is a former restaurant worker in Tallahassee. She left her job during the pandemic to look for freelance work. She says she's frustrated by how the restaurant industry as a whole treats its workers and says that's also a reason for the labor shortage.

"I think that it is not sustainable to build an industry with no support for your workers. There's no health insurance. There's no benefits. There's no guarantee of how much money you're going to go home with at the end of the day for a lot of people," Violette says.

Luebkemann says hospitality jobs are often characterized as being low wage.

"And that may be true for entry-level jobs, but we're an industry of limitless opportunity. There're very few industries that you can start as an hourly employee, and if you're willing to put in the work and learn the skills, you can be an owner, you can be a franchisee," Luebkemann says.

Luebkemann says the current hiring crunch can spur big opportunities for those willing to work in foodservice and lodging.

Florida Jobless Rate Increased to 4.8% in April

Florida’s unemployment rate inched up to 4.8% in April as the state reported people slowly returning to the labor force after more than a year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Friday the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity reported the April rate was up from 4.7% in March. The current unemployment numbers are a vast improvement from a year ago, when unemployment spiked to 14%, as the pandemic forced businesses to shut down or dramatically scale back.

An estimated 487,000 Floridians were reported as jobless last month, out of a workforce of 10.24 million.

“While the unemployment rate has remained pretty level, what we are seeing is that the labor force is increasing over the month. That is a positive sign,” said DEO chief economist Adrienne Johnston.

Still, the return of workers to the leisure and hospitality sectors continues to be at a slower pace than in some other industries. In an effort to get more workers back on the job, starting June 1, the state will once again require new unemployment applicants to follow a “work search” rule that requires unemployment claimants to apply for at least five jobs a week.

The state suspended the work search requirement last year because of the pandemic.

Lee Health Hosts Vaccine Town Hall

Lee Health, together with the Healthcare Network Foundation and NCH Healthcare Systems, hosted a town hall today to answer questions about COVID-19 vaccinations. The panel featured physicians and nurses from all three entities, who helped clear up questions.

Many people wondered whether people who have had COVID or tested positive for antibodies still need to get the vaccine, and Dr. Larry Antonucci, President and CEO of Lee Health, answered.

"The evidence has shown that the vaccine is still recommended after you’ve had COVID. Because we don’t know how long the antibody response lasts after active disease. So, for that reason, after a certain period, it’s recommended that you do get the vaccine," said Antonucci.

The panel answered questions for nearly an hour. The video of the Town Hall is available on Lee Health’s website orFacebook page.

Lee/Collier School Districts Maintain Mask Mandate Through Current School Year

Lee County School District officials will continue requiring students to wear masks through the end of the school year. Summer school and next fall, mask wearing will be voluntary.

In Collier County schools, masks are also required through the end of the current school year, but for summer school, a resolution will be presented to the school board recommending voluntary mask wearing.

Dr. Anthony Fauci Gives A Pandemic Update Via Florida Conference…And It Involves Fourth Of July

Dr. Anthony Fauci gave an update about the pandemic during an online discussion, hosted by Florida International University.

Fauci is the chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden on COVID-19.

He said only smallpox has been completely eradicated because of vaccinations.

The moderator asked Fauci what it would take to control this coronavirus, since it won’t likely be eradicated.

“Vaccination, vaccination and vaccination. That’s it. I mean, it really is as simple as that. We have been fortunate enough that we have a highly, highly effective series of vaccines, not just one.”

He said the US is aiming to have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in 70 percent of its adult population by July 4th.

Norwegian Cruise Lines Resumes Cruises Except In Florida

Norwegian Cruise lines is doing business as usual everywhere except in Florida

The world's third-largest cruise line announced Monday that it will resume voyages from ports on the West Coast, Central America and the Caribbean starting in August.

Norwegian Cruise lines said all workers and passengers onboard must first be vaccinated. Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill banning businesses from requiring proof of vaccination.

The bill makes it harder for cruises to set sail from Florida. The federal government requires that 98% of its crew and 95% of its passengers be vaccinated before setting sail.

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.

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.
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.
Tom Urban is the Assignment Manager for .
Verónica Zaragovia