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COVID-19 Morning Update

Florida Department of Health

Tuesday marked a single-day increase of 72 coronavirus-related deaths in Florida bringing the state-wide death toll to 571 fatalities including the 19th death reported Tuesday night in Lee County and four more deaths in the Sarasota-Manatee County region.

The News-Press reports, over the seven-day period between April 7 and April 14 Florida's number of reported COVID-19-related deaths jumped by nearly 93 percent.  According to the Florida Department of Health's latest update, 21,628 people in the state have tested positive for the virus.

The number of hospitalizations has now grown to 3,050, although that number includes people who have been treated and released.  The state health department so far has not released data on how many people have recovered.

Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, M.D., is recommending that people practice safe social distancing until a vaccine for COVID-19 is in place. That could take a year.  Dean of the University of South Florida College of Public Health, Donna Petersen, said Dr. Rivkees is making an important point that eradicating coronavirus won't be simple.  While she says she can't predict how long social distancing will be needed in Florida, she believes there are several factors that need to be met first.

“Until we have testing available, ideally a vaccine, and a low rate of transmission, maintaining that social distancing is going to be absolutely critical to making sure we don’t have a resurgence of the virus,” said Petersen.

Petersen spoke Tuesday on “The State We're In,” a weekly Facebook Live show from WUSF in Tampa and WMFE in Orlando.

Florida's statewide teachers' union is calling on Gov. Ron DeSantis to keep school campuses closed through the end of the school year.  Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram argues the ongoing coronavirus outbreak "presents a threat we cannot control.”  The FEA sent a letter to DeSantis, Tuesday, saying that teachers have risen to the challenge of conducting classes virtually and that there's no reason to reopen schools until the virus is controlled.

Last week, DeSantis said he was considering reopening schools in May, but has since backed off, saying Tuesday that schools won't reopen until it's safe.

When the U.S. Small Business Administration opened its paycheck protection program only certain banks could accept applications because they needed to be an approved SBA lender. Now Florida Bankers Association President and CEO Alex Sanchez says nearly all banks in Florida are approved. He’s urging small businesses to sign up as soon as they can. “If you are eligible to apply for a small business administration PPP loan, do it today.  Don’t wait.  Do it now,” said Sanchez.  The Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, is meant to give money to business owners so they can pay their employees instead of laying them off.

The Florida Department of Education is sending out more than 32,000 laptops to school districts to help students with distance learning. About a third of the devices are coming to schools in Florida’s panhandle. In Liberty County, more than 70% of the district’s students will get state-purchased computers.

The laptops are going to 32 small and rural school districts. Ten North Florida counties are getting 10,000 of the devices. According to data from the Panhandle Area Education Consortium. Jackson is getting 2,000 systems, Wakulla 1,500.  Liberty, Gulf and Gadsden Counties are receiving 1,000 each. Getting the computers is only one part of the equation. For Liberty County Schools, the other part is ensuring students have internet access.

“In most counties, your phone company provides the internet access, but In Liberty County I’m past the end of their line and they don’t send internet to me. So, I get internet from my dish service," explained Liberty Superintendent David Summers.

In terms of land area, Liberty is a large county but its sparsely populated and only has about 1,300 students. While Leon County Schools saw 94% of its students log on in the first week of distance learning, less than half of Liberty County students have been able to do the same so far.

“The problem is, the majority of us, including me, are at the low end of internet service and there’s a problem of losing connections and not being able to sustain a communication line…and that’s common across the county," Summers said.

The district hasn’t yet received its laptops and hotspots from the state, but they are on the way which will boost the district’s ability to fully go digital. Liberty is also applying for a grant to purchase cradle points. These devices would be sent out on school buses to varying parts of the county, creating a giant Wi-Fi system for students without internet to access.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody announced Tuesday that 65 subpoenas have been issued in investigations into price gouging on high-demand items amid the COVID-19 pandemic.  No details were available about the locations of the investigations.  Moody said the information was largely based on hundreds of tips provided by consumers.

The Attorney General’s office has contacted merchants about allegations of price gouging and gotten online platforms to deactivate more than 160 posts offering items at inflated prices.  “In most cases, people and businesses are working with our offices and trying to remedy the situation,” said Moody.  “But as you know, we’ve already issued numerous subpoenas.  We will continue to do so, so that we can further or investigations.”

Moody activated the state price-gouging hotline on March 10th, after Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency because of the spread of the respiratory disease.

Items covered by Florida’s price-gouging law under the state of emergency include protective masks, sanitizing and disinfecting supplies, commercial cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment and COVID-19 test kits.  The hotline number is 1-866-966-7226.

The Florida Supreme Court plans to hear arguments on cases in May via videoconferencing, due to the coronavirus outbreak.  In a news release, Tuesday, the state's highest court said it will be the first time in its history to hold arguments remotely.  The AP reports, cases on the docket include issuing an advisory opinion on whether a proposed constitutional amendment legalizing recreational marijuana can appear on the ballot in 2022.  The arguments will be broadcast live through the court's website and Facebook page.

Today (April 15th) would normally mark the deadline for filing last year's federal income taxes, but there is still plenty of time to get them done.  The income tax filing and payment deadline for all taxpayers has been extended until July 15, 2020. This applies to all individual returns, trusts, and corporations. The extension is automatic.  Taxpayers do not need to file any additional forms or call the IRS to qualify.

The extension also includes estimated tax payments for tax year 2020 that had been due April 15. Penalties and interest will begin to accrue on any remaining unpaid balances as of July 16, 2020.  There is no state income tax in Florida.

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.