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COVID-19 Morning Update

Florida Department of Health

The number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Florida increased by more than 800, Tuesday, for a total of 27,869 cases.  According to the latest update from the Florida Department of Health, the total number of COVID-19-related deaths in the state increased by 44 in the past day for a total of 867 fatalities.

Statewide the number of hospitalizations now stands at 4,226, including people who have recovered and been released. Of the more than 284,000 coronavirus tests that have been conducted so far, 9.8% have come back positive.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said the state should look at risk factors as it starts to reopen for business, and not just what is considered essential. The AP reports, DeSantis made his remarks, Tuesday, to a task force discussing how to reopen the state. The governor said he wants recommendations for the first phase of that plan by the end of the week. He said that however the state moves forward, testing for the virus and antibody tests will need to be expanded.

DeSantis’s Re-Open Florida task force held its second day of meetings, Tuesday. The discussion included bringing forth some ideas on when and how to re-open the state’s economy.

The task force holds meetings are in two groups : A work group meeting in the morning focused on particular industries, and an executive committee including state leadership meeting in the afternoon. Tuesday morning’s work group talked about tourism, recreation, retail and other economic sectors. CEO of The Restaurant People, Tim Petrillo, was on the call. His company owns 25 restaurants in Florida.

“The restaurants that same to be making out the best, and the best is a low barrier, is the quick service and fast food restaurants because their model is built on that,” said Petrillo. “A lot of restaurants are opened for ‘to go’ but that really isn’t doing much for the business itself.”

Petrillo said the typical restaurant has about one month of reserves in the bank. He noted that federal Paycheck Protection Program loans are nice, but they're for employee pay and don't help beef up those reserves. Petrillo told the group that what would be helpful now would be a clear idea of a date restaurants can re-open. That date, so far, has not come down from the Governor’s office.

It’s been more than a month since Florida closed restaurants and bars and the state is still grappling with a broken unemployment system. The system hasn’t been able to handle the surge in claims. The state has added more people to man the phones, and created a paper-application process, but only about 6% of claims have been processed. On Tuesday, DeSantis said the system was faulty to begin with.

“The fact that the state paid $77 million for this thing, I mean, it’s a jalopy,” said DeSantis. “So we’ve got a lot of great talent in there working on fixing it, but you also have the situation where it’s not just the state.  You have federal databases that are being pinged, and guess what?  Those are being stressed too. It’s very slow.”

DeSantis said later this week he will have a presentation on what the state is doing to fix the unemployment system.

State officials say they're still working to set up a new system that will allow gig workers and other independent contractors to collect $600 federal unemployment checks.  So-called self-employed gig workers make up about a fifth of Florida's workforce, but such workers are ineligible for unemployment benefits from the state.

Florida hospital and physician groups are asking Gov. DeSantis to allow them to restart urgent and elective surgeries. DeSantis suspended the practices via executive order to preserve medical supplies.  The physicians say that need has passed as the rate of new infections is slowing. DeSantis said he’s considering lifting his executive order:

“That absolutely has to happen. I can’t tell you when it’s going to happen, but it’s something I’m committed to getting done,” said DeSantis.

In its letter to DeSantis the Florida Medical Association said thousands of people have seen postponements in their treatments for kidney failure, heart disease and cancer because of the executive order. The organization warns a second crisis is brewing: More emergencies and deaths from people who’ve gone untreated or had their treatments delayed.

Small business owners across Florida are applying for assistance to deal with closures and layoffs related to the coronavirus. Some are growing frustrated as state and federal emergency assistance funds have run out of money.

President of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Orlando, Gaby Ortigoni, said she spent weeks helping members apply for loans. She said some smaller companies feel bigger businesses are having better luck. “People really need to be prepared,” said Ortigoni.

“When it comes to filling out the paperwork, they cannot wait until the bank calls  them back to then start putting all the documents together because that extra day, extra hour, extra week that they’re taking is going to cost them.”

Last week, just 1,000 Florida companies received emergency "bridge" loans from the state after 37,000 applications were filed. The federal Paycheck Protection Program allocated nearly $350 billion nationwide before running out of money.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate, Tuesday, approved $484 billion stimulus package. The House is set to vote on the measure, Thursday, and President Donald Trump has indicated he would sign it.  Under the proposal, more than $320 billion would become available for small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program with $60 billion being specifically allocated for community-based lenders and small banks and credit unions.

Floridians have received more than $240,000 in refunds from businesses, related to products that had seen their prices inflated due to the coronavirus pandemic. Florida’s price gouging hotline has received 3,350 contacts about the price of essential goods, and more than 4,500 merchants have been contacted about allegations.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody activated the state price-gouging hotline in March, after Gov. DeSantis declared a State of Emergency.

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.

Moody encourages consumers should continue to report issues when they see them. “We’re responding in real time to complaints of price gouging or scams, making sure we’re getting price adjustments, taking posts down, getting refunds for Floridians,” said Moody. “We’re also making sure we’re furthering those investigations by issuing preservation letters, subpoenas. So that work will continue.”

Additionally, 185 posts have been taken down from online sales platforms, where items were listed with extreme price hikes. Those who violate Florida’s price gouging law face penalties of $1,000 per violation tapping out at $25,000 per day.

Charlotte County officials announced plans, Tuesday, to reopen some beaches and parks. On Facebook, the county announced that Englewood Beach and Port Charlotte beach will reopen without restrictions on Monday.

The Herald Tribune reports parking will be free, but restrooms will remain closed. Sports fields and dog parks in the county are set to reopen Friday, but pickleball, tennis and basketball courts will stay closed.  Recreation centers will also remain closed.

Amid the re-openings, county officials are advising residents to continue practicing the CDC's social distancing guidelines. They're also planning to speak with county officials in Lee and Sarasota about their plans.  Lee County Commissioners, Tuesday, decided to keep beaches closed.  Sarasota county commissioners are slated to take up the issue of reopening beaches today, April 22.

Local officials in St. Augustine and Jacksonville reopened beaches last week.

Lee County officials are re-opening hiking trails, today/Wednesday, in nearly all county parks as well as hiking trails on Conservation 20/20 land.  The News-Press reports Lee County Commissioners approved the reopening on the recommendation of county manager Roger Desjarlais.

At this time Lakes Park in South Fort Myers will remain closed. The reopening only applies to walking and hiking trails. Other amenities at county parks like playgrounds and pavilions remain closed.

Lee County Commission chairman Brian Hamman is on the governor's "Re-Open Florida Task Force," which began meeting this week.

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.