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COVID-19 Morning Update

Florida Department of Health

State health officials reported 542 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus, Tuesday, for a statewide total now of 37,439 cases.  The latest update from the Florida Department of Health includes 72 new COVID-19-related deaths, for a total of 1,471 fatalities, including 534 deaths in long-term care facilities.

The number of hospitalizations in Florida due to the coronavirus now stands at 6,330 patients.

The overall rate of positive tests continues to decline.  Of the 466,288 tests that have been performed in Florida so far, 7.9% of tests have come back positive for the virus.

In Southwest Florida, Lee County continues to have the highest number of cases with 1,160 confirmed cases and 49 deaths.  Manatee County continues to have the highest number of deaths with 61 fatalities out of 684 confirmed cases. In Collier County state health officials report 656 cases and 25 deaths.  In Sarasota there have been 395 cases and 48 deaths. Charlotte County has seen 269 cases and 26 deaths.  There have been 115 cases in Hendry County and five deaths and there have been six cases and one death in Glades County.

Gov. Ron DeSantis is ordering an investigation into the state’s unemployment system, which is operated by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

As unemployment in the state has skyrocketed because of COVID-19-related business closures, the online system dubbed CONNECT hasn't been able to keep up with users trying to file claims.

System crashes became commonplace, leaving users frustrated. Now, DeSantis wants to know why Florida's previous governor and current U.S. Sen. Rick Scott’s (R-Naples) administration spent about $78 million on the system.

“To pay that much money, and then all the problems we’ve had to deal with – it’s a problem,” said DeSantis. “So I am going to be directing the inspector general to do an investigation into how the CONNECT system was paid for, the different amendments to the contract.”

According to DeSantis there were 14 different amendments to the contract. The system, which was contracted for in 2011, had issues even at the time of its launch.

The U.S. House of Representatives will soon unveil a new coronavirus relief package. U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, (D-Tampa,) says the bill is likely to include another round of direct cash payments to Americans.

Many Americans have already received $1,200 deposits from an earlier round of coronavirus assistance. However, people are still struggling, which is why U.S. Rep. Castor says the House is likely to include another direct payment to individuals, along with funding for states, for first responders and for coronavirus testing.

“There will probably be another cash assistance payment. That has been a lifeline, especially while the state of Florida’s unemployment system has really turned into a debacle and left people in the lurch on that,” said Castor.

She also said the Democratic majority in the House is unlikely to give in to demands by the Republican leader of the Senate that any new coronavirus aid bill must shield employers from lawsuits by returning employees.

The U.S Small Business Administration (SBA) will be accepting new applications for the economic injury disaster loan program on a limited basis. During this round, the application portal will only be available to agriculture businesses. That can include farmers that grow food or create fiber as well as those who are ranchers or raise livestock.

"For more than 30 years, SBA has been prohibited by law from providing disaster assistance to agricultural businesses. However, as a result of the unprecedented legislation enacted by President Trump, American farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural businesses will now have access to emergency working capital," said SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is encouraging farmers to apply immediately. Another federal program, the Paycheck Protection Program, ran out of funds in less than 14 days during its first round.

On Monday, restaurants in all but three South Florida counties were allowed to welcome diners back into their restaurants at 25% occupancy indoors, and outdoors at widely spaced seating, to ensure social distancing.

Many tables were occupied late in the afternoon along Naples's dining thoroughfares, Fifth Avenue and Third Street South. It's the first day restaurants have been allowed to give guests more than carry out and curbside pick-up since mid- March, and it’s the first, small step towards normalcy after the Coronavirus shut-down to stop the spread of the disease. 

“We’ve seen a 75% drop in hotel revenues, and the restaurant industry has been completely shut down.  It’s certainly unprecedented,” said Michael Collins, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the FGCU School of Resort & Hospitality Management. 

“The industry is only going to rebound as quickly as people are willing to get out of their home. So If you feel that you can get out of your home safely, if you feel you’re not at risk- go out and order dinner from your favorite restaurant,” he said. 

At Founder’s Market and Bistro, the shutdown came just weeks after a successful opening. “Our grand opening was February 21st,” said Executive Chef and co-owner Don Splain. He was celebrating his restaurants’ selection to be featured in an article in the national magazine Bon Appetit.

Then, just a few weeks later, all restaurants in Florida were shut down by Executive Order. 

“I literally had three people who came in, moved from out of state to work here, They were supposed to start March 19th,” Splain said. The shutdown startedMarch 20th.

So, the Founder’s Bistro had to wait for a limited opening this week, a month and a half later. Splain said he plans to pick up right where they left off, building on the successful, yet stuttering start. 

“Within the three weeks that we were open, the feedback we were getting was so positive,” Splain said.

Despite the setback, he still plans to open a market next door where people can take the products featured at the restaurant home with them, to the beach or to their next dinner party.

Gov. DeSantis said Tuesday that supply delays impacted the state's response to the coronavirus pandemic. Speaking at a new COVID-19 testing site on the Manatee-Sarasota County line, DeSantis said Florida's ability to secure personal protective equipment and testing kits was inhibited by global pressures on the supply chain. He specifically directed his criticism at China.

"All this stuff should be made in the United States not made in China. We don't want our health destiny to be resting in the hands of a communist dictatorship,” said DeSantis.

“Certainly in Florida we would welcome any of the manufacturing. Come to Florida, we got a good business environment we would love to have you here."

DeSantis also said the state will unveil its new mobile testing unit today, May 6. It's an R-V equipped with a lab that will conduct rapid testing of COVID-19.

The plan is to first deploy the unit to the state's nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

Gov. DeSantis says the state plans to roll out antibody testing for COVID-19. During a news conference, Tuesday, he said the tests could be an indication of immunity. 

“If you're a health care worker and you have the antibodies, then obviously you have immunity. We don't know how long that immunity is. Some people think six months, two years. I think eventually we'll find out,” said DeSantis.

Last month, Dr. Anthony Fauci told the Associated Press that doctors don’t yet know the concentration of antibodies needed for immunity. They also don’t know how long immunity would last.

“I know people are anxious to say, well, we'll give you a passport that says, ‘You're antibody positive. You can go to work and you're protected.’ The worst possibility that would happen is if we're actually wrong about that,” said Dr. Fauci.

The University of Miami is conducting antibody tests to check for the infection rate in Miami-Dade County. They say it’s not clear if antibodies provide COVID-19 immunity.

DeSantis’ office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday evening.

While Florida businesses have started reopening this week, the same isn’t true for the state’s public university system. The system’s governing board has set up its own task force to figure out how to reopen universities safely in the fall.

“Knowing that there are 12 distinctive universities within our system,” said Chairman of the Florida Board of Governors Syd Kitson. “I believe under the constraints of the existing pandemic, a university plan to reopen will need to be deliberate, thoughtful, and with a clear, specific path.”

Both Florida A&M University and Florida State University have floated testing students for COVID-19. In mid-March the schools closed, sending tens of thousands of students home and moved nearly 50,000 classes online. Students are receiving partial refunds for cancelled housing and meal plans. But a recently filed lawsuit against the board of governors calls on schools to refund course fees as well. The lead plaintiff is a University of Florida student.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, no jury trials will proceed in Florida until at least July second.  Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady issued an order Monday that also requires other types of hearing and court business to be conducted remotely for now including non-jury trials as long as all parties agree, some arraignments, status and motion hearings and pretrial conferences.

State officials are considering plans for how to prepare for hurricane season as the coronavirus outbreak lingers.  June 1 marks the official start of the Atlantic Storm Season.  The peak for storm activity typically lasts from late August through September.  The AP reports, on Tuesday, Governor Ron DeSantis said COVID-19 will be around in some form and that the state needs to rethink how to provide shelter for evacuees without spreading the virus.

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.
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.