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COVID-19 Morning Update

Florida Department of Health

The Florida Department of Health reported 563 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus, Wednesday, bringing the statewide total number of cases to 38,002.  State health officials reported 68 new COVID-19-related deaths, yesterday, bringing Florida’s death toll to 1,539 fatalities includes 563 deaths in long-term care facilities.

The number of hospitalizations due to the coronavirus in Florida now stands at 6,557 patients including people who have died, those currently receiving treatment and those who have recovered and been released.

Of the 482,005 tests that have been performed in the state so far, 7.9% have been positive for the virus.

Hundreds of thousands laid-off workers who can’t get their unemployment money from the state of Florida got more bad news Wednesday. A state judge says she had no authority to order the immediate payment of jobless claims.

As agonizing delays dragged on week after week with Florida’s overwhelmed re-employment assistance web site, some workers sued the state. They want a judge to force the state to immediately pay benefits. But after a 90-minute telephone hearing in Tallahassee, they got no relief. Because of the controversy surrounding Florida's broken benefits program, Wednesday’s hearing attracted an overwhelming amount of news media interest ... so much that it took nearly 10 minutes for all media outlets to identify themselves.

After hearing arguments, Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey dismissed a lawsuit that sought a writ of mandamus. That’s typically sought in cases in which the government fails to perform a duty it is legally required to perform. Tallahassee lawyer Steve Andrews is one of the attorneys for the workers.

“This isn’t like putting a man on the moon, this is like using a program that’s obsolete. So, you certainly have the right to issue an order, taking over the payment process and directing either DOE to hire a competent person to process these claims, or you find a competent company to process these claims,” said Tallahassee lawyer Steve Andrews.

Attorneys for the state cited numerous steps Governor Ron DeSantis has taken to speed up payment of benefits. One of the lawyers defending the state’s track record is James Uthmeier.

“State employees by the thousands are working around the clock 12,14-plus hour days to try to help Floridians. We know people are struggling out there. This unpredictable event, the coronavirus and its related implications, has really hurt people. We understand. The governor has taken numerous steps to try to help people,” he said.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys were infuriated with the state’s position that the current conditions are not an emergency. And they were dealt a further blow when Judge Dempsey didn’t rule in their favor.

“I just don’t have authority to rewrite the statue or create a whole new pay and chase system as the plaintiffs are suggesting,” said the judge.

Wednesday’s hearing was mostly procedural, with very little detailed discussion of the difficulties workers are facing. The attorneys for the workers said they plan to immediately appeal Dempsey’s decision to the District Court of Appeal.

Florida is launching its first mobile testing lab for COVID-19. During a Wednesday morning news conference in South Florida Gov. DeSantis said the mobile lab will give back results in about 45 minutes.

“It takes 24-48 hours at least to get those results when you’re sending it to a private lab,” said DeSantis. “Now with this, you’re going to be able go to long-term care facilities, get results back almost immediately and then be able to, if there is a case, isolate the worker, isolate the resident appropriately.”

The mobile lab will tell people whether they’re positive or negative for COVID-19. It does not test for antibodies, which show a previous infection of the virus.

The governor has said testing capacity plays a key role in the state's reopening efforts. DeSantis said state officials are looking to new ways to expand testing for the coronavirus, such as allowing tests at pharmacies and randomly checking blood donations for COVID-19 antibodies

With the start of Hurricane season less than a month away, Florida Director of Emergency Management Jared Moskowitz says officials are looking into what a storm response might look like in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. He says one thing to consider is how shelters will operate if people need to evacuate for a hurricane.

“Temperature checks, sheltering people, or perhaps we go away from that completely and go non-congregate sheltering in hotels,” said Moskowitz.

“We’ve been talking to FEMA about that almost daily about that planning. They’ve been a real partner in that making sure that obviously we’re looking at all our standard operating procedures. We have a lot of experience here in Florida, especially in the last four years, but how do we change that? How do we modify it to take into account COVID-19 and the challenges that poses especially if we have an earlier storm in the June and July season?”

Moskowitz said the state is also holding some medical masks and other personal protective equipment in reserve for use specifically during hurricane season.

At both the state and federal level, lawmakers are hearing from business-owning constituents who want protection from potential COVID-19-related lawsuits. U.S. Representative Charlie Crist, (D-St. Petersburg) is the latest Florida politician to address the issue.

Ibrahim Moussa, the owner of Clearwater restaurant Abe’s Place Tap & Grill, told Crist he has employees still afraid to come to work. He’s worried, as the economy reopens, lawsuits could come from people claiming they got sick at his establishment.

“We are not asking for immunity, but some sort of a safe harbor when we open, if we do our job, and do it to the best of our ability,” Moussa said.

Moussa was on a conference call hosted by Crist Wednesday, to share concerns from the hospitality industry. Crist is lawyer who formerly served as Florida’s attorney general.

“This is termed, in a legal sense, an act of God. So, it’s hard to hold any particular business (accountable) – not that people don’t try, we have a litigious society,” Crist told Moussa.

Crist expects coming legislation from Washington will include some sort of protection for business owners who do their part to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“I think additionally, in the legislation, previous and going forward, some kind of legitimate immunity would be included,” he added.

Crist’s legislative director, Chris Fisher, pointed out in order to protect them, state and federal health safety guidelines for businesses will be paramount – but those don’t yet exist.

Republicans in Congress have reportedlyprioritized protections for businesses as part of a next stimulus package, while Democrats have bristled at the idea.

At the state level, Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) saidin April he’s preparing a bill that would protect Florida businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits.

Other states, including Alabama and Utah, have recently considered legislation that would do the same.

Nonprofits in Immokalee have been working collaboratively to bring resources to the community during the pandemic. Because distance learning will remain in effect for the rest of the school year, efforts are being made to collect school supplies for families in need.

Frank Rincon of the Benison Center, said distance learning has been challenging for a lot of kids in Immokalee because many of them live without basic comforts like air conditioning.

“To be in structures where there is no air conditioning, where you have quite a few people living in that structure, there’s a lot of distractions,” Rincon said.  

The Benison Center works with other Immokalee based agencies to identify needs and bring resources to the community. 

“In talking to several of the agencies that work with children here in the community, school supplies are one of the biggest needs that we have seen come to the surface,” Rincon said.

Rincon said the Benison Center has some supplies, but nowhere near enough to be able to accommodate the approximately 8,000 school aged kids in Immokalee. 

“Sharpeners, scissors, erasers, markers—anything and everything that children use on a regular basis that’s what we’re needing here in the community,” Rincon said.

The Benison Center is accepting donations for school supplies and hopes to be able to start distributing school supply kits by the end of the month.

Lee County School District officials have announced plans to hold traditional in-person graduation ceremonies in late July for the district's roughly 5,800 graduating seniors.

Plans were announced in a message sent to parents Tuesday night.  The ceremonies are set to take place at Hertz Arena in Estero and at Suncoast Credit Union Arena at Florida Southwestern State College in Fort Myers between July 17 and July 26.

Initial graduation ceremonies were planned for Memorial Day weekend before the coronavirus pandemic forced schools into the current distance learning model.

District officials say the July ceremonies will only go forward if permitted by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.  Lee County Schools also plan to hold virtual graduation events June 19-21 via YouTube.

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.
Steve Bousquet has covered state government and politics for three decades at the Sun Sentinel, Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald. He was the Times' Tallahassee bureau chief from 2005 to 2018 and has also covered city and county politics in Broward County. He has a master's degree in U.S. history from Florida State.
Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.