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Jeff Vasilinda becomes the Vasilinda Family’s first published author!

EOC Shuts Down After Infections

July 17th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The state’s command post for dealing with the COVID crisis, hurricanes, and other emergencies has been temporarily shut down for cleaning after a bi-weekly test of staff showed positive results.

Director Jared Moskowitz said all operations are either being handled in the adjacent office building or virtually.

“In the last three tests, which would be a Monday, a Thursday, and then a Monday, we had 12 people test positive over that week and a half period. Actually, we retested those folks again, and five of them popped negative, but in an abundance of caution, we decided that to just close the floor of the EOC for a few days and to do a deep cleaning,” said Moskowitz.

The center is at its highest elevation, operating twenty four hours a day, seven days a week.

It is expected to reopen Monday.

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State Hopes to Speed COVID Test Results and Improve Reporting

July 16th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida is looking to get COVID-19 test results faster and ensure labs are properly reporting results.

It’s not uncommon for people to wait a week or more to find out if they’ve tested negative and if they do, some labs have been failing to report those negative results to the state.

Sophia Caballero got tested for COVID-19 after riding in a car with a friend who tested positive.

“They told me within two to seven days I would get my results and so I just kept checking and checking and I got my results the very last day,” said Caballero.

Thankfully, she tested negative.

But that extended wait time isn’t just an annoyance for those being tested, it also muddies daily case numbers.

“Because if I get results today and I see a case, that’s somebody who very well may have been infected two weeks ago at this point,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

The Governor plans to send more tests to labs that prove they can return results quickly.

“Those who can produce are going to get more of the business,” said DeSantis.

He also said special lanes will be available at major testing sites for those showing symptoms.

“And so this way you’re getting your results back, we hope within 72 hours instead of seven days,” said DeSantis.

Speeding up turn around times will help paint a better picture of what’s going on in real time.

The state is also working to improve the accuracy of its positivity rates.

Hundreds of labs were found to not be reporting negative results.

“I don’t think they were trying to be underhanded, those labs. I think that’s kind of what they were doing before this started and so that was identified and I know they’re going to start doing the negatives as well,” said DeSantis.

It’s not clear how many tests are missing, but in order to lower the overall positivity rate by even 1 percent, we calculated it would take about 400,000 additional negative results.

DOH is working to collect the missing test results.

It sent an email to labs Tuesday clarifying the need to report both positive and negative results.

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Parents to Choose School Options

July 16th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Governor Ron DeSantis is pushing forward with his plan to reopen all schools to students next month as an essential way to help people get back to work.

But the Governor is also firm on letting parents have the final say on which students go back into the classroom.

The first day of school has always looked different from one county to the next.

“The fate of Miami-Dade County does not rest on the fate of what Dixie County does. That’s just a reality,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

DeSantis said that won’t change under the order for schools to open.

“Obviously, we wish this thing would go away. That’s not how these things work,” said DeSantis.

In the end, DeSantis said the decisions on what COVID preventions will look like will be up to local boards and superintendents.

“You know, parents need to have the ability to opt for the type of learning they think is important, so if they are more comfortable in a distance learning environment, then they obviously need to have that choice,” said DeSantis.

And the Governor said there will not be wholesale testing of students on the first day or any other day of school unless someone is showing symptoms.

But Florida teachers fear the push to reopen schools is premature.

“There is a mix of high angst and there’s a mix of anger and disappointment. Our schools are not ready to open, not in in person teaching,” said Hedrick Ingram, President of the Florida Education Association.

And questions yet unanswered include what happens if someone tests positive.

“Do we shut down a school? Do we have a fourteen day quarantine of a school? Do we shut down a particular class or classes that are close to that? There are so many unanswered questions right now that I think we need to hit the pause button,” said Ingram.

While questions remain, the Governor expects the details to be worked out between local school districts and local health departments, which will have the final say on whether a school should stay open or close.

State Senator Linda Stewart of Orlando Thursday told the Governor no district should be forced into opening while the Governor relies on local officials to enact mask orders, saying each district should make a decision on the trending of new cases in the area.

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Questions Remain Over Labs Reporting 100 Percent Positive Cases

July 15th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida crossed the 300,000 mark for cases Wednesday and the overall positivity rate since the start of the pandemic has reached 11 percent.

But scrutiny over reported data is causing some to question how accurate that positivity rate truly is, with more than 450 labs reporting 100 percent positivity in the state’s latest report.

The Department of Health has in part blamed the missing data on private labs failing to report negative results.

“In recent days, the Florida Department of Health noticed that some smaller, private labs weren’t reporting negative test result data to the state. The Department immediately began working with those labs to ensure that all results were being reported in order to provide comprehensive and transparent data,” a department spokesperson said in a written statement. “As the state continues to receive results from various labs, the Department will continue educating these labs on proper protocol for reporting COVID-19 test results.”

We obtained an email sent to a private lab by the Department of Health at 6 PM Tuesday, clarifying that negative test results do need to be reported.

We spoke with the private lab, which asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation from the department.

The lab told us previous to that email it had only been asked to report positive cases.

We also spoke with a hospital, which again declined to provide an on camera interview.

The hospital said it has routinely reported positive and negative cases, but has experienced ongoing issues with the spreadsheet.

Sometimes missing positive cases and now missing its negatives.

Of the more than 450 facilities with zero negative results, only 81 reported more than ten total tests.

In fact, the vast majority reported only a single test.

With the state reporting 3.3 million tests statewide, the lab and hospital we spoke with both agreed, even as they go back to clear up the reporting errors, they find it unlikely it will make any significant change to the overall positivity rate.

The Department of Health tells us it’s currently trying to obtain corrected data from the labs. The department is still assessing what if any impact the corrected data will have on the state’s overall positivity rate.

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As COVID Increases, So Does Unemployment

July 15th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

As the number of coronavirus cases continues to rise, so do the number of people applying for unemployment.

The system has made record payments, yet some are still not seeing a dime.

The state’s unemployment dashboard shows Florida crossed the three million claim mark and has paid out a whopping $10 billion since the middle of March.

About one in six claims filed is a duplicate, but the dashboard shows nearly 2.5 million unique Floridians have filed.

So far, 1.7 million have been paid.

For the first half of July, the state has been averaging 30,000 new cases a day.

“I’m very grateful to be back at work,” said Judy Tanzosh.

Tanzosh, who first filed in late March, went back to work and got her first paycheck before her first check came from the state.

She filed a second claim after the initial claim was denied.

“They eventually did approve my PUA claim, but they approved it with a date of June 14th, and so they paid me the $125 PUA and $600 Federal, and according to them I am paid in full,” said Tanzosh.

Judy believes she is still owed $9,400 in back benefits.

“I mean, people are losing their lives,” said Kathleen Payne.

Payne is in worse straights.

She was laid off March 22nd and hasn’t seen a dime, forcing her to drain part of her 401k.

“My cousin works for a lawyer. She’s gotten check after check after check. Why haven’t I received anything, or other people in my situation? How can that happen? How can that fall through the cracks,” said Payne.

So far, the state has spent more than half of its $4 billion unemployment trust fund.

And employers who have been forced to fire or lay people off can expect to pay as much as $350 an employee to replenish the reemployment trust fund.

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Appellate Court Mulls Penalties for Local Officials Who Violate Gun Preemption

July 14th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeals heard oral arguments Tuesday in a case that could decide whether the State Legislature has the ability to punish local officials who pass gun restrictions tighter than the state’s.

Local governments have been preempted on gun regulations since 1987, but in 2011 state lawmakers tagged on penalties for officials who violate the preemption.

Local elected officials could face fines as high as $5,000 and potential removal from office.

The law also provides that members of the public who successfully challenge local gun regulations are eligible for up to $100,000 in damages.

Local governments suing the state scored an early victory in a circuit court, with a judge striking down the penalties, but now the state is asking an appellate court to overturn that ruling.

“Local governments are not separate sovereigns. They are inferior arms of the state. They are subject to the state government,” said James Percival, Chief Deputy Solicitor General representing the state.

Local governments argued the penalties have a chilling effect, but the state said that’s exactly the point.

“The goal is to have local governments stay out of this area because there is preemption,” said Percival.

Judge Bradford L. Thomas had tough questions for the local governments.

“Is it your view that the local governments of the State of Florida are above the law?” asked Judge Thomas. 

“Of course not your honor,” responded Edward Guedes, the attorney representing local governments.

But gun regulation is the only preemption backed by penalties for local officials.

Local governments worry it could be a slippery slope.

“Today, it’s a fine. It’s a fine and a deprivation of your ability to obtain a public defense. Whatever the consequences may be. Tomorrow, a local official is jailed, for having in good conscience, voted for legislation. Merely voted for legislation,” said Guedes.

No matter how the judges rule, local governments will still be barred from passing tighter gun restrictions, but if the state loses, enforcing that preemption would be more difficult.

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Predator Danger Increases

July 13th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Parents are being warned that your children are at risk of being sexually exploited as they spend more time online during the pandemic.

Lauren’s Kids is urging parents audit what devices and apps their children are using.

The FBI warned parents early in the pandemic to pay more attention to what their kids are doing online.

A new report from the National Sexual Abuse hotline suggests more kids are calling.

“A predator will use and online platform like TikTok, Facebook, or Fortnite, these really popular platforms with children and teens to build a relationship, to build trust. And then they exploit that trust and all of a sudden, sudden there are some photos this predator will have of a child,” said Claire VanSusteren with Lauren’s Kids.

And while statistics on how many are being abused or exploited are hard to come by because kids have been cut off from friends and support groups, Lauren’s Kids is recommending that you do a digital audit of all your kids’ devices.

“Making sure that you turn off location targeting services. Making sure that if something has a chat feature, like Fortnite, that you deactivate that, or that you have conversations with your kids about what is, what are safe things to talk about, and what are things that are not safe. We never share personal information. We never share photos,” said Claire VanSusteren.

Statistics provided by Lauren’s Kids show that three out of four victims do not disclose their abuse for within the first year, and nearly half wait five years or longer.

And Laurens Kids recommends if your child does speak to you, you remain supportive, telling them you believe them and that they did the right thing coming to talk to you.

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Democrats Seek Stronger Pandemic Response Following Record Case Numbers

July 13th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida Democrats are calling for a drastic change in course in the state’s coronavirus response after breaking the national record for the most cases in a single day this weekend.

They blame the Governor for the spike in cases.

Florida Democrats are taking aim at the Governor in a new television spot accusing him of downplaying the pandemic.

In a virtual press conference Florida Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell said the state needs to drastically ramp up its response.

“The longer we wait, the more difficult it’s going to be to implement these steps,” said Mucarsel-Powell.

She and other Democrats are calling for more testing and contact tracing.

They also reiterated their call for a statewide mask order.

“If we don’t do the things and make the sacrifices and make the sacrifices now that we should have made months ago, we’re going to end up right back where we started,” said State Senator Oscar Braynon.

Democrats also speculated the Governor is secretly attempting to achieve heard immunity, although he has never made any such statement.

Dr. Aileen Marty, an epidemiologist at FIU joined Democrats on the call.

She said attempts at heard immunity in Sweden and Spain failed.

“We now know that most people who acquire it lose their immunity within a few months,” said Marty.

She also fears sending kids back to the classroom will only worsen the situation.

“You put children from different households in a normal brick and mortar school in a zone that has 25 percent positivity, you’re gonna have an increased transmission in the community,” said Marty.

And Democrats argued if the state doesn’t make changes it’s possible stay at home orders will once again be necessary.

The Governor has remained firm, he’s not reversing course.

We reached out to Governor Ron DeSantis’ office for a response to Democrats’ suggestion he is attempting to achieve heard immunity, but did not hear back in time for this story.

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Clerks of Court See Drastic Budget Shortfalls

July 13th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s Clerks of Court are laying off staff and reducing hours for other employees for the next three months.

Clerks are heavily funded by the revenue for traffic tickets, which fell by up to 75 percent in the first weeks of the pandemic and have now stabilized at about half of what would be considered normal.

Pinellas Clerk Ken Burke is a board member of the Clerk’s statewide association.

He said people can expect longer wait times for services.

“Be patient. Be patient. I think people recognize this is a different time because of the pandemic. I think people are understanding. They realize it only makes sense that when you eliminate twenty-five percent of your work force for a period of time, that things are going to happen slower. And so, work with us as much as possible,” said Burke.

The clerks’ budget cycle runs October-September, which means more cuts could be in store after October first.

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Schools Crucial to Unemployment

July 10th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida will see its three millionth unemployment application this weekend.

As of Friday morning there were 2,958,663 applications filed since March 15th, an more than 138,000 have been filed since July first.

As Disney prepares to open this weekend, its home county, Osceola, is showing the highest unemployment in the state at 37 percent.

It is still the number one problem Orlando State Representative Anna Eskamani is hearing from constituents.

“It’s like non stop to this moment. My phone…I had a Miami woman crying this morning. I mean, its just so bad, so bad,” said Eskamani.

During the first nine days of July, Florida saw over 172,000 unique unemployment claims.

Up to 29,000 are people who filed, went back to work, and are re-filing.

“Every week we’re finding large corporations furloughing or just plain laying off people,” said Orlando State Senator Linda Stewart.

Senator Stewart worries more furloughs will turn into layoffs.

“We’re not going to be able to get everybody back to business and doing what we would like to see, even if its half of what we were doing before until we get the virus under control,” said Stewart.

On Thursday, the Governor and US Labor Secretary made it clear that opening schools this fall isn’t just about learning gaps, but unemployment as well.

“We can’t just leave society sitting on the mat,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia hopes opening schools will give people a place to send their kids so they can go back to work.

“If we don’t get our schools open, it will be that much harder for working adult women who are facing a higher unemployment rate to get back to work,” said Scalia.

And many will exhaust all of their unemployment benefits at the end of July, raising the question, what’s next?

Unless Congress acts before the end of July, unemployment benefits will run out for thousands of Floridians.

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Physicians Again Demand Statewide Mask Order as Judge Upholds Local Mandate

July 10th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

The debate over a statewide mask order continues to heat up as a group of physicians returned to the Governor’s mansion once again, this time with the ‘Grim Reaper’, to demand executive action.

The legal battle challenging local mask orders is also playing out in court.

Friday’s 11,385 new cases work out to a Floridian is being infected with the coronavirus every seven and a half seconds.

“Governor, you just can’t spin your way out of this reality,” said Dr. Ron Saff with Physicians for Social Responsibility.

The physicians, along with more than 1,000 doctors and healthcare workers who have signed onto a petition, blame the latest spike in part on the reluctance of the Governor to issue a statewide mask mandate.

“Florida is frighteningly becoming an epicenter for the virus,” said Dr. Saff.

This is the second time in less than a month the physicians have protested in front of the Governor’s Mansion… this time joined by Daniel Uhlfelder, better recognized as the grim reaper often seen traveling the state.

He contrasted the precautions the Governor has taken for himself and family with precautions in place for the public.

“Open the Capitol! Because you’re killing Floridians!” said Uhlfelder.

Multiple localities have issued their own mask orders, including Leon County where the Capitol is located.

But not everyone supports mandating masks.

Rep Anthony Sabatini is spearheading legal challenges of seven local orders.

A virtual hearing was held for suit against the Leon ordinance Friday.

“In South Florida where they’ve had these mask ordinances from the beginning we have not seen a different trajectory or different trend in hospitalization and death,” said Sabatini during the hearing.

But the judge chose to uphold the ordinance.

And doctors hope that will send a clear message.

“Why are we even taking this question seriously? Mr. Sabatini, let’s get real,” said Dr. Donald Axelrad with Physicians for Social Responsibility.

But the ruling will likely do little to change the Governor’s stance on the issue anytime soon.

The Governor has continued to dismiss the idea of a statewide order, despite the Republican Governor in Texas mandating masks as his state experiences a similar spike in cases.

Physicians for Social Responsibility is urging Floridians who support a statewide order to call or email the Governor to express their opinion on the matter.

You can call his office at 850-717-9337 or email GovernorRon.DeSantis@eog.myflorida.com to make your voice heard.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Democrats Return PPP Loan

July 9th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The Florida Democratic Party applied for and received over three quarters of a million dollars from the Payroll Protection Act, but the party should not have applied in the first place.

Criticism for accepting $780,000 from the Payroll Protection Act has come from both inside and outside the Democratic Party.

Democratic State Senator Jason Pizzo first tweeted it should be returned.

Senator Annette Tadeo quickly expressed outrage.

So did State Representative Anna Eskamani.

“We have to be bold enough and brave enough to say something, because if we don’t have values, then what do we have?” said Eskamani.

Payroll Protection Act rules are clear.

Businesses primarily engaged in political activities aren’t allowed.

In a statement, the Florida Democratic Party said in part “The bank, the loan processor, and agents of the Small Business Association approved the funding. It now seems they made a mistake… so we are volunteering to return it.”

“Returning the funds was absolutely the right decision to make. I really wish that the Trump administration was as responsive when it came to actually funding PPP,” said Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried, the lone statewide elected Democrat.

State GOP chair Joe Gruters was reluctant to appear on camera after his CPA firm received a PPP loan.

The Republican Party did not.

Leon County GOP Chair Evan Power said the Democrats should have know better.

“The association of state chairmen sent out a letter saying the Payroll protection money was not aimed to be used for parties and could cause a legal problem if they did it,” said Power.

When asked if the incident warranted an investigation, Power said agreed.

“I think its appropriate to be investigated for taking taxpayer money,” said Power.

At least one Tallahassee lobbying firm has also returned PPP money.

The Democratic Party’s full statement reads:

“Congress passed the Paycheck Protection Plan to support employers and their efforts to provide funds to keep people working — and like many employers during the shutdown, FDP was concerned about meeting payroll and keeping our staff employed, so we applied. The bank, the loan processor, and agents of the Small Business Association approved the funding. It now seems they made a mistake in approving the funding so we are volunteering to return it. As a Democratic Party we are entering this election stronger than ever, with a growing staff and a commitment to electing a President that will address this crisis, rebuild our economy and heal the nation. That President is Joe Biden.”

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Donna’s Law Instills Hope For Future Child Sexual Abuse Survivors

July 9th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

One out of every three girls and one out of five boys will fall victim to sexual assault before turning 18 and often by the time they’re ready to come forward it’s too late to hold their offender to accountable.

Until now.

The bravery of one survivor was the driving force behind a new law that has removed the statute of limitations for sexual battery on a minor.

Donna Hedrick was just 15 when she was raped by her choir teacher.

“He told me don’t tell anybody, cause nobody will believe you,” said Hedrick.

Years later, she and other victims of the same man came forward and even got a confession… but it was too late to press charges.

“This is very, very common. These children are traumatized by this,” said Representative Scott Plakon, who co-sponsored the new law bearing Donna’s name.

The statute of limitations for such crimes varied wildly depending on the age of the victim and the aggressor.

“It was very confusing and I think that is primarily what we needed to fix most of all,” said Senator Linda Stewart, who sponsored Donna’s Law in the Senate.

Hedrick wanted to ensure the same thing would never happen to another child.

She spent three years advocating for change and telling her story to lawmakers.

“The bill is to protect our children who are sexually molested and raped. It helps those children, children like me, who weren’t able to deal with their abuse in a mature manner, to do so as an adult,” said Hedrick, telling her story publicly for the first time before a House committee in February.

The hard work paid off.

Donna’s Law received unanimous support in both the House and Senate.

It was signed by Governor DeSantis on June 23rd and starting July 1st it removed the statute of limitations for victims sexual battery under the age of 18.

Now victims can press charges against their aggressors whenever they’re ready.

But the law isn’t retroactive, so it won’t apply in Donna’s case, but she said it’s about helping future victims.

“That is the message to the offender that, that child is going to always have the right to come after them,” said Hedrick.

The new law doesn’t affect due process.

Accusations will still need to be backed by evidence, but it will at least provide some hope for future victims.

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Supreme Court Ruling Could Help Robocall Crackdown

July 8th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

There’s some good news for the many Floridians sick and tired of constant robocalls.

The US Supreme Court has upheld a decades old federal law banning robocalls you can help fight back against offenders.

It’s an annoyance anyone with a phone can relate to: Robocalls.

There were more than 350,000 complaints in Florida just last year.

We even got a few while putting this story together.

But thanks to a new US Supreme Court ruling, the law banning robocalls has been upheld and even beefed up, removing an exemption for debt collectors.

“Part of what the law does is allows new technology to be invented [and] allow us an opportunity to actually go after some of those companies,” said Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried.

Fried heads Florida’s Division of Consumer Services.

Her agency fined 16 companies nearly a million dollars for violating Florida’s ‘Do Not Call’ list last year.

“For consumers this is a huge win. This is a real opportunity to get those robocalls off of our phone lines,” said Fried.

Not everyone is happy with the ruling.

Pollsters and political consultants had hoped the court would grant them an exemption from the ban.

But PR-wiz Ron Sachs told us those who were suing have plenty of other less intrusive options to reach voters.

“We do surveying, polling every week to broad numbers of people locally, statewide, even nationally and those polls are from voter rolls and they are online surveys that people opt-in,” said Sachs.

Cell phone companies have been developing new technologies for labeling and even filtering out suspected robocalls.

As an added protection sign up for Florida’s ‘Do Not Call’ list.

You can also file a complaint here.

The federal government also recently beefed up penalties for violators.

The TRACED Act signed into law in December sets fines as high as $10,000 per unlawful robocall in some cases.

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Ag Department Announces $1 Million for Energy Efficiency Upgrades

July 8th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

The Florida Department of Agriculture has announced a new program to help counties improve energy efficiency for low income Floridians.

Counties that develop projects to upgrade energy efficiency are eligible for up to $100,000 of the total $1 million pot.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said lowering the energy bills for those at the bottom of the economic ladder is good for the economy and the environment.

“The counties will then create their own programs internally of how to work with the individual families. Whether to increase their electric equipment, their efficiency equipment inside their homes, or other tools like solar panels,” said Fried.

And Fried said this is just the beginning.

If successful, she hopes to expand the program in the future.

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