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Universities Look to Help Students Through Pandemic

March 31st, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Universities around the state are responding differently to the coronavirus, with some universities sending students living on campus home, while others are allowing some to stay through the end of the semester.

All of them are looking at ways to refund students for meal plans and housing if they are unable to return to campus.

At Florida State University and at nearby FAMU, campuses are essentially barren with the exception of a few maintenance workers.

FSU has asked all students living on campus not to return if they’ve traveled out of the city, like freshmen Sara Kissane, now staying with her parents in Jacksonville.

“I think that a lot of people are just kind of, not really blindsided, but just kind of upset that the year was cut off so short. Like for me and my roommate we didn’t even know it was our last night in our dorms when it was,” said Kissane.

FAMU has ordered all students to leave on campus housing by April 6th.

Both universities are offering refunds for students unable to return to the dorms for their housing and meal plans.

“So I think by at least reimbursing the dorm and the food that makes up for not being there and not utilizing those facilities, because you’re still doing classes online so the tuition still makes sense,” said Kissane.

But some students remain living on campus, unable to return home like Giulia Grasso who is an international student from Italy.

“That’s a pretty bad situation there so I can’t come back home because like basically the borders from the US to Italy are closed,” said Grasso.

Most of the state’s universities have opted to allow students to receive a satisfactory or unsatisfactory grade for classes during the spring semester.

The announcements came after tens of thousands of students signed online petitions calling for the option.

FSU and FAMU have also both started funds to help keep food banks stocked, pay for students’ medical bills and provide housing assistance.

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Florida Rushing to Improve Unemployment System

March 31st, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The state continues to get hit with a daily avalanche of new unemployment claims.

The agency in charge of handling unemployment reports improvements to speed applications are being made daily and a new mobile app will soon launch as the Governor continues to waive requirements.

The state had 74,313 people apply for unemployment the week of March 21.

Last week they tripled to just over 222,000.

Sunday alone 21,000 people filed.

“Our system was designed to help our state during a hurricane, but not during a global pandemic,” said Ken Lawson, Executive of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

Chery Regha and Lana Stokley, newly unemployed and frustrated at the inability to file online, showed up at the agency’s headquarters Tuesday morning.

“Because we are completely out of funds. I mean, we are fixing to be in trouble,” said Regha.

“There so many people that’s trying to get through the website, it’s very difficult to get through,” said Stokley.

It didn’t help.

The building is closed to the public and all claims must be filed online.

But help is coming.

70 of 100 new positions authorized by the Governor have been filled.

Lawson said that is just the beginning.

“We’ve hired an outside call center that will staff up to two hundred fifty people to handle uploads of calls. Also, I have my IT team work night and day to increase capacity. So when people apply online, there’s more capacity and bandwidth. Also, I reprogrammed people from my own shop to work with these issues,” said Lawson.

State law now requires you to be out of work for a week before you can apply for reemployment assistance.

The Governor waived that requirement Tuesday.

And we were told the contract to build a mobile app to speed the applications process would be signed by the close of business Tuesday.

First implemented in 2014, the computerized application system has had problems since the beginning.

Lawson said he plans to make recommendations about what to do about it, but not until the current crisis is over.

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So Much Work, Too Few People

March 30th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The state’s own report shows it has the lowest number of state employees per capital than any other state, and only half the national average. In good times its been a point of pride, but as Mike Vasilinda tells us, right now it’s contributing to a shortage of  people during this time of crisis.

 

A checkpoint on I-10 in Pensacola is stopping motorists from Louisiana. They are being told to self isolate for fourteen days. Stephanie Kopelousos from the Office of the Governor, says trucks won’t be affected.

“Commercial traffic will remain going straight on the Interstate, I-10.”

Another checkpoint north of Jacksonville is checking for motorists from the Northeast. The goal says the Governor, is to stop drivers from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.”

‘What we don’t want is for people to flee that hot zone and bring the virus here” says Governor Ron DeSantis.

 

It follows orders last week to screen flyers on direct flights arriving from the tri state northeast. They are being handed literature like this and undergo a series of questions.

But other highways into Florida and smaller airports with connecting flights from the northeast are going unmonitored. When asked, the Governor agreed it isn’t ideal.

“Hey look, I think its a problem, but if they can help us with that, the airports, and working with the airlines, I think its in everybody’s interest” DeSantis told us.

Part of the problem is a shortage of state employees.  The state’s own report shows it has the lowest number of per capita employees of any state in the country.

Florida has 86 full time employees for every ten thousand residents. The national average is 168…or almost twice as many.

Monday, the Governor signed an executive order allowing retired law enforcement to come back to work without sitting out six months. It was broadcast on the Governor’s Facebook page.

“I will suspend that prohibition. We need to have folks who are willing to return to service.”

But the problem is just law-enforcement, but unemployment, health and other critical 

The Governor is also urging residents in South Florida to be “Safer at Home” telling them to shelter in place through mid May in four south Florida counties.

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Restaurants Depending on Stimulus for Survival

March 27th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Small business would be able to rehire their employees for up to 10 weeks under the federal stimulus at not cost to the business.

Under the Federal stimulus, small businesses will be able to borrow up to $10 million.

It will allow 10 weeks of salaries, rent, utilities, and mortgage payments to be forgiven from the loan.

The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association believes it’s the only way many of their members will survive.

“So, this is going to be a huge way to put our industry back on the map again. Get people back employed, and get back up and running, hopefully very soon,” said CEO of the association Carol Dover.

But employees can’t have it both ways.

“So if you are going to apply for unemployment, then you are not eligible for this loan,” said Dover.

The stimulus is likely to put one million already unemployed hospitality workers back on the payroll, taking some of the burden off an over burdened unemployment filing system.

Even with the stimulus, the association said some restaurants won’t survive.

“Businesses, many of them will not rebound. Some won’t rebound now, which is very unfortunate. But I think is this goes past June, you will see many of Florida’s small business rebound,” said Dover.

Small businesses are being told to check with their local bank to begin the loan process.

The federal stimulus interest free loan is available to businesses with fewer than 500 employees.

When it comes to restaurant franchise locations, each franchise can have up to 500 workers.

The legislation also requires restaurants and lodging establishments to keep their employees on the payroll until the end of June to have that money forgiven.

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Governor Looks to E-Verify to Help Floridians Recover Jobs

March 27th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Statistics released Friday show Florida’s unemployment rate held steady at 2.8 percent in February.

While the state would normally be celebrating a second month of record low unemployment, the impact of the coronavirus isn’t reflected in the February stats.

“Everything that we’re doing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 is having an impact on businesses,” said Ken Lawson, Executive Director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

The state is seeing tens of thousands of new unemployment claims every week.

130,000 this past week alone.

The state will get a better picture of the true impact of coronavirus on the state’s employment rates when the March figures are released in late April, but the Governor is already looking ahead.

“What does the next part of the strategy look like? I think that will be very important for these unemployment numbers,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

And the Governor opined on a possible asset awaiting his signature.

“E-Verify and workforce verification, that could actually be something that’s more important now given that people are going to be needing jobs,” said DeSantis.

The E-Verify legislation would require all new hires have their immigration status checked through the federal system starting January 1st of next year.

E-Verify could mean more job opportunities for Florida citizens, but it’s estimated between four and five percent of the state’s total workforce are undocumented immigrants.

“Now everybody is going to be a newly hired employee. So everybody is going to be impacted by E-Verify,” said Kara Gross with the Florida chapter of the ACLU.

Gross worries leaving as many as 550,000 undocumented workers permanently unemployable all at once could be a disaster within itself.

“Everybody who knows E-Verify understands that it’s harmful to Florida’s economy. Why would we be doing anything right now that is more harmful to Florida’s economy when we’re under these conditions?” said Gross.

She’s also concerned it could slow hiring for citizens as well.

“Businesses, when they’re rehiring workers, they need to have the flexibility to increase their workforce immediately and this is going to create more and more obstacles for everybody,” said Gross.

Employers can opt to keep I-9 forms of new hires on file, in lieu of using the federal system, but those records could be requested for verification at any time by the Attorney General, FDLE, a state attorney or statewide prosecutor.

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Legislation On Hold As Governor Addresses COVID-19 Impacts

March 26th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Governor Ron DeSantis is putting legislation passed in the 2020 session on hold as he waits to see the full economic impacts of the coronavirus.

Teacher pay raises are among the proposals that could hang in the balance.

Florida lawmakers passed 210 bills during the 2020 session, but only a handful have actually made it to the Governor, who has asked the Legislature to hold them.

His focus is elsewhere.

“My office has been 24/7 on COVID-19,” said DeSantis.

And his schedule shows, every item on his agenda has been coronavirus related.

If the Legislature were to send him bills, he’d have 15 days to veto, sign or let them become law.

“I think it would probably not be a good use of my time to be going through a lot of the legislation right now,” said DeSantis.

There’s also the question of how badly the economy will be hit.

That puts almost everything in question, including a proposed $500 million allocation for teacher pay raises.

“We’re a significant part of that budget this year,” said Florida Education Association President, Fedrick Ingram.

Ingram hopes the Governor considers the role teachers are playing throughout the outbreak, including their shift to online learning.

“I think if you put out any survey parents will tell you that teachers are first responders. They’re educational first responders,” said Ingram.

The Governor did say he doesn’t want to jeopardize teacher pay, but also doesn’t want to act hastily during these uncertain times.

“That would not be where I would want to go, but look I think the budget is in flux let’s just put it that way,” said DeSantis. “So I’m not going to go do a signing ceremony tomorrow about any of this stuff until we kind of get our feet under us a little bit more.”

If signed, the pay raises would take effect July 1st.

$400 million for raising base teacher pay and another $100 million for veteran teachers and other school staff.

Along with putting legislation on hold, the Governor has also chosen to delay the appointment of two Supreme Court Justices.

They were required to be selected by March 23rd.

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Some Questioning Constitutionality of Tri-State Travel Ban

March 26th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Constitutional questions are being raised over whether the Governor can order air passengers from virus infected areas to self quarantine.

If those passengers wanted to slip into the state they could do it at small airports where there is no screening.

There are at least 53 daily flights scheduled from Atlanta to the smaller airports like Gainesville, Tallahassee, Sarasota, Pensacola and Panama City, where passengers fleeing the New York Tri-State area could head to Florida and avoid being told too quarantine.

The Governor is unhappy that anyone from that area is coming at all.

“And if you are somebody who left, you know if you were in New York State, you left when you were told to shelter in place. You defied that and you got on a plane and came here. And so we don’t want there to be any fallout here in the state of Florida from that,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

The executive order, which is being handed out to arriving passengers in major airports, tells them to quarantine for at least two weeks after arriving.

Violating it potentially carries a 60-day jail sentence an a $500 fine.

“You can’t get a flight from China to Florida or anywhere in the country, but somehow, you can just do 200 flights, direct, into various parts of Florida, from a hotspot that’s much more significant,” said DeSantis.

While there are no National Guardsmen meeting arriving passengers in the state capital.

It’s almost a moot point.

Most flights to Tallahassee are cancelled.

Several civil rights organizations are looking at whether the order violates the interstate commerce clause and a clause the prohibits discriminating against people from other states.

But a UF law professor who asked to remain anonymous said by the time any challenge made it to court, the problem would likely be over.

The isolation order is slated to remain in effect until it’s lifted, and constitutional experts say the indefinite timeline could also be a constitutional problem.

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Florida Republicans and Democrats Split on COVID-19 Response

March 25th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Throughout the coronavirus outbreak Florida’s policies for fighting the coronavirus largely mirror those coming from the White House.

After the President said Tuesday that he hopes to begin opening up the country, the Governor made it clear he also is looking to find ways to get business up and running.

At the same time, Florida Democrats are demanding stricter measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

President Donald Trump set an Easter goal to begin opening up parts of the country, hoping for a speedy economic recovery.

“Because our country wants to be open. Our people want it to be open,” said Trump.

Governor Ron DeSantis is also looking to find the right balance between virus mitigation and economic impacts.

“Clearly we’ve got to do something about the virus and there’s no way a nine month shutdown would possibly be sustainable,” said DeSantis.

Florida Democrats are calling for more strict measures with at least four state Senators demanding a statewide shelter in place order.

The calls are being echoed by the lone statewide elected Democrat, Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried.

“The only way to stop the spreading of this is to shut us down,” said Fried.

But DeSantis has pushed back, preferring to let local governments make those decisions.

“Some people think that the Governor should just be a dictator and just order everyone imprisoned in their homes and I don’t think that would be an effective approach, but it’s certainly not warranted in certain parts of the state,” said DeSantis.

DeSantis has also questioned the effectiveness of stay at home orders, pointing to massive block parties in states like California and New York.

But Fried believes things could get worse without extraordinary measures.

“Our ER doctors, our hospitals, they’re just not going to have the capacity to handle this if we have the type of outbreak that is expected if we don’t slow down this virus,” said Fried.

Most recently the Governor put new restrictions on travelers fleeing New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, requiring a 14 day self quarantine on those entering Florida from the northeast.

DeSantis hasn’t officially endorsed the President’s Easter goal for reopening parts of the country, nor has he set any date for loosening precautions here in Florida.

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Fewer Domestic Violence Calls Doesn’t Translate to Less Abuse

March 25th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s domestic violence centers want you to know they are open and ready to help in this time of crisis, but calls to hotlines are falling.

However, that doesn’t mean there is less domestic violence.

Monday’s are typically the busiest day of the week for Domestic Violence hotlines and shelters.

“The abuser has gone to work after the weekend. The children are at school. She’s got a minutes to collect her thoughts alone, to be able to safely make that call,” said Meg Baldwin, Director of Refuge House in Tallahassee.

But not this past Monday.

“Typically on a Monday, we’ll receive between 30 and 40 calls from domestic violence victims who are reaching out after a weekend. This last Monday, we had fewer than five calls,” said Baldwin.

Increasing stress at home and at work is one of the reasons the Governor is resisting a statewide shelter in place order.

“I really worry about suicide, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, domestic abuse, child abuse, if this is allowed to go for months and months on end with nothing,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

While Florida courts have virtually shut down, they are open to abuse victims who need protective or restraining orders.

At Refuge House, counseling calls to some victims are being answered by spouses, complicating the recovery.

“Where the victim is isolated and there is a greater opportunity presented to an abuser to hurt her, We’ll see the incidence of domestic violence rise. That doesn’t mean, that doesn’t necessarily translate into a victim being able to reach out to help,” said Baldwin.

The centers say they see the same lowered activity following a hurricane, but it only lasts four or five days.

The current lack of opportunity could last for months.

Sexual assault victims are also being urged to continue coming forward with the assurances they won’t have to go to a hospital to have a sexual assault kit captured for evidence.

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Ag Commissioner Urges More Support for Food Banks

March 25th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried joined volunteers in the state’s capital city Wednesday morning to help prepare 500 meals for Floridians facing economic hardship due to the coronavirus.

The meals, distributed by Second Harvest of the Big Bend will go to help supply food relief efforts in eleven panhandle counties.

Fried said donations to nonprofits is especially important now, with thousands of Floridians facing layoffs and an uncertain economic future.

“They’re already seeing people that would have been the ones preparing their food are now the ones that are in need of the food. And so this is a time when we as a state rise to the occasion, we do this every single year during hurricane season, and now even more so than ever we need to be supporting our nonprofits that are going to be stepping up to the plate to feed our state,” said Fried.

Second Harvest say monetary donations will go further than directly donating food.

If you’d like to volunteer or make a donation go to fightinghunger.org.

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State Working to Meet Skyrocketing Unemployment Claims

March 24th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The state fielded 224,000 calls last week to its reemployment hot line.

The agency acknowledges it is overwhelmed and working on improvements.

A rising unemployment has traditionally been predictable, until now.

“21,000 unemployment claims yesterday, 18,000 the day before,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

Calls to the reemployment hotline are up ten fold in two weeks.

Wait times are now running three hours, if you can get through at all.

Ken Lawson is the Executive Director of the Department of Economic Opportunity.

“I want to tell the people of Florida that we are ramping up the number of people working in my call centers. This is an unprecedented time with the incident affecting the world, our country and state,” said Lawson.

The Governor has suspended requirements that you must be actively looking for a job to receive compensation.

“Once anyone’s form is completed, it takes a week to verify the information and the payment to kick in,” said Lawson.

The maximum payout is $275 a week for up to 12 weeks.

There are jobs in Florida.

Several hundred thousand posted on the state website.

Jim McShane of Career Service Florida said the virus is creating new opportunities.

“The health care workers, they need more workers. There’s going to be a lot of quick training, trying to get people into that. I looked on the job demand today, and there’s everything from maintenance people to you name it,” said McShane.

Because the economy has been so good for so long, the trust fund has enough cash to pay out over 14 million weeks of unemployment benefits.

The state website listing job opening is employflorida.com.

You can also call the area Career Service Florida, but all walk in traffic has been suspended because of the virus.

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COVID-19 Pice Gouging on the Rise

March 24th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

As Floridian’s stock up on essential supplies to endure the coronavirus outbreak there have been about 50 new reports of price gouging in just the past 24 hours.

$187 for eight cans of Lysol, $1000 for 6 boxes of tissues and $788 for 12 rolls of paper towels… and those aren’t even the most egregious cases of price gouging reported to Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody.

“I saw toilet paper for $10,000,” said Moody.

You can fight back by reporting price gouging to the state.

So far the AG’s office has received nearly 750 reports and referred 628 for further review.

“These types of complaints are cleaning supplies, face masks, hand sanitizers,” said Moody.

Moody said the numbers aren’t significantly higher than during a hurricane or other disaster, but what is different is the fact that almost half of the price gouging complaints originate from online sales.

“We’re pulling down posts. We’re really being aggressive in the field and responding to these on a day to day basis,” said Moody.

Moody said the price gouging issues are primarily coming from the hardest hit counties, Broward and Miami-Dade, but as the virus spreads the AG expects so too will price gouging.

“If people are trying to money off the back of Floridians, many of which have been sent home from their jobs, it’s unacceptable, it’s unlawful and we’ll come for them,” said Moody.

If you suspect price gouging you can report it by calling 1-(866)-9NO-SCAM.

You can also use the NoScam app, which allows you to upload photos and provide a more detailed account of suspected price gouging.

Violators can face fines as high as $25,000 a day.

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Unemployment Claims Skyrocket Due to Coronavirus

March 23rd, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

5,300 people applied for unemployment last week, and there were over 75,000 calls to the state’s unemployment assistance hotline.

It comes as restaurants, bars and hotels close due to the coronavirus.

The skyrocketing volume of calls is overwhelming the system.

Florida Restaurant and Lodging CEO Carol Dover said the layoffs are taking their toll.

“We’re having thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people,” said Dover.

Last week, a restaurant in the shadow of the state capitol was hopeful it could survive on carryout alone.

“I do not expect that to make up for the slowdown,” said Owner Paul Roth.

Monday, its doors were closed, but employees were still being paid.

The industry is banking on a federal bailout sponsored by Florida US Senator Marco Rubio.

Still being negotiated, the plan would allow restaurants to borrow money from the federal government, then pay their employees for up to 10 weeks, and all be reimbursed from the federal government.

“The salary portion of it is a federal grant, and so they don’t have to repay it. Obviously, it does no good to have our members to take out millions of dollars in loans, when at the end of the day, they’ll all, many of them, be close to bankruptcies,” said Dover.

Unemployment in Florida pays a maximum of $275 a week for up to 12 weeks and in some cases up to 23 weeks.

The Governor has waived the requirement that you look for a job to qualify for unemployment during the current crisis.

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Bills that Didn’t Make the Cut in 2020

March 23rd, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Many bills that previously dominated conversation at the Capitol prior to the rapid spread of coronavirus silently died as focus shifted to the virus, including a proposal to make schools safer.

The bill would have increased penalties on districts that fail to comply with school safety mandates.

It would also have banned the arrest of young children except under extreme circumstances.

“In my district we arrested 53 eight-year-olds. This is standard operating procedure,” said Rep. Wendy Newton.

Mandatory moments of silence to start off the school day also failed.

Democrats and even some Republicans in the House opposed the measure, arguing it would have equated to an additional school holiday.

“I don’t think it’s a critical need, quite frankly I think it’s going to be a waste of time,” said Rep. Spencer Roach.

Criminal Justice reform efforts also failed, mostly due to opposition from law enforcement.

“The way that we’re going to push back is the data and the research and showing best practices,” said Senator Jeff Brandes.

A proposal that would have put the regulation of short term vacation rentals like AirBNB under state control fizzled out after the Governor expressed concerns.

“Probably that should be determined locally,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

A proposed public records exemption for university presidential applicants fell short after nearly a week of protests.

“If this process is hid from the public, than political appointees will control the process,” said Rich Templin with the Florida AFL-CIO.

And while all of these bills failed to pass, the Legislature approved many of the Governor’s top priorities, including E-verify, parental consent for abortions and teacher pay raises.

The Governor has told reporters to expect to see a heavy hand of line item budget vetos that would have otherwise been approved except for the coronavirus.

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Attorney General Cracking Down on Coronavirus Price Gouging

March 23rd, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Amid the coronavirus pandemic Florida’s Attorney General has active the Price Gouging Hotline.

As many stores struggle to keep essential items like hand sanitizer, facemasks and cleaning supplies stocked on the shelves, others are jacking up prices to make a quick buck.

So far the hotline has received nearly 700 complaints.

447 cases have been referred for further review.

Attorney General Ashley Moody said one thing that’s different about price gouging during this crisis, compared to other events like hurricanes, is that 40 percent of complaints are aimed at online sellers.

“What does that mean for us and our team? It means we have to be vigilant and proactive and working with these merchants to shut down those that are trying to post these price gouging or scams. I’m proud to say we have done that. We’ve had hundreds of business contacts, we’re pulling down posts, we’re issuing preservation letters. We’re really being aggressive in the field and responding to these on a day to day basis,” said Moody.

If you see suspected price gouging online or in the stores, report it to the hotline at 1-866-966-7226.

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