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Testing Will Slow Along the East Coast, But Not Stop Entirely

July 31st, 2020 by Jake Stofan

State run COVID-19 testing sites along the east cost will be closed for the weekend and possibly through Tuesday depending on the track of Hurricane Isaias.

Despite the closure,s the Governor doesn’t believe it will make a significant dent in overall testing.

Safety protocols were tight at the State EOC ahead of the Governor’s Friday morning briefing.

Reporters were given a rapid test before entering.

After testing negative, an extended line of questioning was administered at the door.

But for many Floridians the hurricane will make it harder to get a test.

State testing sites will be closed in impacted areas on the east coast.

“So the ones on the west coast of Florida are open,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

Among the areas impacted, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach; where the bulk of positive cases are found.

The Governor said private labs, hospitals and community sites may decide to stay open through the storm.

And those account for the largest portion of tests.

“Our sites because they’re outdoors with tents, you know if it were to get 40 to 50 mile an hour winds it would just collapse and so safety is paramount for that,” said DeSantis.

Only time will tell how big of an impact the testing shutdown will make on daily case totals though.

“Because some of these tests that get reported, I mean we’ll get data dumps for positives that were three weeks ago,” said DeSantis.

Since the track of the storm is still subject to change, the Governor said if it moves further off the coast, state test sites on the eastern peninsula could reopen early.

The Governor also noted that going forward he hopes to implement more rapid testing, especially in South Florida.

He said that will make the daily case totals more reflective of what is happening in real time.

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Price Gouging Hotline Expanded Due to Isaias

July 31st, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Ahead of Hurricane Isaias’ landfall, Florida’s Attorney General has expanded the Price Gouging hotline, which has been activated for the pandemic since March, to include hurricane related items as well.

Hand sanitizer, PPE and cleaning supplies were protected under the original order, but now gas, food and water will be included too.

Attorney General Ashley Moody said her office has screened thousands of complaints from the pandemic and recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars.

While the additional items will be an added strain, she said her office is up to the task.

“That is unique, but what is not unique is how the Florida Attorney General’s Office will respond and take those complaints. We stand ready. We’re pulling resources from other divisions to ensure we have enough people on the ground to respond in real time and to build cases based on the information we get,” said Moody.

You can report price gouging by calling 1-866-9NO-SCAM or by reporting it on the NO SCAM app.

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12 Billion and Counting

July 30th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

As a new federal report shows economic activity in the US dropped by a third between April and June.

Florida has hit new milestones when it comes to unemployment and there has been an unprecedented amount paid in benefits to a historically high number of people.

The first 28 days of July saw 523,565 unemployment claims filed in Florida.

That’s more than were filed in all of May or June.

The number would likely be higher, but some are still having trouble using the state’s online Connect system.

“You get three quarters into the application process, so then it crashes, and you have to start the process all over again,” said Joseph Riopel who has been unemployed since July 1st.

This week saw the state cross the $12 billion mark in total payments.

It also crossed the three million mark in the number of claims processed.

Four of every five dollars paid out came from the federal government.

State funds paid out so far total $2.6 billion.

That leaves just $1.4 billion in the reemployment trust fund.

The state’s trust fund will likely be exhausted before the end of the year, forcing it to borrow money from the federal government to keep paying claims.

“It feels great,” said Scott Read of Cape Coral, who recently went back to work after searching for two and a half months.

“I’m not a guy to sit around. I like to be active. We also have a plan on how we want to live and move forward, so I had to get back on track, working read hard on it,” said Read.

Scott’s wife Kathy hasn’t been so lucky.

“Three weeks ago, her benefits just stopped for no reason. So as of July 4th, she hasn’t seen a paycheck,” said Read.

On average, the state is denying one in every three reemployment claims that are filed.

Florida employers can also expect to see higher assessments next year to replenish the re-employment trust fund.

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Governor Extends Eviction Ban, But Not for Everyone

July 30th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Governor Ron DeSantis has extended the moratorium on evictions for another month, but this time there were some changes.

The Governor’s latest order may provide some relief to landlords who say they’re unable to pay their own bills and are being taken advantage of by some tenants.

The eviction moratorium, originally put in place back in April, was aimed at preventing people from losing their homes due to job loss or other pandemic related economic hardships.

But Ventura landlord Arik Lev told us some have taken advantage of the situation.

“First of all, they never hide it. They were so happy. They told me in the beginning, we’re still working… and then they didn’t pay and they sent even some kind of text message, which I have, [saying] oh the Governor said we don’t have to pay,” said Lev.

Due to a lack of payments Lev estimates he’s $20,000 in the hole.

“Water, sewage, garbage, cutting the grass. It’s at least $120 a month,” said Lev.

And even groups like United Way, which support the eviction moratorium agree more needs to be done to help landlords.

“Who are having to still be responsible for making payments on these properties, even though they have no revenue coming in. So there are multiple sides to look at on this and obviously the idea is to try to make everybody whole,” said United Way of Florida President and CEO Rick Owen.

The Governor’s latest eviction order applies only to those negatively impacted by COVID-19.

It says once an individual is no longer affected, any late payments are due.

We asked the Governor’s Office how landlords can prove a tenant is no longer impacted by the pandemic.

Cody McCloud, press secretary for the Governor told us in a statement, “Every situation is different, therefor judges should work with both landlords and tenants on an individual case basis to determine if a tenant’s inability to pay rent is a result of COVID-19.”

But Lev thinks it’s likely too little too late.

He anticipates a flood of backlogged evictions, all but guaranteeing the bad actors staying in his properties will have a free place to stay for the foreseeable future.

“I’m not that naive. I’m not gonna see a cent,” said Lev.

And Lev told us some landlords are considering filing a lawsuit, if their situation doesn’t start to improve.

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SNAP Work Search Requirements Waived for August

July 29th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Unemployed Floridians receiving food stamps will have another month of reprieve from looking for work as the state’s economy continues to reel from the coronavirus pandemic.

Those receiving food stamps will have their benefits guaranteed through August.

“You don’t need to go hungry, your kids don’t need to go hungry,” said Chad Poppell, Secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families, which administers the SNAP program.

Poppell told us the agency moved to suspend work search requirements for another month, as the pandemic has threatened some parts of the state with a second round of shutdowns.

“We felt it in the best interest to kind of push that decision off and give it more time to stabilize,” said Poppell.

The agency had begun phasing in the 80 hour per month work search requirements earlier this month, but a coalition of 52 organizations pleaded for an extension.

“It didn’t make sense for Florida to want to send out millions potentially of safety net participants who would have to go face to face out into the public… and just put themselves and their families at risk of contracting COVID-19 and passing it on to their community,” said Cindy Huddleston with the Florida Policy Institute.

The extension comes as unemployment claims continue to pile up.

More than 523,000 have filed since July 1st.

And Poppell said he believes there are many out there who could benefit that haven’t applied.

“1.2 million folks are new to SNAP, well we’ve got over 2 million folks on unemployment right now and so there could be some folks out there that don’t understand the services and the programs that we have available to them,” said Poppell.

A recent report found 11 percent of adults and 23 percent of children in Florida were experiencing hunger.

To view the full array of SNAP benefits, click here.

To apply for online click here.

And while the work search requirements aren’t required to collect SNAP benefits, DCF is still offering job search services.

Poppell said there are 240,000 job openings statewide.

You can go to CareerSourceFlorida.com for help finding a job.

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Protecting Florida’s Environment Back on Agenda

July 29th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Protecting Florida’s environment is back on the agenda.

The state’s Blue Green Algae Task Force met Wednesday for the first time since October.

The Blue Green Algae Task Force’s recommendations last fall included transferring regulation of septic tanks from the Department of Health to the Department of Environmental Protection, providing grants to improve waste water treatment and dramatically increasing fines for administrative violations.

All of it and more was signed into law.

DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein calls it unprecedented.

“You never see government actually get a group of scientists together, ask them some difficult questions and thoughtfully sit down and listen to them, then actually do something about it,” said Valenstein.

Now the Task Force is back in business after a nine month hiatus.

Congressman Brian Mast wants the state to stop the Army Corps from releasing any toxic water.

“The state owns the State of Florida. They are not going to allow the Federal government to poison communities,” said Mast.

Becky Harris of Stuart called for better public notice after her dog became ill from biting a dead catfish following highly toxic water being released.

“And you did not call the Department of Health and tell them to warn all the people all along the St. Lucie,” said Harris.

The meeting was in essence an effort to return to some normalcy as well as a recognition that Florida’s other problems haven’t gone away.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done and I think the task force feels that sense of urgency, rightfully so,” said Julie Wraithmell, Executive Director of Audubon Florida.

In the end, the task force can only make recommendations.

It’s then up to DEP and lawmakers to act, but Wednesday’s meeting puts that ball in motion.

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Higher Ed Faculty Calls for Fully Virtual Fall Semester

July 28th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

The union representing the faculty at Florida’s twelve state universities and 15 of its state colleges is calling on the Governor to reverse plans to re-open in-person learning for the fall semester.

The union believes with Florida seeing nearly 10,000 new cases a day, in-person learning cannot be conducted safely.

Universities and colleges had largely completed their plans to reopen this fall by mid June, but since then the number of new virus cases has skyrocketed.

“College aged individuals are the most likely to catch and spread the disease,” said University of Florida student Marcus Milani.

The United Faculty of Florida reports three out of five schools they represent haven’t update their plans since July 1st.

The union also found many plans lack adequate testing and contact tracing.

Most don’t have a set plan to respond to a positive case.

“And so what happens when people start getting sick?” said UFF President Karen Morian.

We reached out to FSU which has a plan for testing and contact tracing and is one of the five universities that has revised its plan since July first.

We were told work on class scheduling and accommodations for high risk faculty continued throughout July.

As of now, two thirds of colleges and universities plan to return at least 20 percent of courses to in person learning.

One third plan to conduct more than half face to face.

But the union hopes the Governor will shut down in person learning entirely at higher ed facilities in the fall.

“Flatten that curve again, get those numbers down again. Continue on with the learning that we can do through remote learning,” said Morian.

UFF estimates 2,000 students and 3,000 staff members could die if campuses open.

“These are not numbers. They are human beings. Sons, daughters, mothers, fathers and loved ones of many,” said UFF Vice President Jaffar Ali Shahul-Hameed.

“Universities designed their plans with the agility necessary to respond to changed conditions and enhance the resiliency of each institution,” said Renee’ Fargason, communications director for the State University Board of Governors Renee’ Fargason in an emailed statement. “As stated in our Blueprint for Reopening Campuses, the foundational priority of each university’s plan will be the health and welfare of all students, faculty, staff, vendors, volunteers, and visitors.”

We asked the Governor’s Office if executive action to keep university and college campuses closed was currently on the table.

“It is not at this time,” said Fred Piccolo, Communication Director for Governor Ron DeSantis.

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Department of Ag Warns of Suspicious Seeds

July 28th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is asking Floridians who receive unsolicited packets of seeds, which are believed to originate from China not to plant them and not dispose of them.

Since the weekend, 600 people have contacted the Department.

Guidance issued Tuesday afternoon asks people to put the seeds and any packaging into a plastic bag, and then contact the Department to have them picked up.

Christina Chitty is the Division of Plant Industries Director of Public Information.

“At this point, our main concern is that the seeds could be invasive, or carry disease, or that there could be invasive pests in the packaging, since at this point we are not sure if these seeds were certified or if they were sent legally,” said Chitty.

If you have received the seeds, you are asked to call the FL Department of Agriculture at 1-888-397-1517.

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Delinquent Policyholders Breathing Easier

July 27th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

More than 13,000 Citizens Insurance customers who were behind in paying their premiums are breathing easier.

The insurer had said it would start cancelling for nonpayment on August 15th, but customers are getting a reprieve.

Three percent of policy holders with Citizens, Florida’s insurer of last resort, are behind in their premiums.

When COVID hit in mid-March, the company suspended cancellations.

“That moratorium was scheduled to expire on August 15th,” said Citizens Spokesperson Michael Peltier.

Those who gotten behind got a letter ten days ago, telling them without payment, policies would indeed be cancelled August 15th.

On Friday, Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis urged Citizens to wait until the end of hurricane season, which runs through the end of November, before cancelling anyone.

“My biggest concern is that if you cancel somebody now, then they’re in the middle of hurricane season and there is a named storm out int he Gulf or Atlantic, they’re not going to be able to get re-written, so this was just bad timing for the citizens of the state of Florida,” said Patronis.

The company heard him loud and clear.

“We decided to extend that moratorium until the end of the year,” said Peltier.

Unlike most homeowners who pay their premium and their taxes along with their mortgage, two out of three Citizens customers pay the company directly.

Payments are being delayed, not forgiven.

“There are solutions out there for you to help them help you in order to pay your bill,” said Patronis.

And while late payments spiked in March and April, the number who are late is actually smaller than during pre-COVID times.

The CFO tells us Citizens is strong financially.

The company was unable to tell us whether any late premiums would be deducted from any claim made by someone in arrears.

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Vote By Mail Fraud UnLikely In Florida

July 27th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

President Donald Trump continues to raise questions about expanding vote by mail this election, going as far this weekend to suggest the results of the election would be rigged if vote by mail were allowed.

“The 2020 Election will be totally rigged if Mail-In Voting is allowed to take place, & everyone knows it. So much time is taken talking about foreign influence, but the same people won’t even discuss Mail-In election corruption. Look at Patterson, N.J. 20% of vote was corrupted!” Trump’s tweet read.

Voter groups like the League of Women voters disagree.

“Since 2000, more than 250 million votes have been cast via mailed out ballots,” said LWV of Florida President Patricia Brigham.

Backing up its claim, the Trump Administration has cited a 2005 study chaired by former President Jimmy Carter.

It warned mail ballots were at the highest risk for fraud, but President Carter in May came out in support of expanding vote by mail in light of the pandemic.

David Carroll, Director of The Carter Center Democracy Program said safe guards exist to fight back.

“Tracking the ballots. Making sure that eligible citizens are requesting them, that there’s ways to verify the identity of the ballots,” said Carroll.

And Mark Earley, Vice President of the State Association representing Supervisor of Elections said those safe guards have worked in Florida.

“I know that there has been some very limited attempts at voter fraud here in Florida, but they’ve been caught,” said Early.

In opposition to some states’ plan to send every registered voter a mail ballot by default, the President’s administration has pointed to a study that found one out of eight voter’s registration is inaccurate or no longer valid.

But in Florida, voters have to request mail ballots.

“If someone’s dead or their registration expired or is invalid for some reason, they aren’t there to request it and they can’t sign it, we can’t validate it based upon their signature,” said Earley. “So the checks are in place to make sure that those kinds of situations are caught.”

And Earley said with vote by mail it’s more likely a legitimate vote would be thrown out rather than a fraudulent one counted.

To ensure your vote is counted, supervisors recommend mailing ballots at least five days before election day or returning it in person.

As an added protection you should track your ballot through your local supervisor of elections office.

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Governor’s Popularity Upside-Down

July 24th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

A new poll from Quinnipiac University shows the Governor’s job approval has seen a 31 point swing since April, in part because he has not issued a statewide mask order.

Floridians also don’t think its safe to send kids back to school or college.

The Quinnipiac poll shows the Governor’s approval rating at its lowest since taking office.

Just 41 percent approve while 52 disapprove.

As concerns of his handling of the spiking virus cases and deaths has increased, the Governor this week took a new tone.

“You know, we’re gonna get through it. I think we are on the right course,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

At the same roundtable, his Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Mary Mayhew offered this assurance.

“Let’s not confuse calm with a lack of concern or commitment,” said Mayhew.

The biggest concerns over the Governor’s leadership come on two fronts.

A overwhelming majority of Floridians, 79 percent, believe masks should be required statewide.

The Governor has resisted.

Six in ten voters, or 62 percent think it is unsafe for kids to go back to school next month.

Only 16 percent surveyed think the coronavirus isn’t a problem.

Seven out of ten say it’s out of control.

Mac Stipanovich has advised Florida Governors since 1987.

“And I’m not sure that he’s surrounded by and listens to the best people,” said Stipanovich.

Voters are split on whether the Governor should order a new stay at home order.

49 percent are in favor, 48 percent oppose.

On Monday, the Governor gets a new Communications Director, but if Stipanovich is right, it won’t matter unless he listens.

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Florida Census Response Lagging

July 24th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Fewer than six out of ten Floridians have filled put their census forms and the deadline to is rapidly approaching.

The pandemic has made the count more difficult, but also more important than ever.

Florida is trailing the national response rate by nearly three percentage points.

“We are seeing low census return rates especially in our communities of color,” said Orlando State Representative Anna V. Eskamani.

Marilyn Stephens, an Assistant Regional Manager for the Census Bureau said the numbers are a sign the state needs to do better.

“So Florida’s not pleased with where it is right now and that’s why we are working so hard on this push to get more households to self respond,” said Stephens.

The count is used to allocated congressional districts, but more importantly it influences the allocation of funding.

“For infrastructure, healthcare, education,” said Stephens.

And also, pandemic relief funding.

“Just look at the CARES Act. Right? The CARES Act was saying that cities or counties of over 500,000 can draw the money down themselves, whereas everyone else had to go through the state. Well that count of 500,000 comes from a census count,” said Miami State Senator Oscar Braynon.

There’s three primary ways of responding to the census.

You can return your form via mail.

You can also respond via phone by calling 844-330-2020 and for the first time ever you can respond online.

And Florida politicians are working to get the message out

“I know for us in our legislative office we have been posting online reminders and links daily,” said Eskamani.

And State Democrats like Senator Braynon want to see the Governor play a lager role.

“And I’ve never heard him mention it. And he’s kind of declined to get that involved in the census,” said Braynon.

The deadline to respond is October 31st, but the Bureau is encouraging everyone to fill it out as soon as possible.

While the pandemic has delayed the door knocking campaign to reach out to non-respondents, 500,000 census workers will begin their face to face work next month.

You can apply for a census job at 2020census.gov.

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Most Educators Uncomfortable With Reopening, Others Determined to Return

July 23rd, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Governor Ron DeSantis gave an impassioned, but short speech Wednesday.

In it he laid out why schools need to open.

The idea isn’t sitting well with the state’s teachers union, which is actively suing to delay reopening brick and mortar classrooms, but there are teachers who agree the benefits of going back to in-person learning outweigh the risks.

DeSantis spoke for six and half minutes.

His primary focus: the need for parents to have in-class and virtual options.

“No parents should be required to send their child to in-person instruction if they don’t want to,” said DeSantis.

DeSantis also said accommodations should be made for students and faculty at high risk.

He suggested those teachers and students be allowed to continue exclusively with online learning.

Angie Gallo with the Florida PTA told us the options have been well received.

“We’re hearing from more parents that want to keep their kids at home versus send them to school at this point,” said Gallo.

DeSantis also said educators are, “Chomping at the bit to get back in the classroom”.

But the state’s largest teachers union refutes DeSantis’ claim.

The union released this survey that found three out of four educators don’t believe it is safe to reopen now.

“Teachers are afraid. Many teachers are contemplating leaving this profession,” said Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram.

But there are teachers who are steadfast in their desire to return sooner rather than later.

“I’m a teacher who wants to go back to school and I support DeSantis,” Franklin County ESE teacher Jennifer Darnell posted in a comment on a live feed of DeSantis’ address.

We spoke with her via Zoom.

“And I’m a high risk person. I have an underlying condition… I refuse to sit and not do what needs to be done because I’m afraid,” said Darnell.

DeSantis’ main concern with staying fully virtual is the threat of exacerbating achievement gaps, especially for students with special needs.

The same students Darnell teaches.

“I would stand in the way of a shooter for them… This is no different. We’re going to be there for them whether it puts us at risk or not because it’s what’s best for them,” said Darnell.

Despite the urgent tone, DeSantis said it would be okay to delay reopening by a few weeks to ensure safety.

Darnell is hopeful that won’t be the case in her county.

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As Jury Trials Slowly Resume, Courts Still Facing Many Challenges

July 22nd, 2020 by Jake Stofan

A sign of normalcy is returning to Florida courts.

For the first time since the start of the pandemic, jury trials are slowly resuming.

The three cases are the first step towards restarting the justice system, but many challenges remain.

Balancing public health and the constitutional right to a jury trial is at the heart of the challenge facing both federal and state courts.

“You cannot simply shut it down and so by the same token you cannot be reckless, you cannot take unnecessary risks,” said US Attorney for Florida’s Northern District, Lawrence Keefe.

Keefe, has successfully gone forward with two criminal trials this month.

They’re the first in the state since March.

“There was no magic formula or silver bullet,” said Keefe.

Utilizing the safety precautions recommended by the CDC is at the heart of Keefe’s strategy.

“There’s nothing particularly new. Masks, gloves, hand sanitizers, social distancing,” said Keefe.

There’s also progress in state court.

A civil case in Miami used Zoom to select a jury, then went forward with an in person jury trial, taking every precaution including face masks, temperature checks and rearranging the courtroom.

They also allowed jurors to park in the courthouse and set aside two additional courtrooms for jurors to be able to social distance during breaks.

“It was a little bit constraining, but we got the job done and we did get a verdict,” said Judge Beatrice Butchko of Florida’s 11th Judicial Circuit, who oversaw the trail.

The problem facing these early efforts at conducting trials is their scalability.

So far there isn’t a great option available.

“We can’t let jurors park in the courthouse for every case. We can’t afford to use three courtrooms for every case,” said Judge Jennifer Bailey, who helped with the logistics of the Miami trial.

One potential solution that has been suggested would be to conduct fully virtual jury trials.

“I think it’s possible, I think it’s a necessary option that we all have to explore,” said Judge Butchko.

Mock virtual trials are being experimented with, but there are questions surrounding the constitutionality of conducting jury trials out of the courtroom.

The Judges we spoke with worry even with a vaccine, it will be quite some time before the court system is able to get back to its previous capacity for jury trials.

Judge Bailey expects a flood of civil cases related to the pandemic.

There’s also the backlog of cases, which are growing larger each day.

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State EOC Open After Virus Scare

July 22nd, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The State’s Emergency Operations Center is back open after being forced to close for several days for cleaning after at least a dozen people tested positive for the coronavirus.

Now the center is also monitoring newly formed Gonzalo, which is expected to become a hurricane on Thursday.

No one gets into the state emergency center without a temperature check and answering a thorough list of questions.

Everyone is tested twice a week.

Yet the virus got in anyway.

We asked the Governor how that could happen.

“Even the best laid plans, you follow all the screening, and still see sometimes it gets, I mean just think of things like prisons, I mean they’re all locked in there, and you see prison outbreaks,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

Back open after a cleaning and with a potential hurricane on the horizon, the Director told us his staff is more trained then ever.

They also have backup if there were a major virus infection at the facility.

“We’ve established contracts with former DEM personnel, FEMA personnel, you know, as we are dealing with COVID, if we end up losing a couple people here because they get it in the community, that we have people that we can bring in to supplement them,” said State Emergency Director Jared Moskowitz.

Under the plan, one group will continue working on nothing but COVID, and a second on just hurricane planning and recovery.

“We can do dual disasters here. The folks behind me are the most qualified in the industry,” said Moskowitz.

Just over 1,300 national guard troops are already on active duty manning testing sites.

That leaves between nine and ten thousand others to respond to any hurricane.

The center is also ground zero for supplying tests and PPE to nursing homes and hospitals across the state, a function that will continue whether a storm is brewing or not.

The state also told us it has lined up more than 350 hotels, which will serve as a place for people to shelter instead of being in cramped schools or churches.

It has been planning how to deal with a hurricane and COVID at the same time since March.

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