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Republican Party of Florida Reacts to VP Debate

October 8th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

The Florida GOP is happy with Vice President Mike Pence’s performance during the Wednesday night debate.

Pence contrasted the Trump team’s policies on energy, the economy, healthcare and foreign relations with those of the Biden campaign.

Florida GOP Executive Director Helen Ferre said she believe’s the Vice President’s hardline stance against socialism will resonate most with Florida Voters.

“Many people here have fled from socialism and understand that it brings destruction. Economic, political and personal destruction. It destroys families. We don’t need that. We don’t need mob rule either. We don’t need Kamala Harris defending looters and rioters who have hurt private sector and innocent bystanders and in addition to that, law enforcement,” said Ferre.

Ferre also criticized Kamala Harris for not answering whether Biden would pack the US Supreme Court if elected and for saying she and Biden would not ban fracking, despite both having said the opposite in previous statements.

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Voter Registration Could Be Re-opened

October 7th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

If you had trouble registering to vote after the state website crashed Monday evening and didn’t take advantage of a seven hour extension granted Tuesday, there’s a 50/50 chance you may get another opportunity.

A federal judge wants to see hard data on who was impacted by the crash.

With seven hours remaining to register to vote Monday afternoon, the state voter registration website slowed down.

Officials said it received 1.1 million hits an hour fo the next six hours.

On Tuesday, the state extended registration by seven hours.

“We had about 740 or 50,” said Leon County Elections Supervisors when asked how many people registered in his county during the extension.

Earley said few complained.

“We only had five complaints on Tuesday about the inability to use the online voter registration portal,” said Earley.

Several voting rights groups filed suit to extend registration even longer.

Federal Judge Mark Walker late Tuesday denied a motion to extend registration.

At 8:30 Wednesday he heard from both sides.

Walker told the state he wanted hard data, saying he wanted to “put meat on the bone” asking what was the volume of registrations before and after the crash, how many registered during the extension and more.

Lawyers for the state told the judge they needed all day Wednesday to gather the data that he wanted.

They were able to report that about 40,000 people registered during the seven hour extension Tuesday.

The judge also also asked for a drop dead date when the state could no longer process registrations for November voting.

Again the state wasn’t sure.

But Supervisor Earley said he didn’t foresee a problem.

“As long as it doesn’t extend too long, of course. We have the ability to process those if they come in,” said Earley.

Depending on how long registration period is extended, if at all, some voters might now be able to early vote when it opens on the 19th.

The judge will hear the case at 8 AM Thursday.

Neither side said it would call witnesses, but the judge specifically asked for the Director of the State Division of Elections.

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Fate of Medical Marijuana Industry in Hands of State Supreme Court

October 7th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

The fate of the state’s medical marijuana regulatory structure lies in the hands of the Florida Supreme Court, which on Wednesday heard a legal challenge brought by Florigrown for a second time.

The company alleges the state’s law favored some businesses getting licenses over others.

The court must now decide whether that’s true.

22 growers licenses have been issued since voters approved medical marijuana in 2016.

“This is everything but a free market. It has created a monopoly,” said Florigrown Attorney Katherine Giddings.

Giddings argued the law that implemented the 2016 constitutional amendment carved out a special class, specifically designed to put those companies first in line.

“The Legislature might as well just have named them in the statute,” said Giddings.

The Department of Health argued Florigrown hasn’t received one of the 11 available licenses because they didn’t qualify.

“If Florigrown met the statutory requirements, including vertical integration, it certainly could apply for one of those 11 remaining licenses,” said DOH attorney Joe Jacquot.

The Department of Health said the only reason it hasn’t begun issuing those available licenses is because of the pending litigation.

“Hopefully we can get some clarity and reopen that application process,” said Jacquot.

Also at issue in the case is whether the it’s constitutional for the state to require medical marijuana license holders to control everything from seed to sale.

If the court does rule in Florigrown’s favor on that issue, it could open up the market to individual retailers, growers and distributors.

The Department of Health argued the seed to sale model of the medical marijuana industry is essential to ensuring a safe and quality product, a requirement it contends is explicitly laid out in the 2016 amendment.

Jeff Sharkey with the Medical Marijuana Business Association of Florida said regardless of how the court rules, the conclusion of the lawsuit will benefit patients.

“There will be more competition. There will be more diversity. There will be more affordability for these products and more products,” said Sharkey.

Whether 11 new companies enter the marketplace or many more, rests in the hands of the justices.

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PSC Denies Relief Petition

October 6th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Hundreds of thousands people behind on their electric bills could face having their power cutoff after state utility regulators said no to a plan Tuesday that would have prevented the cutoffs until the end of the year.

The utilities assert cutting someone’s power in a pandemic is their last option.

As many as 600,000 utility customers behind on their payments are now eligible to have their power cut.

At a virtual meeting, activists asked the Florida Public Service Commission to profit cutoffs until at least the end of the year.

“Most states in the U.S. have some sort of protection to prevent customers from being disconnected from their power as a result of this pandemic. Florida is one of only 15 states that does not. No family should be forced to go without power,” said Zach Cosner with Florida Conservation Voters.

Under the proposed emergency order, customers in arrears would have to provide documentation they were impacted by COVID and couldn’t pay.

The utilities’ message: Call us now if you are behind. Don’t wait until we send you a notice we’re cutting off your power.

“Bill payment assistance is available now but may not in the future. The proposed rule may also allow past due balances to grow to the point where they become ultimately unmanageable for our customers,” said Jeff Wahlen, an attorney with Tampa Electric.

In the end, Public Service Commissioner Donald Polmann said just because utilities can now cut off power, it doesn’t mean they should

“We are not saying that disconnections are an appropriate thing to do,” said Polmann.

Earth Justice attorney Jacob Luebkemann said many are now at risk.

“Not having electricity means you don’t have air conditioning and that can be totally dangerous for people that are having chronic illness. That are vulnerable populations whether they be the elderly or the very young,” said Luebkemann.

Earth Justice and others said they will keep looking for ways to help people in need keep the lights on.

Florida Power and Light, Gulf Power, TECO, and Duke energy Florida all said cutoffs were a last resort.

FPL said it is offering up to $200 credits when people who can’t pay find a way.

Its sister company, Gulf Power, does not have the same credits.

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Registration Deadline Extended After Website Crash

October 6th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida’s online voter registration portal was down for about seven hours yesterday after the site began experiencing an unprecedented 1.1 million requests per hour on the final day to register for the November Election.

The state has extended the window until 7 pm Tuesday, but it falls short of the requests made by progressive groups and Florida Democrats.

Hopeful voters trying to register on the state’s site were met with error messages and pages failing to load in the final hours of the last day to register for the November Election.

“Voters were harmed by what happened yesterday,” said Brad Ashwell with All Voting is Local.

And it’s not the first time the site has experienced issues.

“Before the book closing in 2018 for the Primary and the General it broke down,” said Ashwell.

In a release issued Tuesday, the Florida Secretary of State said an unprecedented 1.1 million requests an hour caused the crash.

“The onus is on the system to be working,” said Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried.

Fried sent a letter to the Governor Tuesday morning requesting the registration widow be extended by 24 hours.

“With enough notice that we are in fact extending it. Cause again, if we extend it now for three hours without notifying people then they will have missed that opportunity,” said Fried.

All Voting is Local was part of a coalition of 34 progressive groups asked for a two day extension.

“There are a lot of questions still whether the site is even ready… The call for two days really should extend to the time we know the site is fully functional,” said Ashwell.

It wasn’t until noon Tuesday that the Secretary of State extended the registration window until 7 PM, leaving only a seven hour window to register.

Governor Ron DeSantis noted you also have that time to register in person at the DMV, Tax Collector or Elections Supervisor’s office.

“We really think it’s important that there also be live people that can help and that it’s not just internet or nothing,” said DeSantis.

You can also mail in a paper application to your local supervisor of elections office.

It will still be counted as long as it is postmarked by October 6th.

And the Secretary of State said in her Tuesday release that state and federal law enforcement are investigating the incident to ensure there was no deliberate attempt to crash the site.

We asked if any improvements have been made to prevent another bottle neck Tuesday night, but did not receive a response.

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Severity of Domestic Violence Increasing

October 5th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

When the pandemic began domestic violence shelters feared violence would sharply increase because of lock downs and other measures put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The shelters now are reporting an increase in the severity of abuse.

In the Big Bend region of the panhandle there have been six murders related to domestic violence this year, compared to just two the year before.

“Not only is the number of attacks increasing, but the severity of those attacks,” said Meg Baldwin, Executive Director of Refuge House.

Baldwin believes the pandemic is likely a factor.

“The level of isolation of the victims, the degree of contact the victims and abusers are having,” said Baldwin.

Hubbard House CEO Dr. Gail Patin told us Jacksonville has also seen an uptick.

“In just one week we saw two related, one murder and one murder attempt by gun shot, due to domestic violence,” said Patin.

Mindy Murphy, President & CEO of The Spring of Tampa Bay said in her area only 5 percent of domestic violence incidents involved a weapon in August of 2019.

In August of this year, that number jumped to 23 percent.

“And my staff member who reads the reports, I mean she used the term sadistic. She said there’s an element of just, it’s almost sadistic the intensity of the violence that’s being perpetrated against survivors,” said Murphy.

The pandemic has also led to another issue,.

Survivors are less likely seek refuge at a shelter because they fear exposing themselves to the virus.

But shelters told us they’ve beefed up their ability to help survivors remotely.

“So don’t worry that if you’re concerned about shelters, that that’s the only resource we have available,” said Baldwin.

The shelters are asking people to share information about their local domestic violence shelter on social media to raise awareness.

If you or someone you know is being abused, call the Statewide Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-500-1119.

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3rd Party Candidates: Spoilers or Saviors?

October 5th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

If you are not happy with choosing between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, voters have at least five other other choices this November.

Nearly 300,000 Florida voters chose someone other than the two mainstream candidates four years ago.

In 2016, Donald Trump bested Hillary Clinton in Florida by just under 113,000 votes.

Yet 3.1 percent voted for other candidates or write ins.

Howie Hawkins is running as the Green Party’s nominee.

“Over 80 percent of the people want a green new deal to deal with the climate crisis, including 64 percent of Republicans. That’s been the Green Party’s signature issue for the last decade,” said Hawkins.

This year, 13 candidates have officially signed up to run for President in Florida.

In addition to the Greens, you can choose the Socialists.

“Who are fighting a system that makes the rich ultra rich, while the people are suffering,” said Socialist Party candidate Gloria LaRiva in a campaign video.

The Libertarians.

“If we all vote for what we wanted, then we would get what we wanted,” said Libertarian candidate Joe Jorgensen in a video posted on her campaign website.

The Constitution Party or the Reform Party.

“He became troubled by the broken state of politics in our country,” said Reform Party Candidate Rocky De La Fuente in his campaign ad.

And if none of those are your cup of tea, you can write in someone like Dennis Ball.

“It’s just a real amount of change I believe needs to happen,” said Ball.

Some run to be spoilers.

Others say we need more voices.

 

“In about 40 of the 50 states the Presidential vote we get determines if we have a ballot line going forward. And it makes it a lot easier for our candidates to run down ballot races. Local offices. State offices. Congress,” said Hawkins.

Third Party candidates can change the outcome.

In the contested 2000 election, Ralph Nader siphoned off 97,000 votes in a race that was decided by 537 votes.

A total of seven candidates names appear on this year’s ballot.

Donald Trump, Joe Biden and five other third party candidates.

Six more have qualified as “write In” candidates.

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State and School Districts’ COVID Data Differ

October 2nd, 2020 by Jake Stofan

The Department of Health is providing some clarity on the report it published earlier this week on COVID cases in schools and universities.

We’ve been pushing for answers from DOH this week and found the report uses different data than school districts when listing cases.

When we first looked at the state’s COVID in schools report we noticed the numbers didn’t align with local districts’ data.

Some schools were missing entirely.

The Florida Education Association is pushing for more transparency.

“It’s not a comprehensive report. It is not being laid out in a user friendly way,” said FEA President Andrew Spar.

We looked at two districts to see how their reporting compared to the state’s.

The Duval school district reported 75 cases between September 6th and 26th, while the state reported 91.

In Leon, the district reported 64 cases.

The state only reported 40.

“And it’s really on the Governor’s shoulders to make sure that he’s telling the truth, that he is choosing to provide information that is clear, understandable and direct,” said Spar.

We were told by a Department of Health Official that the Department independently collects its data through labs and its own investigations, not from the districts.

It also only reports schools that have identified a positive case.

On the university front, the state’s numbers align fairly well with what the universities have tracked.

Marshall Ogletree with the United Faculty of Florida said regardless of which data set you use, he and other university staff are worried by the figures they’re seeing.

“Most universities have seen a spike and surge,” said Ogletree.

It’s important to note the state’s numbers don’t cover the entire school year and will only be updated once a week.

For the most accurate picture on a day to day basis, education advocates we spoke with recommend checking you’re district’s dashboard.

While we were able to get some clarity on the report through conversations with Department of Health Officials, we have not yet received an official statement from the department since we first sent a list of questions Wednesday morning.

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DEO Functioning Better

October 1st, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Thursday marked the start of 2020’s fourth quarter and that means everyone receiving unemployment benefits must check back in with the state to conform they are still unemployed.

Some glitches are still plaguing the system.

An estimated 400,000 people are being required to log in to the CONNECT reemployment system to continue their benefits.

The check in is required by federal law.

In this video available online, DEO walks claimants through the process.

By all accounts, the technical part of the system is working, unlike past quarter changes in April and June, when the system was overwhelmed.

But people like shuttle bus driver Caroline Carnegie are having trouble getting answers when she signs on.

“And I tried numerous times up until about eight o’clock at night. And I just could not get in there to locate my weeks that I have been missing,” said Carnegie.

Caroline isn’t the only one.

Gianmany Rodriguez cant afford shampoo, laundry detergent and a whole lot more.

“I have two credit cards that are maxed out,” said Rodriguez.

Gianmany received some benefits, then went back to a two day training session and his benefits stopped.

“I was eligible, but since I had the return to work, they just assumed I was working the whole time,” said Rodriguez.

And because federal benefits expire before the end of the year, this will be the last time claimants will have to do a quarterly checkin, they are extended.

Gianmany told us he starts a new hotel job Thursday night.

Caroline plans to serve as a poll worker during early voting and on Election Day to make ends meet.

But both want the benefits they have coming to catch up on their bills.

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Floridians Face Evictions and Power Cutoffs in October

October 1st, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Floridians are facing a double whammy going into October.

One of the state’s largest energy providers is moving forward with power cutoffs and the state’s eviction moratorium expired.

If you’re behind on rent you’ll likely have to pay up now that the state’s eviction moratorium has expired.

“Over 660,000 Florida residents or renters are at threat of eviction right now,” said Bertisha Combs with the New Florida Majority.

There are still protections for those who can’t pay due to pandemic related hardship through the CDC.

“So that’s the only way that Florida residents are covered at the moment,” said Combs.

But if you’re behind on your electric bill, your options are limited.

“This is an issue of human rights and dignity. It’s impossible to live in Florida without power,” said State Representative Anna Eskamani.

Florida Power and Light plans to resume cutoffs this month for those who have fallen behind on their bill.

“There are 258,000 households and businesses facing that situation,” said Aliki Moncrief with Florida Conservation Voters.

Progressive groups and Democratic lawmakers are hoping the Governor will extend eviction protections and the Public Service Commission will stop power from being shut off cut until June of 2021.

“Really it is in the public services’ hands right now and the Governor’s hands. The other tools they’ve denied us constitutionally because they will not allow legislators back in to do legislative work,” said State Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez.

The Public Service Commission has been petitioned by the legal organization Earth Justice to stop power cut offs, but no decision has been made yet.

Without a state eviction ban, the CDC protections are set to expire on January 1st, but the legality of the CDC order is being challenged in court.

The Florida Apartment Association is pushing back on the eviction protections telling us in a statement, “The CDC order fails to address the underlying issue, which is the financial hardship caused by the COVID-19 crisis. The Florida Apartment Association urges local, state, and federal policymakers to provide rent relief to those in need, which in turn will support multifamily housing operators who depend on this income to be able to provide quality rental housing for Florida’s 2.8 million apartment residents.”

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Mental Health Issues Increasing

September 30th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida is facing a mental health storm as a result of the pandemic.

The state’s Children and Youth Cabinet was told Wednesday the pandemic has also changed how people are receiving mental health treatment.

This time last year, census data showed one in seven people reporting anxiety or depression.

The number has mushroomed to 25 percent in the pandemic.

”A concerning national increase,” said Dr. Thomas Joiner.

Joiner runs the Psychology Cliinic at Florida State.

“The way that we are thinking about this is that’s as larger mental health storm,” said Joiner.

Fueling the anxiety are isolation and social distancing.

Another factor is that there are more than a million new people on the state’s welfare rolls.

FSU has responded by ramping up telehealth sessions.

“Their suicide risks from January February went down from March to April. We attribute it to on going engagement via telehealth,” said Joiner.

First Lady Casey DeSantis, who chairs the Cabinet, has been championing children’s mental health following Hurricane Michael.

She said the number one question she gets from parents is how to identify mental health issues.

“How do I know what the warning sign, symptoms are?” said DeSantis.

The answer according to Joiner, is right in front of the parent.

“What are you thinking? Secondly, have you seen departures from what you know to be the status-quo?” said Joiner.

And to help spot those with anxiety or depression, Florida State has begun training every faculty and staff member to spot changes in behavior.

“From the entire campus, people who don’t specialize in mental health, how to be on the lookout for students who might be in crisis. What are some of the signs and symptoms for them,” said Joiner.

And experts say when the pandemic ends, the explosion in telehealth will remain.

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State’s School COVID Report at Odds With Local Data

September 30th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

The Florida Department of Health has finally released a comprehensive report tracking COVID cases in Florida schools and universities, but the state data doesn’t match up with statistics reported by school districts, muddying an already complicated situation.

The report shows between September 6th and September 26th there were more than 4,600 cases tied to schools and universities.

Governor Ron DeSantis said he wanted the information made public.

“Because the story is a good story to tell,” said DeSantis Tuesday.

But comparing the state’s data to statistics provided by local districts, there are clear irregularities.

Case numbers by schools differ between state and local data.

Some schools are missing entirely on the state report.

“There are less than 50 percent of our schools even on the report and their numbers are all out of whack,” said Leon County Superintendent Rocky Hanna.

Hanna didn’t mince words when we asked what he made of the report.

“It’s an embarrassment and they should be ashamed to be honest with you,” said Hanna.

And the state’s largest teachers union fears the discrepancies will hurt public trust.

“I think we can’t trust anyone and that’s the unfortunate situation we’re in right now,” said FEA President Andrew Spar.

The inconsistent data comes as parents are faced with a choice of either keeping their children in virtual learning for the next nine weeks or making the switch to in person learning.

The Florida PTA hopes to see more consistency in the reporting going forward.

“That way our caregivers can truly have all of the information possible and be able to make informed decisions around the continued health, as well as education of their children,” said Dr. Danielle Thomas with the Florida PTA.

Hanna told us there was no collaboration between his district and the Department of Health.

He called on the state to either fix its data or take the report down.

We reached out to the Governor’s Office and Florida Department of Health for comment on the mismatched data, but did not receive a response in time for this story.

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Parties Pick Sides on $15 Minimum Wage

September 29th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida Republicans and Democrats are staking their positions on Amendment 2, which would raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026.

Democrats argue the amendment would guarantee a livable wage for all Floridians, while Republicans fear it would kill small businesses and eliminate jobs.

Florida’s minimum wage is expected to rise nine cents next year, going from $8.56 an hour to $8.65.

Democrats are proposing an alternative, by voting yes on Amendment 2, the minimum wage would rise to $10 an hour in 2021 and up to $15 by 2026.

“What Amendment 2 is about is a living wage,” said State Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez.

But Republicans call the amendment deceptive.

“Amendment 2 is a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” said State Senator Joe Gruters.

They argue it’s small businesses that stand to lose out.

“Amendment 2 will destroy hundreds of small businesses across Florida and kill the jobs they provide for Florida families,” said Gruters.

Restaurants are projected to see some of the biggest costs.

The amendment would raise tipped workers’ hourly wages from $5.54 to $11.98 over the next six years.

Restaurateur John Horne told us even though his workers make more than minimum wage after tips, he’d still have to pay them more per hour.

“It will increase the payroll at one store over $617,000,” said Horne, who owns Anna Maria Oyster Bar in Bradenton.

But labor unions argue the wage hike will pay for itself through increased spending.

“It puts all kinds of expendable cash into the marketplace. It allows workers who have not been able to fully participate in our economy to fully participate,” said Dr. Rich Templin with the Florida AFL-CIO.

State economists have estimated a $15 minimum wage would increase labors costs on Florida businesses by $540 million a year.

Amendment 2 is polling between 63 and 67 percent support, well above the 60 percent threshold needed for passage.

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Debate Stakes High

September 29th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The stakes for Tuesday night’s first Presidential debate are particularly high in Florida.

Donald Trump carried the state by just under 115,000 votes.

Polls suggest most voters have already made up their minds, but a good or bad showing by either candidate could matter in a razor thin election.

Voting is already underway in Florida.

Just over 34,000 mail ballots have already been returned.

Another 5 million remain outstanding.

Biden Unite the Country SuperPac Director Steve Schale said that’s why the first debate matters.

“If you think of the last Presidential election, it was decided by about 115,000 votes. Obama’s win in in 2012 was decided by 80,000 voters, so if only five percent of likely voters in Florida care about the debates, that five percent can be decisive,” said Schale.

Florida GOP Party Chair Joe Gruters expects the President to lean heavily on what he has accomplished over the last almost four years.

“Donald Trump is going to be able to say he accomplished more in the last forty-seven months of being in office than Joe Biden’s done in 47 years,” said Gruters.

Political Scientist Susan MacManus believes the most important issues for either candidate are equality and safety.

“I guarantee you, a lot of people want to hear what are you gonna do about violence against police. What are you gonna do about police violence against minorities,” said MacManus.

To win, MacManus believes Trump must be more Presidential and Biden must be specific, not general.

“If people look at these two candidates, side by side and see how they interface when they are talking about issues of importance to them, I expect a lot of people will just fill out the ballot and put it in the mail tomorrow,” said MacManus.

And MacManus said the news media will also be on trial during the debate.

Questions have to be equally tough and the time shared equally, or fewer people will tune into the next debate.

Democrats hold a 60/40 edge in mail ballot requests over the GOP, but more than a million requests are from non-party affiliates.

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Some Restaurants Weary of 100 Percent Capacity

September 28th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association is praising the Governor’s move to phase three, allowing restaurants to operate at 100 percent capacity as “science based.”

However, the association expects members to take a cautious approach at returning to normal.

Florida restaurants were hit harder by the COVID shutdown than any other industry.

“We were at an all time high of over 1.5 million employees, and 930,000 plus were laid off,” said Carol Dover, President of FRLA.

The association is now applauding the Governor’s reopening order.

“There’s no doubt that science is on his side. The numbers have come down,” said Dover.

But the association is telling Floridians not to expect every restaurant to rush to full capacity.

“Some of my member this morning told me the patrons wanted to see, you know, open it up a little bit more. Some of them said we are comfortable right now. We’re gonna keep it as is for a couple of weeks or so to see, but the best part about it is they can make their own choice,” said Dover.

Over the weekend, state regulators were watching restaurants, bars and breweries after the opening order filed Friday.

Agents were pleasantly surprised by what they saw.

“The bars and the breweries. They knew they had to get it right this time. They tip-toed back into in a lot of different ways, they were doing the right thing,” said Florida DBPR Secretary Halsey Beshears.

The agents out over the weekend found large crowds in just two cities, Gainesville where football fans partied and downtown St. Petersburg.

The Governor’s order does allow counties to order restaurants to operate at less than 100 percent.

To enact tougher restrictions counties must submit economic impact statements explaining the cost to private businesses, but who would approve that order remains unclear.

The state’s top regulator said his agency will have only cursory review.

“We’re not going to be the ones reading all these plans. Only on the surface, they have to justify why they do it,” said Beshears.

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