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FSU Students Move out Of Dorms, Hopeful for Return in Fall

June 4th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Students returned to FSU’s campus Thursday to move out of their dorms, nearly three months after they closed because of the pandemic.

While students are moving out, university leaders are continuing to develop plans to keep students safe when they return in the fall.

When students left for spring break they didn’t realize it’d be the last time they’d see campus for nearly three months.

Thursday they were just happy to get their stuff back.

“I was missing everything,” said FSU student Mackenzie Hill.

But they know when they return in the fall things won’t be completely back to normal.

Universities are still deciding which courses can return to the classroom and which will stay online.

We do know FSU is planning for two weeks of virtual learning after Thanksgiving break.

Sarah Kissane is hopeful she can return to the classroom, but is prepared if that’s not the case.

“For next semester I have most of my classes online anyway, which actually kind of benefits in this situation cause if they do move online I’m kind of already set up for that,” said Kissane.

Gloves and face masks will likely be a key strategy.

And the University of Florida has suggested testing wastewater at dorm buildings for virus particles in order to spot outbreaks.

“And then see are there hotspots that we can then target and say, okay we can justify doing these 100 tests in this dorm or this area has at least one case. Do we know about it? Okay, let’s do extra surveillance,” said Michael Lauzardo with the UF College of Medicine during a board of trustees meeting Thursday.

Kissane’s mother Melanie is confident the universities will keep her daughter safe.

“I feel like they’re taking all the right steps to make sure that the kids are safe in the fall, but I do want them to be able to be back and be in that college environment again,” said Melanie.

While most students are moving out at FSU, the university told us international students are still living in the dorms since they can’t travel back home.

They’ll continue living on campus until other arrangements can be made.

FSU will finalize its reopening plans by June 18th.

All universities will present their plans to the board of governors on June 23rd.

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Supreme Court Blocks Initiative to Ban Assault Weapons

June 4th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

An effort to put the question of banning so-called ‘assault weapons’ before voters in 2022 has been blocked by the Florida Supreme Court.

The court ruled the ballot language was misleading because it said currently owned assault weapons could be registered and exempt from the ban, but the amendment actually would have only exempted the current owner from the ban.

The weapons themselves would be illegal if they were transferred to another owner.

Former NRA President Marion Hammer considers the ruling a victory.

“This was a great win for law-abiding gun owners in Florida. The Supreme Court agreed with our contention that the ballot summary was deceptive and would fool voters,” said Hammer.

Opponents of the amendment also took issue with the way it defined assault weapons, arguing it would have banned virtually all long guns capable of holding more than one round at a time.

However the court did not weigh in on that issue.

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Test Results Delayed By Human Error and Extra Caution

June 3rd, 2020 by Jake Stofan

The state has ended its relationship with a South Florida doctor contracted to communicate COVID-19 test results to people who took the test.

Published reports show notification delays are common, which was the case for reporter Mike Vasilinda in his own rest results taken in the middle of May.

I went to this testing site on May 14th not because I had symptoms, but because I wanted to show you what it was like to be tested.

I was given a ticket and directed to a woman, who took my name.

Then I was directed through the FAMU stadium, showed my ID to a national guardsman, then directed to stand on a red X.

“I’m going to swab your nose, ok?” said the doctor.

A swap was inserted in my left nasal canal and rotated five times.

Unpleasant, but not painful.

Then repeated in my right cavity.

As I left, I was applauded, and then told that if I didn’t hear anything in a week, give them a call.

I got a call on the seventh day, but it didn’t tell me my results.

I sent multiple emails and I called the number given to me at the test site.

Testing contractor CDR McGuire’s phone log shows I was called again on May 29 and again on June 1st before they got through on the second.

Negative as expected.

Donna Wolfson and her husband of Sarasota waited 15 days for her results, which came back negative.

“It’s, the whole thing was just so frustrating, because if they want us to be tested, and are making decisions on that testing, if you don’t get the results, then what’s the point of getting tested,” said Wolfson.

The testing company in Sarasota is not the same company that handled Mike’s test in the state capital.

In a statement CDR McGuire reassured us that people who test positive are at the top of the list for being called.

CDR McGuire has now also launched a patient portal where patients login, are sent a verification code and delivered their results.

We received this statement from the Florida Department of Health:

“The state has increased testing at drive-thru sites across the state. Since May 1, we have opened sites in Sarasota, Lee, Santa Rosa, Miami-Dade, Escambia, Broward, Brevard and Volusia counties. In total, these sites allow the state to perform more than 4,000 additional tests per day. Overall, between state supported walk-up sites and state-supported drive-thru sites, more than 250,000 tests have been administered.
Every day, these sites send their samples to commercial labs for testing. These tests are performed as quickly as possible, and often are available within 72 hours of being received by the lab. Once the lab results are available, individuals are contacted as quickly as possible, with priority being placed on anyone who tested positive.
In order to expedite the confirmation of results, the state has expanded the capacity to contact individuals who are tested at these sites. Specifically, the state has streamlined these results to come from a HIPAA compliant, contracted call center, which can contact up to 10,000 individuals per day.
If anyone tested at any of the below sites is having a difficulty getting their results, they can visit covid19resultsfl.com to view and print their results online or email COVID19Results@cdrmhealth.com.   They can also call 850-583-2419 to leave a voicemail and receive a call back within 24-48 hours.
Additionally, to expedite result notification, a new service has been launched by Genetworx to provide notifications directly to individuals that have been tested. A text notification will be sent directly to the individual tested as soon as their results are available. To protect their privacy, individuals will then need to log in to the portal to receive their results.” -Jason Mahon, Communications Director, Fl. Department of Emergency Management

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Floridians Stockpiling Guns and Ammo Amid National Crises

June 3rd, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida continues to see record gun sales as the pandemic and civil unrest over the death of George Floyd rock the nation.

With more and more Floridians purchasing guns, Florida Democrats are increasingly concerned about recent comments from public officials warning and even urging citizens to shoot rioters and looters.

From January to May firearm background checks in Florida were up almost 48 percent compared to last year.

Pawn Shop owner Mark Folmar told us most of the sales early on were due to the pandemic.

“Concerned about their safety,” said Folmar.

And he’s seeing a new type of customer.

“People that had not previously owned guns or hadn’t thought they needed one,” said Folmar.

The influx of new gun owners has Florida Democrats like State Senator Lori Berman concerned.

“Having a gun leads to more gun deaths, leads to more unnatural deaths,“ said Berman.

Store owners we’ve spoken with also report ammo sales are through the roof.

“What we’ve seen is people hoarding ammo like, well if I’m never able to get it again I’m going to buy all I can right now,” said Folmar.

Some public officials like Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd have even encouraged citizens to use firearms to protect their homes from looters.

“I’m highly recommending they blow you back out of the house with their gun,” said Judd.

And Representative Anthony Sabatini Tweeted a photo of an AR-15 as a warning to those who attempt to damage businesses.

Democratic State Senator Oscar Braynon is worried the rhetoric combined with more gun ownership could be a recipe for disaster.

“There’s so many things that can go wrong with ‘new gun ownership’, I guess you could call it, and them encouraging that is only putting people in a worse position,” said Braynon.

Violent protests have largely deescalated over the past few days in Florida, but gun sales in May were up 75 percent nationwide and in many cities tensions remain high.

Former NRA President Marion Hammer told us in a statement, “I suspect the desire to exercise Second Amendment rights and buy firearms will continue as long as people feel the need to be ready to protect themselves and their families.”

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Protestors at Florida Capitol Fearful of Being Targeted

June 3rd, 2020 by Jake Stofan

After hundreds hit the streets of the state capital this weekend, protests in front of the Capitol building are ongoing.

By early afternoon about 40 protestors were gathered holding signs in support of George Floyd and police reform.

One protestor, Alice, who only gave us her first name, told us she’d expect more people would be at the protests, but they are fearful for their safety.

“We have had a couple of instances. I’m sure that you know about the truck that drove through. We’ve had one of our protestors get attacked on not-protest time. It’s not safe for the people here, so we’re trying to be the voices of those that are scared,” said Alice. “I’m not sure that we’re getting the message through, but I do know that we’re at least waking people up.”

Alice told us she’s been protesting for six days straight and doesn’t expect to stop any time soon.

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Florida Climate Change Lawsuit Not Over Yet

June 2nd, 2020 by Jake Stofan

A judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by a group of Floridians aged 12 to 22 who are concerned about climate change, but the youth are appealing the ruling.

The judge said the issue is political, but the plaintiffs say the politicians are violating their rights.

Delaney Reynolds is one of eight young Floridians named in a lawsuit against the state seeking to force more action to combat climate change.

“I want to be able to live in South Florida when I’m older. I want my kids and grandkids and others in future generations to be able to live here,” said Reynolds, who lives in Miami.

The suit is based on the premise that the right to a clean environment is part of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Attorneys representing the plaintiffs argue the state’s energy policy is actively contributing to the demise of the environment.

“Florida gets about less than three percent of their energy from renewables. So because it’s so dominated from fossil fuels it results in very high levels of greenhouse gas emissions,” said Andrea Rodgers Senior Attorney for Our Children’s Trust.

And plaintiffs like Reynolds have seen the effects first hand.

“It didn’t flood when I was younger and now it floods multiple times a year and that’s only going to get worse if we don’t do something about it,” said Reynolds.

However, Circuit Court Judge Kevin Carroll saw it differently and threw out the case before it could go to trial.

He argued the issue was political and should be left to the Legislative and Executive branches to address.

Attorney Guy Burns is also representing the plaintiffs.

He asserts lawmakers have had their chance and action is needed now.

That’s the case they’ll make as legal battle moves to an appellate court.

“It’s time for the third and co-equal branch of government, the judicial system, to step up and require the other two branches of government to stop the conduct that’s violating the constitutional rights of our clients,” said Burns.

Lawyers representing the Governor and the Department of Agriculture have argued there is no constitutional right to a healthy environment, any more than there is a constitutional right to world peace or economic prosperity.

The judge ruled from the bench and has not yet issued put the ruling to ink and paper, but he promised to write his ruling in a way that it could be appealed and wished the young plaintiffs good luck.

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Evictions Postponed Until July 1st

June 2nd, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The latest figures show the number of people paying rent dropped by almost ten percent from the month of April to the first week of May.

The Governor has extended a moratorium on evictions so renters will not have to face losing their home until at least the first of July.

The Florida Apartment Association reports the number of people paying rent on time has dropped.

“So at the end of April, for conventional apartment units in Florida, we show a 93 percent collection rate. As of May 6th we had 84.1 percent of conventional apartment units had paid their rent,” said Amanda Gill with the association.

Gill told us owners and managers are working with tenants.

“Some of my communities are providing payment plans. Some are offering rent deferment,” said Gill.

Late Monday, just hours before a ban on evictions was set to expire, Governor Ron DeSantis extended the eviction moratorium until July first.

Property Manager Kent Strauss is worried it will send the wrong message.

“Because there is a differentiation between those that lost their jobs and their incomes, to the ones who are still working and are sort of playing the landlord game,” said Strauss.

Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson had urged the Governor to extend the eviction moratorium.

“People need to be in a safe place to live. And not end up homeless,” said Gibson.

Strauss’ company manages about 500 properties for just under 200 owners.

He said only about 30 renters aren’t living up to their responsibilities.

But as more people are going back to work, Strauss told us more people appear are coming forward with at least partial payments as a sign of good faith.

A full picture of rent payments should be available in about a week to ten days.

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Red Truck Incident Under Investigation

June 1st, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The state capital was relatively calm Monday after a weekend of protests.

Protestors are seeking answers about three officer involved shootings in the last three months in the capital city.

Just three dozen or so protesters were at the Capitol Monday, following hundreds who spend the weekend there.

They’re demanding justice after three police officer involved shootings in the last three months.

“From the time Michael Johnson died on March 20th of 2020, there has been no legal action or ramifications against anybody who has the position to do so,” said protest organizer Tesia Lisbon.

Windows shattered by protestors on Saturday were boarded up by Monday.

The calmness is far cry from Saturday, when tensions flared after a red pick up truck made it into the center of a marching crowd.

A second video shows the crowd following the truck and officers protecting the driver.

State Attorney Jack Campbell said the incident is still under investigation, combing dozens of video sources for evidence.

“There is some indication from the people who were in the truck that they were being punched. We found some video of the passenger being hit. That would raise a possible self defense claim,” said Campbell.

The cases of the three officer involved shootings are at a standstill.

That’s because they must be reviewed by a grand jury, and the virus has put grand juries on hold until at least July.

Until a grand jury can meet, the officers will remain on paid administrative leave.

Demands for body and dash cam video will also be on hold until the grand jury hears the cases.

No one was seriously injured in the incident with the truck.

Protestors are demanding the driver be arrested.

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Many Floridians May Ride Out Hurricanes Due to Pandemic

June 1st, 2020 by Jake Stofan

A new survey by AAA finds 42 percent of Floridians say they’re less likely to evacuate this hurricane season due to fear of the coronavirus.

“Unfortunately you have a lot of people who just don’t want to evacuate. They want to stay home, they feel like they can protect their belongings and you just can’t get them to leave despite official warnings, things like that. And now you add to that concerns about coronavirus,” said Mike Jenkins with AAA.

The survey also found three out of ten Floridians won’t evacuate even if ordered to.

“It’s a deadly call to make,” said former FEMA Director Craig Fugate.

Fugate told us pandemic or no pandemic, people need to heed evacuation orders.

“If you’re in the evacuation zone move to higher ground,” said Fugate.

The messaging from state officials is essentially the same as past years, but they are warning against unnecessary evacuations, like when millions took to the highways to escape Hurricane Irma.

“If your home is a newer home, if your home is safe, stay home. Get ready. Stay off the roads,” said Fugate.

For those who do need to seek shelter, 200 hotels have offered their rooms to evacuees to provide for adequate social distancing.

Shelters are also being told to screen evacuees for COVD-19.

“And taking those steps to identify people who may be at risk, may have been exposed and get them into isolation,” said Fugate.

And the former FEMA Director says now is the time to prepare.

Hurricane supplies are tax free through June 4th.

Fugate also recommends adding gloves, hand sanitizer and masks to your hurricane supply kit this year.

Those items however are not covered under the tax free holiday.

Florida’s Emergency Management Director announced last week the state had a stockpile of 10 million masks, 5 million gloves and 1 million face shields.

The state has also entered into an agreement for 12 million additional face masks to help with shelter operations.

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New Site Offers Financial Resources and Advice During Pandemic

May 29th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Three out of four Floridians say they’re feeling more financial strain from the COVID-19 pandemic according to a recent survey.

Now credit unions, banks and Florida’s Chief Financial Officer have teamed up and launched a new resource to help guide residents through these turbulent times.

While most Floridians are feeling more financial strain from the pandemic, nearly half say they’re feeling significantly more.

“Job uncertainty has kicked in,” said Florida CFO Jimmy Patronis.

Patronis is touting the launch of MoneyWiseFlorida.com.

“It’s a roadmap to try to help people,” said Patronis.

The site offers a multitude of financial resources and advice, many of which are specifically geared towards pandemic relief.

“Getting their PPP loans if they need them or want them. Helping them get other products like the economic impact disaster loans,” said Anthony DiMarco with the Florida Bankers Association.

Suncoast Credit Union CEO Kevin Johnson told us, learning how to create a six-month emergency fund is paramount in these times.

It’s something only three in ten Floridians had going into the pandemic.

“And that number is much higher if you look at the younger generation and minorities,” said Johnson. “And that’s where this information that we’re producing will really help. It’s to be able to help them navigate through this, help them budget their money better.”

The experts we spoke said the best advice they had to give was to live within your means.

“If you’re racking up a lot of credit card debt, then you’re probably buying things that you don’t absolutely need or that you can find less expensive somewhere,” said Johnson.

But if you are doing well right now you might want to consider making that big purchase.

“With the rates where they are, mortgage rates and the ability to get financing for homes and cars, now is a good time,” said Jared Ross, President of the Florida Credit Union Association.

And the CFO tells us scammers are running rampant right now.

Remember the federal or state government will never contact you directly offering money.

To report a suspected scam you can go to FraudFreeFlorida.com.

To access the new financial web resource go to MoneyWiseFlorida.com.

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Lawsuit Not Over Yet

May 29th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

After a day and a half hearing, a judge in the state capital said he could not take control of the state’s unemployment system because of the separation of powers, but a lawsuit claiming negligence and more is moving forward.

30,000 or more Floridians have contacted lawyers suing the state over its failed unemployment system.

In their efforts to get a judge to take over the system, they invoked the Governor’s own words.

“Governor DeSantis said it best.This is a clunker, and he said publicly, he thought the system was designed to fail from the beginning,” said attorney Marie Mattox.

And while Judge John Cooper said he was clearly unhappy with the way unemployment benefits were being handled, he told lawyers it was out of his hands.

“I can’t tell the Governor what to do most of the time,” said Cooper.

And he went one step further.

“If you see something that you think is wrong, then you vote out that person, or that legislator, that city council person,” said Cooper.

But the judge also did not kill the lawsuit that was behind the request for emergency action to take over the department.

“The case is not over. I haven’t dismissed the case,” said Cooper.

While the lawsuit has just a handful of clients right now, it’s expected to turn into a very large class action suit.

The body of the suit seeks damages from the main contractor who built the problem laden system in 2013.

“I’m comfortable telling your honor that there’s at least 50,000, and I think it’s more,” said attorney Gautier Kitchen.

The ruling does mean that for people still waiting for a check they’ll now have to rely on the overwhelmed Department.

The lawyers believe the lawsuit will take a year or longer to play out in the courts.

The Governor has ordered his Inspector General to get to the bottom of the failed system and may seek some financial settlement from maker Deloitte.

Lawmakers are also expected to wade into the fiasco when then begin meeting late this year.

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Lone Statewide Elected Democrat Takes Jabs at Governor in Cabinet Showdown

May 28th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

The Florida Governor and Cabinet held their first meeting since the start of the pandemic nearly four months ago Thursday.

Democrat Nikki Fried came out swinging.

The state’s Agriculture Commissioner had hoped to get multiple items on the agenda including a pandemic and budget update, but her request fell on deaf ears.

Commissioner Fried was the only one of four officials to show up in person to the meeting.

She began by requesting a moment of silence for the more than 100,000 American lives lost to COVID-19.

“Aright, very well,” said Governor Ron DeSantis after taking a pause.

It would be the lone statewide elected Democrat’s only request to be honored.

At the end of the meeting she expressed her disappointment.

“Each of us received more than four million votes and were put here to do a job and for the most critical nearly four months of this pandemic this cabinet has been left in the dark,” said Fried.

The Governor adjourned the meeting without responding to her comments.

“You guys have a good one, take care,” DeSantis said before hanging up.

After the meeting, Fried told us she’d hoped to hear from the State Surgeon General and Department of Health on a number of pandemic related issues.

“In regards to data analysis, the information coming out of the nursing homes, the prison system,” said Fried.

She’d also requested an update on the state’s financial situation.

The state is projected to have lost $2.4 billion since March.

“And all of those were not fulfilled and were quite frankly ignored,” said Fried.

Fried asserts without the cabinet having these conversations, the public will be less informed and at higher risk as the state reopens.

“My concern is that the public is not getting correct information as we’re continuing to open up our state, opening up our beaches, our restaurants, our gyms, our summer camps. It’s important that people be able to make their own personal decisions whether to engage in those activities,” said Fried.

Even some seemingly benign requests from the commissioner went ignored, including a request to give an update on food distribution programs and an update on the wildfires raging in the panhandle.

We did reach out to the Governor’s Office for a response to the criticism lobbed by Commissioner Fried, but did not hear back.

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Unemployment Investigation Underway

May 28th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The investigation into why Florida paid more than $77 million for an unemployment technology system that hasn’t worked properly since the beginning in 2013 is underway.

The inspector General looking at documents and is asking for patience.

The Governor first called for an investigation into the failed unemployment system on on May 1st.

“The way it was done was not worth the amount of money that was put in. I’ve not found a single person who has said its worth it,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

Since then, Inspector General Melinda Miguel has been pulling documents.

“One of the things we’re looking at is whether this particular project was designed properly, tested properly and designed with appropriate capacity. We want to provide a historical look back, going all the way back to 2007,” said Miguel.

That year the state spent a million dollars on a study to replace its aging system.

Four years later, work began on what was then a $39 million contract.

Seventeen amendments later, it ballooned to a $77 million project.

“We want to follow all of the money,” said Miguel.

Florida Democrats also want an independent legislative investigation.

Democrats like State Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez have said the investigation must go beyond the failed technology and the past administration.

“We should take a wholesale look at the damage done to the entire state, including employers and employees who rely on the system,” said Rodriguez.

Miguel told us she will have a better idea on where the investigation is going in about a month.

“There are a lot of people out there hurting. Florida families need the State of Florida right now at a time like no other. And I think we’ll get to the bottom of this,” said Miguel.

But no investigation is going to speed up payments to the thousands still waiting.

As of Thursday morning, more than 338,000 thousand people were still waiting for a determination on the validity of their claims.

Another 33,000 who have been deemed eligible are still waiting for their first check.

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Cabinet Green Lights 32,000 Acre Purchase of Conservation Lands

May 28th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Floridians will have more natural wonders to explore as the state opens up with the Governor and Cabinet approving the purchase of 32,000 acres for protection Thursday.

The lands, purchased primarily in the panhandle through the Florida Forever Program, include Lake Wimico in Gulf County, Devil’s Garden in Hendry County and the Bluffs of St. Teresa in Franklin and Wukulla counties.

Executive Director of Audubon Florida Julie Wraithmell said the between $73 and $79 million price tag on the seven land purchases is well worth the investment for the state.

“Whether you’re talking about our tourism economy or our real estate values, the ability of military bases to continue the military mission or even agriculture. They depend on these open spaces and the water quality and quantity protection that they’re providing,” said Wraithmell.

Since 2001 the Florida Forever Program has been used to purchase and protect more than 800,000 acres of natural lands throughout the state.

Thursday’s purchase was the largest in at least a decade.

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Judge Dismisses Second Unemployment Lawsuit

May 28th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

For the second time, a judge has refused to step in and manage the state’s unemployment system.

Judge John Cooper called the current crisis a ‘black swan event’ and beyond the Department of Economic Opportunity’s ability to control.

Judge Cooper also cited multiple improvements that have resulted in more than a million people being paid benefits.

“But there’s still a problem and I agree there’s still a problem and this is affecting a lot of people and it’s not their fault that they’re not getting paid. Well, I don’t know every single instance, but I suspect for the majority of them it’s not their fault…” said Cooper. “I can’t tell the Governor what to do most of the time and he can’t tell me what to do most of the time.”

The judge said the only way he could have intervened is if the Governor had simply refused to pay any benefits at all.

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