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

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.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

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.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Eldercare Facilities: Our Businesses Being Hit by a Cat 5 COVID Hurricane

July 21st, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s aging services providers said they are losing money every month because of increased COVID-19 costs in a roundtable discussion Tuesday.

They are concerned of even greater losses if the state stops paying for regular staff and resident testing.

200,000 staff and 150,000 assisted living facility residents get COVID tests every two weeks.

The facilities liken the pandemic to a category five hurricane sweeping across their businesses.

“We don’t now what comes next if the state funded testing ends in September. What we do know is that our members estimate costs between $25,000 and $300,000 per month for ongoing staff testing,” said Steve Bahmer, CEO of Leading Edge Florida.

The facilities are experiencing staff fatigue and short staffing when someone tests positive or needs to be isolated because of contact.

“We must provide testing for both our staff and our residents. That’s the only mechanism that we have right now to ensure that we are keeping everybody safe,” said Campus Senior Life CEO Jay Solomon.

Despite the facilities’ concerns, the Governor told them not to worry.

During the medical roundtable with hospitals, the Governor told us there were no plans to shift the costs of testing to the elder facilities.

“Where we’re doing every staff member every two weeks, and that’s going to keep on going. We’ve not put any limitation on that,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

And good news may be on the horizon.

During the roundtable, Florida Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Moorehead told the Governor there is light at the end of the tunnel.

“For over the last week, we’ve had a very significant plateau, which has been incredibly welcome,” said Moorehead.

But that light can’t come soon enough for the facilities racking up costs or for patients who have been isolated from the outside for months.

The Governor reiterated Tuesday that the state has sufficient hospital and intensive care beds to care for COVID patients and anyone needing medical care.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Florida CFO Fears Twitter Breach Could Target Economy or Elections

July 21st, 2020 by Jake Stofan

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is being called on to investigate a recent security breach at Twitter that compromised at least eight high profile users’ accounts.

The goal is to figure out what went wrong, in hopes of preventing similar attacks from interfering with the state’s economy and elections.

If you recently saw high profile figures like Bill Gates, Barack Obama or Joe Biden promising to double your money if you send them bitcoin… you aren’t alone.

So did Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis.

“What’s a concern to me is every state agency, every federal agency depends on Twitter in order to get official statements out,” said Patronis.

Patronis has asked FDLE to aid the FBI and other law enforcement investigating the incident.

He said it could help Twitter identify how to prevent future attacks.

“This is a call to action of Twitter needing to step up its game to ensure that whatever extra security measures need to be put in place are done immediately,” said Patronis.

Patronis’ main concern going forward is the possibility of hackers manipulating the economy.

“We’ve got a state that has $170 billion in our state retirement account. If somebody was to manipulate the wrong CEOs’ or the right CEOs’ Twitter accounts to send a message out, that sends our values of our state retirements plummeting,” said Patronis.

But he also worries an attack on the Twitter account of a supervisor of elections’ office could have implications for the Primary or General election.

“You know, we’ve extended voting hours by an extra hour, but that was never the case and then that gets out and gets reported,” said Patronis.

And Patronis has a simple tip for identifying potential scams on social media: If you see something that sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

If you see something suspicious on your own social media account or someone else’s, you should report it to fraudfreeflorida.com.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Teachers Sue to Block School Reopening Mandate

July 20th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

A lawsuit filed by the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, is seeking to prevent Florida schools from reopening next month.

The suit alleges schools won’t be able to provide the protections needed to conduct in person classes safely, violating the state constitution.

“We must have a safe school system. That is written in the Florida Constitution,” said President of the Florida Education Association Fedrick Ingram.

Named in the suit are multiple educators who are at risk for serious complications with COVID-19.

“I stand up for myself, an African American male with asthma and an autoimmune deficiency,” said plaintiff and Orange County Teacher Ladara Royal. “I would never imagine while answering the divine call of being an educator to one day place my life in jeopardy and at risk.”

The suit comes after the Florida Department of Education issued an emergency order requiring schools to provide in-person learning starting in August.

The Governor poured some water on the scope of the order in a news conference last Wednesday.

“It should not be dictated by the Department of Education, I think they can recommend,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

But he doubled down on the need for parents to have options.

“You know if you have a school district that’s offering the in-person instruction, which many parents think is very important, if you have parents that aren’t comfortable with that, that they have the ability to opt for distance learning,” said DeSantis.

The Florida Education Association said the suit doesn’t seek to overturn local reopening plans, only the statewide mandate for all schools to return to the classroom.

A recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics has been one of the driving forces behind the push to reopen, but the Academy has since walked back its recommendation, urging science to come before politics.

And teachers don’t believe the science supports reopening classrooms.

“If you do this wrong the school becomes the germ factory,” said President of the National Education Association Lily Eskelsen García.

The Florida Education Association is also circulating an online petition to delay school reopening.

So far it has collected more than 20,000 signatures.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Both Sides Pleased in Election Suit

July 20th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Voting rights activists and the state were ready to square off Monday morning in a two week federal trial when an 11th hour settlement was reached.

Both sides are happy.

The lawsuit originally filed in March, sought to lengthen the time mail ballots could be counted.

It wanted the state to pay for return postage and to provide drop boxes where mail ballots could be returned.

“Frankly, there was a recognition somewhat by the plaintiffs that a lot of what they were asking for we are already doing,” said Mark Earley, Vice President of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections.

Under the settlement, supervisors will be encouraged to use of all of the available early voting days, have drop off boxes at polling places and work with the postal service to get mail ballots back in time to be counted.

The state will be sending invitations to every eligible nonvoter to register.

“That is huge, because as you know, the Department of Motor Vehicles has been closed. Supervisors of Elections have been closed,” said Gilda Daniels with the Advancement Project.

By law, there must be at least eight days of early voting, but up to 14 are allowed.

Using all 14 also allows mail ballots to start being counted sooner.

“That is a very very important thing, because the vote by mail tabulation begins is keyed off when you start early voting,” said Earley.

What the voting groups did not get was their request to allow mail ballots to be counted for up to a week after an election.

“In any settlement you don’t get everything that you want,” said Daniels.

Just one issue remains outstanding.

That’s whether blind and deaf voters will be able to cast their ballots remotely.

But supervisors said it is already too late to implement newly approved software in what is already a challenging election year.

Monday was also the last day to register to vote for the August 18th primary.

Most supervisors said they will stay open later to accommodate voters.

You can also register to vote online up until midnight.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Unemployment Dropped in June; July Looking Less Optimistic

July 17th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida’s unemployment rate was down to 10.4 percent in June according to the latest statistics published by the Department of Economic Opportunity.

It’s down from 13.7 percent in May, but indications are July’s numbers won’t be as promising.

Florida’s unemployment sits below the national average of 11.1 percent.

In June the state added 296,000 jobs.

Three out of five were in the hospitality sector.

“Largely it’s a result of restaurants and a more broad reopening across the state,” said Adrienne Johnston, Chief of DEO’s Bureau of Labor Market Statistics.

But a lot has happened since June.

The state’s COVID cases have continued to skyrocket, forcing the state to once again close bars.

“We would expect to see the impacts from that in the July report,” said Johnston.

Senator Randolph Bracy represents parts of Orange County, which has the second highest unemployment rate in the state at 17.2 percent.

He worries the hospitality industry is in worse shape than the latest numbers reflect.

“Businesses are laying off people and things have changed a lot. So I don’t think that these numbers reflect what’s actually happening in our economy,” said Bracy.

Since the start of July, the state has also seen a rise in unemployment claims, averaging more than 21,000 a day.

That’s nearly a 25 percent increase over June’s daily average.

And Senator Linda Stewart, who also represents the Orlando area, told us until the state gets a hold of the virus, it can expect more economic woes.

“We need tourism to thrive. That’s our number one contribution to our budget,” said Stewart.

The state also acknowledged unemployment rates may be slightly higher than reported, due to some furloughed workers inaccurately indicating they are employed.

The numbers also don’t reflect those who have stopped looking for work.

As of Friday afternoon, the state had paid out nearly $10.5 billion to more than 1.7 million Floridians.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Bars Must Wait Longer

July 17th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

This weekend was once eyed by the state as a potential date for bars to at least partially reopen, but that decision remains on hold.

Harry’s Bar in Carrabelle Florida, population twenty eight hundred, opened in 1942, as hundreds of thousands of GI’s trained on the nearby Gulf beach for the Pacific invasion.

It is one of a handful of bars who have filed suit to overturn the state’s order closing them.

“Essentially, we all arguing the same thing. That’s its unfair to single out bars and shut them down, when for example, you can go and buy a drink at Applebees, Chili’s, or another chain restaurant,” said Ethan Way, the attorney representing the bars.

Harry’s has continued paying people, but has started a GoFundMe page to make up for people’s lost tips.

“We have single mothers that are so…it’s been difficult,” said manager Kimberly Wallace.

In an exclusive interview almost two weeks ago, the man in charge of regulating bars told us July 16th was a potential date to decide whether to reopen bars.

The answer is not now.

“It’s like the virus, as it’s spread, it’s gone like wildfire. We can’t open the bars and breweries right now, that’d be like pouring gasoline on the fire to make it hotter to burn out faster. We have to maintain what we are doing right now,” said DBPR Secretary Halsey Beshears.

In the last three weeks, ABT agents have made more than 8,400 visits.

Just five licenses have been suspended.

“The restaurants that are out there that they say are crowded, we go in. We inspect. We look at the occupancy number, and they are in compliance,” said Beshears.

And the state is considering new options for bars.

They include moving all service outdoors and an early curfew.

The state did not give us a timetable for easing bar restrictions, but it is clear the virus infection rate has to be heading in the right direction first.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

EOC Shuts Down After Infections

July 17th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

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

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

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

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

It is expected to reopen Monday.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

State Hopes to Speed COVID Test Results and Improve Reporting

July 16th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

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

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

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

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

Thankfully, she tested negative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DOH is working to collect the missing test results.

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

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Parents to Choose School Options

July 16th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Questions Remain Over Labs Reporting 100 Percent Positive Cases

July 15th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes missing positive cases and now missing its negatives.

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

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

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

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

Posted in State News | No Comments »

As COVID Increases, So Does Unemployment

July 15th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

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

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

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

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

So far, 1.7 million have been paid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Payne is in worse straights.

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

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

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

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

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Appellate Court Mulls Penalties for Local Officials Who Violate Gun Preemption

July 14th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Local governments worry it could be a slippery slope.

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

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

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Predator Danger Increases

July 13th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in State News | No Comments »

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