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State Takes Hard Stance Against Vaccine Tourism

January 14th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Speaking to the first meeting of the newly created State House Pandemics and Public Emergencies Committee, State Emergency Director Jared Moskowitz explained why it’s important for snowbirds spending time in Florida are eligible to get the vaccine.

But he also said the state in no way is encouraging Vaccine tourism.

“Vaccinating snowbirds, people who live here, rent, own a house, pay taxes, contribute to the economy, they are eligible. If they get sick while they’re here, they wind up in our hospitals. But that is very different than vaccine tourism. Vaccine tourism is not permitted. It is abhorrent. People should not be flying here to get a vaccine and flying out,” said Moskowitz.

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Vaccinations Would Take More Than a Year at Current Pace

January 13th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

It could take more than a year to vaccinate all Floridians based on the number of vaccine doses the state is currently receiving on a weekly basis.

The timetable came to light as the Florida Surgeon General fielded tough questions from state senators.

Testifying before the Senate Health Policy Committee, State Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees said COVID vaccine supply isn’t meeting the demand.

“How you convey during a pandemic, it’s a very difficult conversation to have and frankly, it’s heartbreaking,” said Rivkees.

But Senators like Aaron Bean pushed for some sense of a timeline for their constituents.

“We have to be able to say, we don’t have any now, but it’s coming. When’s it coming?” said Bean.

After taking similar questions from other lawmakers, Rivkees laid out the current situation.

“We’re getting about 200,000 [to] 250,000 doses a week,” said Rivkees.

At that rate, it would take more than a year to vaccinate the general population, but Rivkees provided some hope for optimism.

“This is our path out of the pandemic and I don’t think there’s any question that we are going to see a substantial increase in terms of vaccine availability,” said Rivkees.

The state has received 1.6 million vaccine doses to date.

Of those, more than 600,000 have been administered, leaving about a million doses still in the freezer.

There’s also been difficulty interpreting the Governor’s executive order.

Some home health care works report being turned away for vaccinations.

Rivkees made it clear, any health care worker in direct contact with patients is eligible to be vaccinated.

Committee Chair Manny Diaz said the state needs to do a better job clarifying that intent.

“Usually I would expect that that’s being handled by the Department of Health because they’re in the front line on this,” said Diaz.

The Surgeon General also addressed issues with vaccine scheduling web sites crashing, saying the Department of Health is working on a state wide scheduling portal that will likely roll out in the next few weeks.

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Breaches at State Capitol Few and Far Between

January 13th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

The State Capitol and surrounding community are bracing for potentially violent protests in the coming days leading up to next week’s inauguration.

Law enforcement has already instituted a 24/7 command post

Historically, security breaches at the State Capitol have been few and far between.

In 1979, death penalty protesters disrupted the Governors outer office during the states first execution in more than a decade.

Protestors tied up phone lines, potentially disrupting communication with the state prison.

“Stay it. Stay it. You goddamn beasts,” said Jimmy Lohman during the protest.

Lohman is now a lawyer representing death row inmates.

”I was rather emotionally worked up at the time,” said Lohman.

He tells us what happened in 1979 is a far cry from the take over of the nation’s Capitol last week.

“It was planned and permitted. I don’t think there’s much they have in common. There was no significant breach of security,” said Lohman.

In 1991, a college student high on mushrooms broke in and took over a senate office.

Police feared he was armed.

“He has indicated he does have hostages. Whether or not he does, we’ll know in the next little while,” said Leon County Sheriff Larry Campbell during the incident.

A stand off lasted for hours.

In the end, Marshall Ledbetter surrendered.

He faced charges, underwent mental treatment and was released.

In 2013 the Dream Defenders refused to leave the hallway in front of the Governor’s Office for 31 days.

“I think it’s passion that keeps us going,” said one of the protesters we interviewed during the incident.

Rules at the time that let them stay have now been changed.

Most recently, in the aftermath of the Parkland shootings, some students refused to leave some legislative offices without a meeting.

No one was arrested.

And if protestors do come to the Capitol this weekend, they’ll find buildings empty except for law enforcement.

Security at the Capitol was significantly strengthened following the 9-11 attacks and is expected to involve federal state and local law enforcement this weekend and beyond.

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Judge Declines to Return Confiscated Property to Former State Data Scientist

January 13th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Former state data scientist Rebekah Jones appeared in a virtual court hearing Wednesday, seeking the return of her computer and other devices confiscated by FDLE in December.

FDLE raided Jones’ home searching for evidence to tie her to an unauthorized message sent on a Department of Health emergency alert system.

Jones’ attorney argued the property should be returned, alleging the evidence used to execute the warrant was insufficient.

Judge John Cooper disagreed, an indicated he did believe there was probable cause.

He declined to return the property for now, requesting input from the State Attorney who would be the one to make the decision of whether or not to press charges.

“I just don’t think the state can keep evidence when it has already made a decision it’s not going to use it. If it’s investigating that and can’t determine it, I think the state’s entitled under the separation of powers to have a reasonable amount of time to make that decision,” said Judge Cooper.

Judge Cooper added he’d likely rule to return Jones’ items if the State Attorney says he doesn’t intend to charge her with a crime.

On the other hand, he would rule against returning the property if charges are being considered.

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DCF Updates Lawmakers Ahead of 2021 Session

January 12th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

State lawmakers heard from the head of the Florida Department of Children and families Tuesday morning.

The agency provided updates on the pandemic, addressing sexual abuse allegations from foster children and the ongoing fight to return millions in tax payer dollars used for excessive salaries by the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Domestic violence and child abuse calls have nearly returned to normal levels after dropping dramatically at the start of the pandemic.

DCF Secretary Chad Poppell said the agency is also seeing more over doses, mental health concerns and evictions.

“We’ve got 40,000 evictions filed around the state,” said Poppell.

There’s also 1.3 million new Floridians receiving benefits like food stamps and medicaid.

“We’re working on some strategies to try and work with that population to help them get back on their feet,” said Poppell.

The Secretary heard concerns from lawmakers regarding allegations of sexual abuse by foster parents.

Over the past four years, only ten percent of nearly 300 allegations were verified by the agency.

“These are pieces of information that they cannot make up unless they’ve had to live through or endure what those things are,” said State Senator Lauren Book.

Poppell indicated DCF will begin utilizing its critical response team to review cases and establish a special investigations unit to better address alleged sexual abuse by foster care parents.

The Secretary asked lawmakers to work on policy to make the changes permanent.

Poppell also updated lawmakers on the state’s effort to recover $7 million in tax payer dollars used to pay excessive executive salaries by the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“I can have a briefing set up for you guys behind closed doors about the settlement and what not, discussions, if there is a settlement,” said Poppell.

The contract, once guaranteed to the coalition in statute, is now up for bid.

Lawmakers said more safeguards will need to be in place.

“Putting names into statute is dangerous. I think that then people think they are above the law. And they are not,” said Book.

And retaining child protective investigators remains a persistent issue at DCF.

The turnover rate sits at 43 percent.

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Capitol Security Tight Ahead of Potential Protests

January 12th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

The US Attorney, the Florida Department of Law enforcement, Capitol Police and local officials are all on alert for potentially armed and violent protests beginning Sunday and lasting through inauguration Day at the State Capitol.

Legislative staff are are being told to work remotely if they must work on Sunday.

Flyers circulating the internet promise fifty state capitol protests beginning Sunday.

On Monday, state Senators spent an hour behind closed doors for a classified security briefing.

“And our Senate President was dead serious when he said they would keep us safe, and I felt very good walking out of that security briefing,” said State Senator Janet Cruz.

State Senator Linda Stewart said the security briefing included tips for when Senators were not in the Capitol as well.

“There’s a bunch of crazy people out there. We can’t tell what they are doing. I’ve already gotten several flyers that are promoting violence, and we must always be on our toes and be alert,” said Stewart.

The FBI sent an alert putting all 50 state Capitols on alert.

Lawrence Keefe, US Attorney for Northern Florida, said plans are in place to keep the peace.

“We are in a 24/7 command center posture. And I’m a great believer in transparency and if you want the public to trust assurances that we believe we have the situation in control here,” said Keefe.

In the past few decades security breaches have been few and far between.

None have ended violently.

State Senator Aaron Bean said the briefing dealt with multiple threats.

“We’re just looking at anybody who wants to do harm. And that’s where the briefing was designed to have safe blanket of security,” said Bean.

Lawmakers themselves won’t be at the Capitol over the weekend, nor next week, when the chances of violent protests are greatest.

Flags at the State Capitol are currently at half staff in honor of the two officers who died as a result of last week’s protest at the US Capitol.

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COVID Business Protection on Fast Track

January 11th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

A new report from Florida TaxWatch estimates that the state could lose hundreds of thousands of existing jobs and billions of dollars in economic activity if lawmakers don’t act to protect businesses from COVID-related lawsuits.

Lawmakers are moving quickly to to enact safeguards.

St. Petersburg State Senator Jeff Brandes is leading the charge to protect businesses from COVID lawsuits.

“Any type of lawsuit would essentially drive them under, because many of them are teetering on the brink,” said Brandes.

The protections would be retroactive to March.

“We can’t have the threat of COVID liability suits hanging over the head of small businesses because it will destroy jobs and keep owners from opening their doors again,” said Brandes.

A new report released Monday by Florida TaxWatch shows Florida is third nationally in COVID lawsuits with 490 filed.

Only New York and California have more.

TaxWatch estimates that as many as a quarter of all small businesses wouldn’t survive without the protection.

Taxwatch estimates 356,000 fewer jobs and a $28 billion reduction in economic activity without protections.

“We need to make sure good actors are protected and bad actors are punished,” said TaxWatch President and CEO Dominic Calabro.

The legislation requires a case be plead with particularity.

That means the who, what, where and when of the case.

A physician also has to sign off on the suit.

“And we think this is a step. That your physician, or any physician looks at the evidence and says, yes, it’s most likely you got it at this restaurant and not that you got it from your sister, who also has COVID, and is staying with you at your house,” said Brandes.

The legislation requires a lawsuit to be filed within a year of being infected.

For existing cases the clock starts the day the bill becomes law.

The House sponsor is Rep. Lawrence McClure of Plant City.

The legislation is expected to pass in the first or second week of the legislative session, which begins March second.

 

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Florida Republicans Take Aim at Social Media Censorship

January 11th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

After the President’s removal from multiple social media platforms calls among Florida Republicans to take action against social media censorship are growing.

Multiple bills have been filed for the 2021 Legislative Session to prevent de-platforming on the basis of political speech.

Following Wednesday’s insurrection at the US Capitol, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter banned President Donald Trump from their platforms.

It’s a move applauded by Florida Democrats like State Senator Perry Thurston.

“We have never seen a President that would conduct himself in such a despicable way. So I think that his removal was justified,” said Thurston.

Google, Apple and Amazon also took action to de-platform the conservative-leaning social media app Parler.

Florida Republicans like State Senator Ray Rodrigues consider it an assault of free speech.

“It seems like big tech is using their resources to push their political agenda and to silence those who do not agree with them,” said Rodrigues.

Legislation filed in the Senate would require social media companies to inform users why they were banned within 30 days.

A bill in the House goes much further.

It would allow users to sue if they’re banned for political or religious speech for a minimum of $75,000 in damages.

“All we’re doing here is saying, hey there’s a new business regulation. If you’re ‘X’ amount of size you cannot discriminate based on political view point,” said State Representative Anthony Sabatini, who is sponsoring the House bill.

The House bill does allow social media companies to ban users for calls to violence, posting pornography, impersonation or if a court orders the account to be removed.

“The companies could still moderate, but they can’t use the moderation exception to Section 230 to basically publish what it is they like and don’t like,” said Sabatini.

And while the Senate version currently doesn’t go as far as the house’s, the sponsor pledged to make it stronger as it moves through the Legislature.

If the legislation ultimately passes, it could potentially be used by President Donald Trump, who is a Florida resident, to seek retribution for his bans from social media platforms.

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Democrats Push Back Against Anti-Rioting Bill

January 8th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Florida Democrats are crying foul after Governor Ron DeSantis pointed to the insurrection at the Nation’s Capitol as an example of why the state needs to pass tougher anti-rioting laws.

The Governor made the connection between the riots carried out by pro-Trump supporters and his effort at a press conference Thursday.

“The rioting and the disorder is wrong. We’re not going to tolerate it in Florida,” said DeSantis.

The Governor first pushed to increase penalties for crimes committed during a riot following the nationwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations, seven percent of which turned violent according to a report by The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.

“There were some people trying to say it wasn’t a big deal to have some of these things going on. You go back to the summer, some of the commentary. I disagreed with that, but I don’t care what banner you’re flying. If you’re engaging in that conduct, we’re going to hold you accountable,” said DeSantis.

But Florida Democrats like Representative Anna Eskamani are crying foul.

Eskamani said the Governor’s comments detract from the real motivation behind the effort.

“He led this policy agenda following protests for racial justice as a political attempt on the campaign trail,” said Eskamani.

Legislation filed for the 2021 session would raise penalties for a multitude of crimes committed during a riot and prevent rioters from being released from jail until after their first hearing.

Democrats question whether those penalties would be applied uniformly.

“Because it’s very clear that when black lives matter protesters were in DC compared to these pro-Trump protesters, they were treated very differently by law enforcement officers,” said Eskamani.

The legislation also allows for residents to petition the state if their local government reduces funding for law enforcement.

It also would remove qualified immunity for local governments that prevent or hinder law enforcement’s response to a riot, allowing businesses and citizens to sue for civil damages in excess of $200,000.

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Lawmakers File Bill to Provide COVID Liability Protections

January 7th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Florida businesses could be shielded from frivolous COVID lawsuits under legislation unveiled by both chambers of the legislature.

Florida Republicans say businesses in the state that have been operating through the pandemic deserve special protections, to prevent a second economic hit from lawsuits blaming businesses for COVID infections.

“If they’re following the guidelines they’re going to have a safe harbor from liability going forward,” said State Senator Jeff Brandes.

Senator Brandes is sponsoring the legislation.

Business would have to be shown with clear and convincing evidence they were the cause and acted with gross negligence.

“And that would extend to virtually any business in the state,” said Brandes.

Healthcare providers are excluded from the legislation, but Brandes said they’ll get their own bill protecting them other suits they may face.

“Elective surgeries being canceled at scale, that was clearly something. The inability to get in and see your doctor because the doctor’s office wasn’t open,” said Brandes.

Florida Democrats have questioned the need for liability protections, arguing businesses would rather lawmakers pass additional relief.

“To help them with commercial rent payments. To help them have the resources that they need to be able to hold on to their employees,” said State Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith.

But Brandes said there are a multitude of business and health care groups who have pleaded for the legislation.

“Point me to a business that’s saying, ‘please don’t provide us COVID protections. Please lower the standard and allow people to sue us easier’,” said Brandes.

The Florida Chamber, the Associated Industries of Florida and the National Federation of Independent Businesses have all thrown their support behind liability protections.

As have the Florida Health Care Association and the Florida Hospital Association.

Florida TaxWatch, the state’s top fiscal watch dog will announce the findings of two reports Monday, giving an overview of the potential economic impacts to Florida businesses if liability protections are not passed.

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Task Force Aims to Vaccinate Black Floridians

January 6th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

A newly formed task force aimed at vaccinating Florida’s black community convened for the first time Wednesday morning.

The group of health care workers, pastors, HBCU’s and black leaders is hoping the state will work with them in their pursuit.

Recent Census estimates put Florida’s black population around 3.4 million, or 16.9 percent.

But black Floridians account for 22 percent of COVID hospitalizations and 17 percent of total deaths.

“This is a sense of urgency,” said Reverend RB Holmes of the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church.

A newly formed task force has made vaccinating 60 to 70 percent of black Floridians its mission.

Currently, black Floridians make up less than six percent of vaccinations given so far.

“It is incumbent upon this task force to encourage family members and friends and members of our congregations and people that we associate with, colleagues, to follow us in rolling up our sleeves to take the vaccine,” said Bishop Adam Jefferson Richardson Jr. of the 11th Episcopal District.

The task force is faced with the difficult task of overcoming historical distrust of the medical system among the black community.

“We understand the medical community, how bad it has been back in the day. We get this. But in this day, too many people are dying across this country,” said Holmes.

Task force members applauded the Governor’s use of black churches as vaccine distribution centers.

They hope their efforts can be joined together.

“We’ve got to go from the spirit of criticism to the spirit of cooperation,” said Holmes.

The task force has reached out to the Governor and asked to collaborate with the state’s vaccination efforts.

We also reached out to the Governor’s Office and asked whether the Governor was considering the proposal, but have not yet received a response.

Before the real work can begin, the task force still needs to secure funding sources to pay for educational advertising campaigns it plans to run.

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Electric Vehicle Growth Rapid

January 6th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

A new report suggests the number of electric vehicles in Florida will grow exponentially in Florida over the next decade.

Named the EV Roadmap, the report suggests Florida is in good shape now, but must do more to provide charging stations in rural areas.

Denise Schmidt is one of 60,000 electric vehicle owners in Florida.

“This is one of the best charging stations,” said Schmidt.

We met Denise at a charging station near I-10.

She was on her way home in Watersound on the panhandle coast, and stopped to shop while her car charged.

“This is a supercharger, so in thirty minutes I can charge a 150 miles,” said Schmidt.

A new report by the State Energy office which is overseen by Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, predicted that by 2030, there will be a 120,000 new EV’s sold every year.

“And so when start putting these charging stations up across the entire state, that’s when we have to start focusing, making sure that we are putting them at apartment complexes in low income communities. Making sure that we putting them out in our rural communities,” said Fried.

Today, most charging stations are within a few miles of the coast, posing potential problems for EV owners during a hurricane evacuation.

“God forbid somebody has bought an electric vehicle to help our environment, and then get stuck during a hurricane,” said Fried.

By 2030, one in four vehicles sold in Florida will be an electric vehicle according to the report.

That means the state will have one fourth less gas tax revenue to build roads.

Legislation also passed last year requires the state to start planning for an electric vehicle future.

In December, FPL, the state’s largest utility, was given authority to charge 30 cents a kilowatt hour for EV Charging.

FPL has an ambitious plan to put charging stations at 50 mile intervals on major highways, but the state has yet to develop incentives for expanding the stations to rural areas.

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Trump Supporters Protest at State Capitol

January 6th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

As pro-Trump protests rage in the nation’s Capitol, About 50 protestors have also taken to the State Capitol grounds.

Members of the controversial group, ‘The Proud Boys’ were present.

Protesters held signs in support of President Trump and reading ‘Stop the Steel’.

In the nation’s capitol, lawmakers were evacuated after protestors breached the Capitol doors and even entered the Senate Chamber.

Lawmakers are not present in Tallahassee, but will return for their first round of committee meetings for the 2021 session next week.

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Biggest Challenges Facing Hospitals: Vaccine Supply, Staffing

January 5th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

The latest numbers published by the state show nearly 290,000 Floridians have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The vaccine rollout hasn’t been without its challenges and Florida hospitals are faced with a classic dilemma of supply and demand.

A vaccine distribution site in the state capital was running smoothly Tuesday.

Vaccinations had to be scheduled, resulting in short line and wait times.

But that’s not the case everywhere.

Distribution sites in multiple counties have seen long lines and a flood a of people trying to schedule appointments, causing website and phone line crashes.

“Well let’s start with the positive, that so many people want to get vaccinated,” said Florida Hospital Association President Mary Mayhew.

Mayhew said with less than a million doses, many of the issues come down to supply and demand.

“We have 4.5 million people 65 and older and you need two doses,” said Mayhew.

Hospitals are also faced with staffing challenges, as more than 7,500 patients are hospitalized with COVID.

“Our challenge today will be the availability of a workforce. Both a workforce that can be at the bedside… as well as those who can now help to vaccinate,” said Mayhew.

Hospitals are also faced with the uncertainty of when and how many doses of vaccine they may receive.

“[It’s] Very difficult to support the kind of logistics that you need to plan accordingly without that kind of longer term predictability of vaccine week over week,” said Mayhew.

To ramp up vaccination efforts the Governor called on vaccination sites to operate seven days a week, but meeting that goal is also contingent on having adequate staff and vaccine.

The Florida Hospital Association is applauding the Governor’s announcement Monday, that the state will hire 1,000 additional nurses to help alleviate some of the staffing issues posed by the vaccination effort.

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Big Stakes in Georgia Election

January 5th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

The eyes of the entire nation are on Georgia, where voters will decide which party controls the US Senate.

Voters across the state line are well aware of what’s at stake.

A dozen Florida lawyers, volunteering for the Republican Party of Florida, were in Georgia Tuesday, ready to challenge any election irregularities.

“Well certainly, we hope that everyone here is going to be following the law and insuring that every legal vote is counted, and really, what I am hoping for is uniformity across Georgia. That we don’t see different standards being applied in different counties,” said GOP volunteer attorney Ben Gibson.

Two US Senate races and a Public Service Commission race are on the ballot.

A polling place just ten miles across the state line in Thomasville Georgia started with a strong turnout and had a steady flow of voters throughout the day.

All appeared to know the who nation was watching what they were doing.

“And for me it just falls to my ancestors. They fought for us to have the right to vote so, its only right for me, for my ancestors,” said Georgia voter Valensia Randall.

“I think we need some checks and balances in this country and if we have Democrats or any one particular party having both, then we kind of miss out on that,” said another voter, Dr. Adam Graham.

Elections officials have been counting mail in ballots for the last three weeks.

They are confident results will be known Tuesday night.

The Florida lawyers, who are in Atlanta are bracing for a long day.

“We’re really the people’s eyes and ears and the more transparency we can have for an election process, the better,” said Gibson.

More than three million votes were cast before election day.

The runoff election is being held because none of the candidates got 50 percent of the vote in November.

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