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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.

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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.

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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.

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Democrats Seek Stronger Pandemic Response Following Record Case Numbers

July 13th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida Democrats are calling for a drastic change in course in the state’s coronavirus response after breaking the national record for the most cases in a single day this weekend.

They blame the Governor for the spike in cases.

Florida Democrats are taking aim at the Governor in a new television spot accusing him of downplaying the pandemic.

In a virtual press conference Florida Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell said the state needs to drastically ramp up its response.

“The longer we wait, the more difficult it’s going to be to implement these steps,” said Mucarsel-Powell.

She and other Democrats are calling for more testing and contact tracing.

They also reiterated their call for a statewide mask order.

“If we don’t do the things and make the sacrifices and make the sacrifices now that we should have made months ago, we’re going to end up right back where we started,” said State Senator Oscar Braynon.

Democrats also speculated the Governor is secretly attempting to achieve heard immunity, although he has never made any such statement.

Dr. Aileen Marty, an epidemiologist at FIU joined Democrats on the call.

She said attempts at heard immunity in Sweden and Spain failed.

“We now know that most people who acquire it lose their immunity within a few months,” said Marty.

She also fears sending kids back to the classroom will only worsen the situation.

“You put children from different households in a normal brick and mortar school in a zone that has 25 percent positivity, you’re gonna have an increased transmission in the community,” said Marty.

And Democrats argued if the state doesn’t make changes it’s possible stay at home orders will once again be necessary.

The Governor has remained firm, he’s not reversing course.

We reached out to Governor Ron DeSantis’ office for a response to Democrats’ suggestion he is attempting to achieve heard immunity, but did not hear back in time for this story.

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Clerks of Court See Drastic Budget Shortfalls

July 13th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s Clerks of Court are laying off staff and reducing hours for other employees for the next three months.

Clerks are heavily funded by the revenue for traffic tickets, which fell by up to 75 percent in the first weeks of the pandemic and have now stabilized at about half of what would be considered normal.

Pinellas Clerk Ken Burke is a board member of the Clerk’s statewide association.

He said people can expect longer wait times for services.

“Be patient. Be patient. I think people recognize this is a different time because of the pandemic. I think people are understanding. They realize it only makes sense that when you eliminate twenty-five percent of your work force for a period of time, that things are going to happen slower. And so, work with us as much as possible,” said Burke.

The clerks’ budget cycle runs October-September, which means more cuts could be in store after October first.

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Schools Crucial to Unemployment

July 10th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida will see its three millionth unemployment application this weekend.

As of Friday morning there were 2,958,663 applications filed since March 15th, an more than 138,000 have been filed since July first.

As Disney prepares to open this weekend, its home county, Osceola, is showing the highest unemployment in the state at 37 percent.

It is still the number one problem Orlando State Representative Anna Eskamani is hearing from constituents.

“It’s like non stop to this moment. My phone…I had a Miami woman crying this morning. I mean, its just so bad, so bad,” said Eskamani.

During the first nine days of July, Florida saw over 172,000 unique unemployment claims.

Up to 29,000 are people who filed, went back to work, and are re-filing.

“Every week we’re finding large corporations furloughing or just plain laying off people,” said Orlando State Senator Linda Stewart.

Senator Stewart worries more furloughs will turn into layoffs.

“We’re not going to be able to get everybody back to business and doing what we would like to see, even if its half of what we were doing before until we get the virus under control,” said Stewart.

On Thursday, the Governor and US Labor Secretary made it clear that opening schools this fall isn’t just about learning gaps, but unemployment as well.

“We can’t just leave society sitting on the mat,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia hopes opening schools will give people a place to send their kids so they can go back to work.

“If we don’t get our schools open, it will be that much harder for working adult women who are facing a higher unemployment rate to get back to work,” said Scalia.

And many will exhaust all of their unemployment benefits at the end of July, raising the question, what’s next?

Unless Congress acts before the end of July, unemployment benefits will run out for thousands of Floridians.

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Physicians Again Demand Statewide Mask Order as Judge Upholds Local Mandate

July 10th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

The debate over a statewide mask order continues to heat up as a group of physicians returned to the Governor’s mansion once again, this time with the ‘Grim Reaper’, to demand executive action.

The legal battle challenging local mask orders is also playing out in court.

Friday’s 11,385 new cases work out to a Floridian is being infected with the coronavirus every seven and a half seconds.

“Governor, you just can’t spin your way out of this reality,” said Dr. Ron Saff with Physicians for Social Responsibility.

The physicians, along with more than 1,000 doctors and healthcare workers who have signed onto a petition, blame the latest spike in part on the reluctance of the Governor to issue a statewide mask mandate.

“Florida is frighteningly becoming an epicenter for the virus,” said Dr. Saff.

This is the second time in less than a month the physicians have protested in front of the Governor’s Mansion… this time joined by Daniel Uhlfelder, better recognized as the grim reaper often seen traveling the state.

He contrasted the precautions the Governor has taken for himself and family with precautions in place for the public.

“Open the Capitol! Because you’re killing Floridians!” said Uhlfelder.

Multiple localities have issued their own mask orders, including Leon County where the Capitol is located.

But not everyone supports mandating masks.

Rep Anthony Sabatini is spearheading legal challenges of seven local orders.

A virtual hearing was held for suit against the Leon ordinance Friday.

“In South Florida where they’ve had these mask ordinances from the beginning we have not seen a different trajectory or different trend in hospitalization and death,” said Sabatini during the hearing.

But the judge chose to uphold the ordinance.

And doctors hope that will send a clear message.

“Why are we even taking this question seriously? Mr. Sabatini, let’s get real,” said Dr. Donald Axelrad with Physicians for Social Responsibility.

But the ruling will likely do little to change the Governor’s stance on the issue anytime soon.

The Governor has continued to dismiss the idea of a statewide order, despite the Republican Governor in Texas mandating masks as his state experiences a similar spike in cases.

Physicians for Social Responsibility is urging Floridians who support a statewide order to call or email the Governor to express their opinion on the matter.

You can call his office at 850-717-9337 or email GovernorRon.DeSantis@eog.myflorida.com to make your voice heard.

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Democrats Return PPP Loan

July 9th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The Florida Democratic Party applied for and received over three quarters of a million dollars from the Payroll Protection Act, but the party should not have applied in the first place.

Criticism for accepting $780,000 from the Payroll Protection Act has come from both inside and outside the Democratic Party.

Democratic State Senator Jason Pizzo first tweeted it should be returned.

Senator Annette Tadeo quickly expressed outrage.

So did State Representative Anna Eskamani.

“We have to be bold enough and brave enough to say something, because if we don’t have values, then what do we have?” said Eskamani.

Payroll Protection Act rules are clear.

Businesses primarily engaged in political activities aren’t allowed.

In a statement, the Florida Democratic Party said in part “The bank, the loan processor, and agents of the Small Business Association approved the funding. It now seems they made a mistake… so we are volunteering to return it.”

“Returning the funds was absolutely the right decision to make. I really wish that the Trump administration was as responsive when it came to actually funding PPP,” said Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried, the lone statewide elected Democrat.

State GOP chair Joe Gruters was reluctant to appear on camera after his CPA firm received a PPP loan.

The Republican Party did not.

Leon County GOP Chair Evan Power said the Democrats should have know better.

“The association of state chairmen sent out a letter saying the Payroll protection money was not aimed to be used for parties and could cause a legal problem if they did it,” said Power.

When asked if the incident warranted an investigation, Power said agreed.

“I think its appropriate to be investigated for taking taxpayer money,” said Power.

At least one Tallahassee lobbying firm has also returned PPP money.

The Democratic Party’s full statement reads:

“Congress passed the Paycheck Protection Plan to support employers and their efforts to provide funds to keep people working — and like many employers during the shutdown, FDP was concerned about meeting payroll and keeping our staff employed, so we applied. The bank, the loan processor, and agents of the Small Business Association approved the funding. It now seems they made a mistake in approving the funding so we are volunteering to return it. As a Democratic Party we are entering this election stronger than ever, with a growing staff and a commitment to electing a President that will address this crisis, rebuild our economy and heal the nation. That President is Joe Biden.”

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Donna’s Law Instills Hope For Future Child Sexual Abuse Survivors

July 9th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

One out of every three girls and one out of five boys will fall victim to sexual assault before turning 18 and often by the time they’re ready to come forward it’s too late to hold their offender to accountable.

Until now.

The bravery of one survivor was the driving force behind a new law that has removed the statute of limitations for sexual battery on a minor.

Donna Hedrick was just 15 when she was raped by her choir teacher.

“He told me don’t tell anybody, cause nobody will believe you,” said Hedrick.

Years later, she and other victims of the same man came forward and even got a confession… but it was too late to press charges.

“This is very, very common. These children are traumatized by this,” said Representative Scott Plakon, who co-sponsored the new law bearing Donna’s name.

The statute of limitations for such crimes varied wildly depending on the age of the victim and the aggressor.

“It was very confusing and I think that is primarily what we needed to fix most of all,” said Senator Linda Stewart, who sponsored Donna’s Law in the Senate.

Hedrick wanted to ensure the same thing would never happen to another child.

She spent three years advocating for change and telling her story to lawmakers.

“The bill is to protect our children who are sexually molested and raped. It helps those children, children like me, who weren’t able to deal with their abuse in a mature manner, to do so as an adult,” said Hedrick, telling her story publicly for the first time before a House committee in February.

The hard work paid off.

Donna’s Law received unanimous support in both the House and Senate.

It was signed by Governor DeSantis on June 23rd and starting July 1st it removed the statute of limitations for victims sexual battery under the age of 18.

Now victims can press charges against their aggressors whenever they’re ready.

But the law isn’t retroactive, so it won’t apply in Donna’s case, but she said it’s about helping future victims.

“That is the message to the offender that, that child is going to always have the right to come after them,” said Hedrick.

The new law doesn’t affect due process.

Accusations will still need to be backed by evidence, but it will at least provide some hope for future victims.

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Supreme Court Ruling Could Help Robocall Crackdown

July 8th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

There’s some good news for the many Floridians sick and tired of constant robocalls.

The US Supreme Court has upheld a decades old federal law banning robocalls you can help fight back against offenders.

It’s an annoyance anyone with a phone can relate to: Robocalls.

There were more than 350,000 complaints in Florida just last year.

We even got a few while putting this story together.

But thanks to a new US Supreme Court ruling, the law banning robocalls has been upheld and even beefed up, removing an exemption for debt collectors.

“Part of what the law does is allows new technology to be invented [and] allow us an opportunity to actually go after some of those companies,” said Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried.

Fried heads Florida’s Division of Consumer Services.

Her agency fined 16 companies nearly a million dollars for violating Florida’s ‘Do Not Call’ list last year.

“For consumers this is a huge win. This is a real opportunity to get those robocalls off of our phone lines,” said Fried.

Not everyone is happy with the ruling.

Pollsters and political consultants had hoped the court would grant them an exemption from the ban.

But PR-wiz Ron Sachs told us those who were suing have plenty of other less intrusive options to reach voters.

“We do surveying, polling every week to broad numbers of people locally, statewide, even nationally and those polls are from voter rolls and they are online surveys that people opt-in,” said Sachs.

Cell phone companies have been developing new technologies for labeling and even filtering out suspected robocalls.

As an added protection sign up for Florida’s ‘Do Not Call’ list.

You can also file a complaint here.

The federal government also recently beefed up penalties for violators.

The TRACED Act signed into law in December sets fines as high as $10,000 per unlawful robocall in some cases.

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Ag Department Announces $1 Million for Energy Efficiency Upgrades

July 8th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

The Florida Department of Agriculture has announced a new program to help counties improve energy efficiency for low income Floridians.

Counties that develop projects to upgrade energy efficiency are eligible for up to $100,000 of the total $1 million pot.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said lowering the energy bills for those at the bottom of the economic ladder is good for the economy and the environment.

“The counties will then create their own programs internally of how to work with the individual families. Whether to increase their electric equipment, their efficiency equipment inside their homes, or other tools like solar panels,” said Fried.

And Fried said this is just the beginning.

If successful, she hopes to expand the program in the future.

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State Seeks Citizens’ Help in Policing Bars

July 7th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

It’s going to be at least ten more days before the state even considers allowing bars to reopen in Florida, and that’s a big ‘if’.

An alert citizen’s video resulted in Bajas Beachclub bar in Tallahassee having its license suspended for violating the state’s on-premises closure order.

A second license was also suspended in Orlando.

“It is impossible to police 20 million across the state with 140 ABT officers more or less,” said Florida Division of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Halsey Beshears.

Since the June 26th order, the state has received 625 citizen complaints.

“We follow up with an ABT agent the next day. We try and go back at the time the complaint was filed. So we try and go at the time we think that violation may occur,” said Beshears.

The agency has set a date of July 16th to reconsider the bar closure order.

“There was a direct correlation we thought at the time the Governor opened the bars to the spike. So we felt like after three weeks we could see those numbers arrested or flat lined,” said Beshears.

But with over 7,300 new cases Tuesday, the likelihood of reopening that soon is declining.

“The next step if we don’t see a drop in those numbers, maybe the restaurants are next,” said Beshears.

On the day the bar closure was ordered, Carol Dover, the CEO of the Restaurant and Lodging Association warned her members they could be next.

“So we better pay attention. It’s 50 percent,” said Dover.

But Beshears told us it’s not an action the state wants to take.

“This thing isn’t prejudice towards anyone. It is an equal opportunity terrorists toward everybody who’s out there in business right now,” said Beshears..

And the Secretary told us local sheriffs have been especially helpful in pointing out violators.

Complaints can be filed online here.

Those filing are asked to be specific and include pictures of violations when possible.

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Schools Must Be Ready to Operate at Full Capacity in August

July 7th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida’s Commissioner of Education has ordered K-12 schools to open at full capacity in August.

Education groups worry the goal may be too optimistic after a month of record setting case numbers that shows little sign of slowing down.

The order from the Education Commissioner says schools must reopen all brick and mortar buildings at full capacity at least five days a week.

“If we had to open schools today I would say absolutely not,” said Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram.

To Ingram, the order is a dramatic shift from the local control centered reopening guidelines the department released in June.

“This has been hoisted upon us in the middle of a crisis where it doesn’t seem that our state has control of what’s going on around us,” said Ingram.

Andrea Messina with the Florida School Boards Association said there is some flexibility to provide ‘innovative’ learning in the order.

“Blended models, I think alternative platforms. Anything that is not the traditional classroom, bricks and mortar experience,” said Messina.

The order was issued just hours after the President tweeted, ‘Schools must open in the fall’.”

But Ingram hopes politics weren’t the deciding factor.

“Because a tweet does not make policy and it should not make policy for the State of Florida,” said Ingram.

And Messina said with the state continuing to see record case numbers, the order comes at a challenging time.

“There are communities that are not prepared for five days a week,” said Messina. “So allowing those to have some alternative plans I think is really going to be crucial.”

The order does waive the requirement schools provide 180 days of instruction.

That could provide some flexibility in the event they’re forced to close again.

We reached out to the Department of Education for comment on this story, but did not hear back in time.

The Education Commissioner also declined to be interviewed.

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Apalachicola Oysters to get Timeout

July 6th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will vote later this month to close what was once one of the richest oyster-producing bays in Florida and the nation.

It’s for the bay’s own good and has the support of those who have cherished the bay’s riches.

Before 2010, nine out of ten oysters served in Florida came from Apalachicola.

On any given day, hundreds of boats could be seen culling for oysters.

But no more says Apalachicola Riverkeeper Georgia Ackerman.

“An Oyster fisheries collapse was declared in 2012 by NOAA and we simply haven’t seen the oysters make significant recovery,” said Ackerman.

Several droughts saw the freshwater flow from Georgia into the bay cut dramatically, allowing saltwater fish to decimate the oyster beds.

“Black Drum, Red Drum. I mean, they’re eating our oysters,” said Shannon Hartsfield with the Franklin County Seafood Workers in a 2018 interview.

Oyster production has dropped so dramatically, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will vote later this month to close the bay to oystering until the end of 2025.

It has the support of the local community.

“They should have done it about ten years ago,” said Steve Rash with Water Street Seafood, a seafood distributor in the Bay Area. “It’s not only to provide for the oyster industry, but all of the eco, the environmental services. You know, the fish, the shrimp, the crabs.”

The State is going to be spending $20 million to re-seed the oyster beds, using old oyster shells.

The same technique worked after a 1985 hurricane destroyed the oyster beds.

“Ultimately, if we are able to recover this population, we bring both a strong ecology and economy back to the region,” said Ackerman.

The ban could take effect as early as August 1st.

But despite all of the hopes and money being spent on the bay’s future, it will all come down to Mother Nature cooperating.

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Suit Seeks to Preserve Ballot Images

July 2nd, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

A new lawsuit seeks to force all of the state’s elections supervisors to keep digital images created from paper ballots, but some supervisors worry the coming election is already complicated enough in this age of COVID.

Every voting machine in Florida is already capable of capturing digital images of the paper ballot inserted by voters, but the settings make the capture optional.

“This is an important check on the paper ballots,” said State Representative Joe Geller.

Geller is one of the people suing.

“If the ballots are walk away, or for that matter, paper ballots are pretty easy to alter,” said Geller.

He points to his own county.

It misplaced over 2,000 paper ballots in 2018.

He calls the digital images a trusted backup.

“Most people want the results to be clear, understandable, and verifiable. So this is not in our opinion, its not partisan,” said Geller.

Images must be kept for at least 22 months, the same as paper ballots.

For counties with older machines there could be an increased cost.

Leon County Supervisor Mark Earley points out the majority of machines in Florida are older and would get slower if they have to image capture.

“If it’s going to be slower per voter per machine, then you need more machines to process the same number of voters. This fall given COVID and social distancing and all that, you know, we are already concerned about having lines form because we may using fewer polling places, so to me, this is a bad time for this lawsuit,” said Earley.

At least 27 counties are already keeping the images.

The lawsuit seeks an expedited hearing and a declaratory judgement in time for the August 18th primary.

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