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Pawn Shops Make Fewer Loans, Cashing More Checks

May 18th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

During every economic downturn over the last 50 years and perhaps longer, many people turn to pawn shops for a quick loan to tide them over.

Pawn brokers expected the same when the pandemic hit, but they got a big surprise.

Pawn Shops are bustling these days, but not because people need money.

It’s just the opposite.

“We fully expected with everything that is happening that we would have a huge demand for loans. We’re actually having people pick up loans rather than make new ones,” said Mark Folmar, owner of Folmers Pawn Shop in the state capital.

Loans are down between a third and 50 percent.

“More people are eating at home. Doing everything at home, and I think some of our expenses are less. Gas is less. They’re not having to go to work. A lot of people are not having to pay daycare, so you just have a strange combination of things that has actually left certain segments of the population with more money than they normally have,” said Folmar.

Folmar’s has cut hours and trimmed staff as loans have fallen.

The cuts would have been deeper, but the check cashing business is booming.

“We’re seeing the stimulus checks and then we are seeing a lot of the $600 unemployment checks and the state unemployment checks,” said Folmar.

With extra money in their hands, the people usually pawning during a crisis are buying.

“Any type of video game. TV’s. Stuff people can do from home to entertain their kids,” said Folmar.

Call it Christmas in May.

But there is still a need.

David, using his first name only, told us his disability check was two weeks late.

“For food. I got no food,” said David.

If the pandemic has put you in a pinch remember pawning something is not a long term solution.

It’s not cheap.

Small loans can cost 20 to 25 percent a month.

A second round of stimulus payments is likely to keep the trend going into the summer, depending on how large the payments turn out to be.

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Calls Growing for Pandemic Election Changes

May 18th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

$20.2 million in federal funding will be coming to the state to help conduct the August 18th primary and November General Election amid the pandemic, but Florida Democrats and election supervisors are asking for more.

Florida Democrats are calling for a special session to address issues they anticipate the coronavirus will cause in this year’s elections.

“Ensuring safe access to this sacred right is a duty that we have as elected officials,” said State Senator Gary Farmer.

Their main goal is to send every Floridian a mail ballot and have the state pay return postage.

“The problem is, is that our traditional system is not designed for social distancing,” said State Senator Perry Thurston.

The federal assistance could help absorb some of those costs, but election supervisors insist Democrats’ demands are unrealistic.

“We do not have the volume capacity,” said Mark Earley, Leon County Supervisor of Elections and Secretary of the state association.

Election officials are anticipating poll worker shortages, a lack of polling places and a surge of vote by mail ballots in August and November.

They’re asking the Governor to extend the window to send out mail ballots and expand early voting through Election Day

“To help us ensure that we’ve got a sufficient number of polling places and a sufficient number of poll workers,” said Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections President Craig Latimer.

Election supervisors first made the request back in April, but they still have not gotten an answer from the Governor.

We’ve also reached out the Governor multiple times with no response.

“We need to know these things way in advance. Months in advance. We typically start planning for an election a year ahead of time,” said Earley.

If you plan to vote by mail request and return a ballot as soon as possible.

You also don’t have to return it through the mail.

You can also drop it at your local supervisor of elections office in person to avoid paying postage.

Elections officials also want to remind Floridians that requesting a mail ballot doesn’t mean that’s the way you have to vote.

You can still vote in person if you forget to return you mail ballot in time.

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Democrats Deliver Names of Unpaid Unemployed to Governor

May 18th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Governor Ron DeSantis continued to push back Monday when reporters asked him about unemployed Floridians who are still waiting for checks going back as far as May.

The Governor contends the vast majority of claims have been paid, and those that haven’t likely involve errors on the application.

Florida Senate Democrats delivered the names and contact info for more than a thousand of their constituents whom they claim have valid claims and have not yet received benefits Monday afternoon.

In a statement, Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville echoed what her fellow Democrats said on Friday: Pay the claims now.

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Last County to Report COVID-19 Cases Now Seeing Late Surge

May 15th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

The last county to report a COVID-19 infection is now finding itself the epicenter of a late surge in cases.

Liberty County residents are remaining optimistic because almost all of the cases are isolated in the nearby state prison.

Liberty County’s largest city Bristol is home to about 1,000.

Johnny Eubanks runs the county chamber of commerce.

“We feel blessed that we were the last one,” said Eubanks.

But over the past two weeks cases have quickly grown to nearly 200.

“Any time you have this type of infection you’re going to be concerned,” said Eubanks.

The nearby state prison accounts for nearly all the cases.

“Any time you have people living in close quarters like that it’s easy to spread,” said Eubanks.

The prison is a large employer of local residents.

So far eight staffers have tested positive.

Most residents we spoke with asked not to appear on camera.

Some said they were concerned the virus could leave the prison walls and enter the community.

But aside from a sign encouraging social distancing and hand washing put up by the sheriff, it appears to be business as usual in the town.

Bristol resident Lauren Shuler told us she’s confident in the prison system.

“I think that we’ll be okay. I think they’re doing their best to keep us safe and they’re taking all precautions that they can at this time,” said Shuler.

A bit of good news for Liberty County, only three new cases have been reported in the past week.

Also FDC reports more than 1,700 negative test results at the prison.

Meanwhile, neighboring Calhoun County has just reported its first COVID death.

Eubanks noted Liberty county has a big advantage over other parts of the state.

People here live in a state of natural social distancing.

“The county has a population of about 9,000. So we can spread out very easily and often do,” said Eubanks.

The scope of the problem in Liberty County wasn’t uncovered until testing ramped up.

As testing across the state increases we’ll get a better idea of how far the virus has spread in our own communities as well.

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DEO Continues to Lose Ground

May 15th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

There are new calls for the state to quickly pay unemployment claims now and worry about the eligibility of the claim later.

Statistics released Friday show the Department of Economic Opportunity continues to see more claims than it is paying.

Just over 175,000 Floridians filed for unemployment between Sunday and Thursday, but the agency continues to lose ground.

It processed just 153,000 claims during the five days.

“Pay the damn claims. Pay them. If you worried about fraud, go back and look at that after its over with, after you compensate these people,” said State Senator Perry Thurston.

Four state Senators, all Democrats, renewed the call for a special session Friday, but added the Governor could do more now.

“It can be fixed with a stroke of a pen by the Governor via executive order,” said Senator Gary Farmer.

The lawmakers want weekly benefits raised from $275 to at least $400 and they want to double the number of available weeks.

Senator Jason Pizzo has been physically walking constituents’ names over to the agency.

Claims he said he knows are valid.

He told us the case workers processing the claims feel helpless.

“I had a call center person reach out to me saying how ridiculous it is. I have a blind man on the phone, who is obviously not looking at a computer, and I can do everything for him and I can’t submit his application. I mean, how ridiculous is that?” Said Pizzo.

Meanwhile a lawsuit against the agency for slow payments is moving forward.

A hearing has been set for the day after Memorial day.

“We have people who will testify that they were instructed that if someone calls and they cant pay the rent, cant pay the mortgage, to tell people to call the emergency number of the United Way,” said attorney Gautier Kitchen.

Senator Farmer called the idea, “Outrageous. It’s unconscionable.”

More than 300,000 claims remain in a verification cue.

The majority are because employers, who have 20 days to verify employment, haven’t done so.

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11,000 Demand More Action from Governor on Unemployment

May 14th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida has paid less than half of the 1.4 million residents who have applied for unemployment and complaints from those trying to navigate the state’s system continue to roll in. 

The Governor was delivered a petition signed by more than 11,000 seeking additional executive action.

Despite applying for unemployment in March and spending countless hours attempting to get her claim through, Elizabeth Shtuka doesn’t know why she hasn’t seen a penny in benefits.

“We called 108 times yesterday to get disconnected,” said Elizabeth’s mother Shelly, who has been trying to help her daughter navigate the system.

It’s the same story for Stephanie Jones who drove an hour and a half from Franklin County to the Department of Economic Opportunity headquarters in the state capital seeking answers.

“No one was available to come and speak with me about it,” said Jones, who was turned away at the door and not allowed in the building.

For Jones and others waiting for checks, things are getting desperate.

“The not knowing is killing you cause you don’t know how to budget or prepare. I’ve exhausted all of my saving,” said Jones.

More than 11,000 frustrated Floridians signed a petition demanding the Governor increase maximum weekly payouts and extend eligibility from 12 to 26 weeks.

They also want him to waive barriers for eligibility so more can qualify.

“We now have $4 billion sitting in that fund, the problem is it can’t get out the door,” said Dr. Rich Templin with the Florida AFL-CIO.

A handful of Democratic state lawmakers have spent last few weeks in the state capital, bringing their constituents’ stories directly to DEO, in hopes of getting them paid.

Senator Randolph Bracy is one of those lawmakers.

He told us he recently heard from a constituent that made him realize the situation is a matter of life and death for some.

“They were at a breaking point and they considered taking their life,” said Bracy.

Legislative leaders oppose a special session on unemployment so it’s up to the Governor to make short term fixes.

But like those we spoke with for this story, our inquiry to the Governor asking if he’s considering additional action went unanswered. 

We’ll keep asking. 

The Governor did take some executive action Thursday to help those struggling financially.

He extended his executive order banning evictions and foreclosures by an additional 45 days. 

It was previously set to expire Saturday.

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Election Officials Desperate for Help Amid Pandemic

May 14th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida’s Election Supervisors say time is running out for the state to prepare for Primaries in August and the November General Election.

The pandemic is expected to create a shortage of poll workers, require changes to polling locations and create a significant influx of mail ballots.

President of the State Association of Supervisors of Elections Craig Latimer said the state has been dismally slow in completing its application for $20 million in federal assistance for elections.

It’s money that can help pay for everything from basic equipment to PPE.

“I’ve got some of my colleagues that have actually driven to other states to get hand sanitizer cause they couldn’t get it here. So there are some definite needs that are out there. That money also though will go for helping to pay for the additional mail ballot envelopes that we need, the additional inserts and also for equipment that can automate that process,” said Latimer.

Supervisors have also called on the Governor to extend windows for early voting and vote by mail, but so far no action has been taken.

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Distance Learning Taking a Toll on Teachers

May 13th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida teachers are stressed, concerned about student engagement and fearful of budget cuts.

That’s according to a new survey by the state’s teachers union.

More than half of the 12,800 teachers and educational staff that took the survey said they’re stressed.

Roughly the same worry about budget cuts to education and three out of four are also concerned their students are falling behind.

“Our students are trying to balance that, our parents are trying to balance life and it forces some problems,” said Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram.

Ingram believes funding will play a key role in student success moving forward.

“It’s going to take training and time to get people acclimated to doing hybrid forms of classrooms,” said Ingram.

A new report presented to the Board of Education by School Superintendents Wednesday lays out recommendations for returning to the classroom.

It includes daily temperature checks, social distancing and a mixture of distance and in person learning for schools without the necessary space.

It also requires health professionals be part of local reopening plans.

And while the state has set a goal of returning to the classroom for fall term, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the lead health expert on the President’s Coronavirus Task Force gave a warning to US Senators Tuesday.

“We don’t see a vaccine playing in the ability of individuals to get back to school this term,” said Fauci.

Our request for an interview with the Commissioner of Education went unanswered.

The state’s teachers union also told us it continues to be left out of reopening conversations.

“The people who work with these kids every day, their voices have to be brought to the table and unfortunately at this point it has not,” said Ingram. “And so that concerns me more than when we go back to school.”

Ingram said the union will be conducting the first meeting of its own reopening task force sometime next week if they don’t hear from the Governor or Department of Education.

Both the teachers union and the Florida Department of Education are hoping to hear from parents on reopening.

You can take FEA’s survey here and the state’s survey here.

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Nursing Home Isolation to Continue

May 13th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Long term care provides and state officials are working on a plan to eventually allow visits back in facilities, but contact visits with family are weeks if not months away.

Florida’s 175,000 long term care residents have been isolated from visitors since mid-March.

They’re playing Bingo over the intercom, there are no visits from families and dinner is alone in their room.

“Having the isolation does come at a psychological and social cost,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

And it’s likely to continue.

We asked the Governor if a timetable given by Mary Mayhew, Secretary of the Florida Agency for Healthcare Administration, which suggested visits were likely months away was accurate.

“Well, I don’t think any of us really know,” said DeSantis.

The good news.

Among other states, Florida is at the bottom of new cases and deaths per hundred thousand.

But care facilities and prisons remain the sources of most new cases.

“I wouldn’t want to put a firm time table on it, and I also don’t want to give people false hope and say we’ll could be in there in two weeks because I can’t guarantee that,” said DeSantis.

The industry itself is in the middle of a debate of what’s possible.

Emmet Reed is the CEO of the Florida Health Care Association

“You’re going to to have to look at how long is a care center COVID free. Is the safe date 14 days? Is it 28 days? But I would say you’re looking somewhere at two weeks to 28-days COVID fee before you can even think about letting folks come and visit. At least in a semi-normal manner,” said Reed.

The report on returning to some normalcy in long term care facilities is due next week.

Then it’s up to the Governor.

The reality is that the isolation has kept the number of cases from exploding and right now, the Governor is not willing to take a chance on changing that.

We will be watching for the task force report and tell you how it might affect you and your family when it is released.

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Gym Owners Demand Clarity and Reopening Timeline

May 12th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Gym owners across the state are becoming increasingly frustrated with a lack of clarity from the Governor regarding how and when they might be able to reopen.

The state agency that regulates gyms hasn’t been able to provide answers and is calling on the Governor to make a decision soon.

Red Hills Crossfit in the state’s capital has been shuttered since mid-March.

“We would consider ourselves essential. Maybe more so than like a dry cleaner,” said owner Travis Perkins.

Perkins was a surprised when the Governor disregarded the recommendation from his own task force and left gyms out of phase one.

“But we took it as black and white. It said gyms, fitness centers and we didn’t try to necessarily try to classify ourselves as anything else,” said Perkins.

But Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried told us the Governor’s break from the task force recommendation has created confusion for other gyms.

Her agency has received over 100 consumer complaints of gyms improperly opening.

“Complaints from those that are complying with you know the words that are on the executive order and have shut down, but yet all their competition is opening back up. So there’s a frustration out there,” said Fried.

In a letter seeking clarity from the Governor, Fried also mentioned reports of gym owners who were told by the Governor’s own administration that they could in fact open under certain circumstances.

“DBPR is giving them one answer, our inspectors are going out there giving them a separate answer,” said Fried.

The frustration boiled over in Clearwater Monday, with dozens of gym owners and employees protesting.

“We have no communication from anybody with regards to when we’re able to open or why we’re not able to open,” said Travis LaBazzo, owner of Amped Fitness.

LaBazzo organized the protest.

He told us he and other owners want answers now.

“If for nothing else, we at least deserve a date,” said LaBrazzo.

Both gym owners we spoke with said they were able to qualify for PPP loans, which has helped them stay afloat and keep paying employees.

They noted that money will only last for so long.

Like the Commissioner, we also reached out to the Governor asking for clarity, but have not received a response.

We’ll continue pushing for an answer.

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Federal Aid for Students on the Way

May 12th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The proverbial check is in the mail for thousands of students and could arrive as early as Wednesday.

The money comes from FSU’s nearly $30 million share of the Federal Cares Act, but it is only for students who have already demonstrated a financial need.

FSU’s first wave of funding totals $6.2 million.

It will send checks ranging from $400 to $600 to more than 12,500 students who have already demonstrated a financial need.

Graduate students could see $1,000 checks.

“The Department of Education gave us the criteria, kind of to base it on. Pell Grant money, people who desperately need financial aid. People who had already filed an application with the Federal government for some type of grant in aid,” said FSU President, John Thrasher.

Statewide, more than $125 million will go directly to students, but each University has latitude on how to distribute the money.

Across town from FSU, Florida A&M is sending the bulk of its $6.5 million out now.

“We have over 65 percent of our students who are Pell eligible and so we know they need those funds now,” said FAMU Vice President for Student Affairs Bill Hudson.

Under FAMU’s plan, every student can apply for a share of the remaining funds.

“Everyone’s eligible because they can fill out the application and be eligible as well to provide documentation of the hardship they experienced,” said Hudson.

A total of $14.6 million will go to Florida State’s needy students.

Right now the university is trying to decide if some will go to those who enroll in the summer, or just those in the fall.

Under the Cares Act, Universities must send half of their funds directly to students, the other half can cover university expenses.

And students can use the money for unexpected expenses such as travel or child care caused by the pandemic.

FSU Students who want to learn more about future funding should visit the University’s final aid site.

FSU says losses from the pandemic could total $75 million to date.

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Unemployment Dissatisfaction Continues

May 11th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

More than a quarter million Floridians filed for unemployment last week.

As of Friday, just over 41 percent of the unique claims had been paid.

Florida is one of the cheapest and slowest states when it comes to paying benefits.

Florida’s $275 a week benefits were set in 1999.

If they had kept up with inflation, the weekly stipend would be at $432 and change.

Democrats failed in their attempt to force a special session to deal with compensation.

In a conference call during a lawsuit seeking to speed up payments Attorney Steve Andrews called it par for the course.

“I’ve never seen any state make it easy for poor folks to be paid,” said Andrews.

The latest statistics show just 48 percent of the 1.3 million plus claims have been paid.

“It’s amazingly frustrating,” said unemployed Cape Coral graphic designer Kathy Read.

Read has waited weeks.

Contrast that with her son who lives in Massachusetts.

“He did his application on a Friday afternoon. On Tuesday he got five weeks of back pay, so it’s astonishing to me that there could be such an extreme difference,” said Read.

She isn’t alone.

About one in three claims remains stuck in a verification cue.

The delay sparked a three car protest, honking horns and driving around the block that houses the state’s unemployment agency Monday afternoon.

Laura Tweed came from Central Florida.

She called the trip worth the cost of gas.

“I am sick and tired. No one will return our calls. I’ve gone to all my congressmen, my senators, my legislators. I’ve gone everywhere,” said Tweed.

Only three states and Puerto Rico offer smaller benefits than Florida.

The number of claims denied since March 15 topped 300,000 Monday.

If you have been turned down, you are allowed to appeal.

You can find the information here.

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Lawsuit Aims to Reopen Online Concealed Carry Applications

May 11th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

A lawsuit has been filed against The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for halting online concealed carry applications.

It alleges the pause has infringed on Floridians’ second amendment rights.

Floridian’s haven’t been able to apply for a concealed carry permit online for six weeks now.

The Department’s website says the pause is due to COVID-19, but President of Young Americans for Liberty Cliff Maloney argues the Department and its leader, Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried have no legal right to halt applications.

“She’s putting out political E-mails and working with gun-grabbing groups to try to send a message here,” said Maloney.

He’s filed suit against the Department and Fried, who is the lone statewide elected Democrat.

Maloney hopes to force the Department to reopen the online process.

“We are just trying to make sure that every single person in the State of Florida has the right to defend themselves and has the right to defend their family, something Nikki Fried does not have the right to dictate,” said Maloney.

The Department argues the pause is to prevent people from submitting incomplete applications, being denied and losing their nonrefundable application fee.

Applicants must submit fingerprints from one of its regional offices, a tax collector’s office or police department, but many have been closed to the public throughout the pandemic.

Florida law doesn’t specifically call for concealed carry applications to be made available online, but Maloney noted, the Department of Agriculture is still accepting hemp cultivation applications online, which also require fingerprints.

The Department is still processing paper applications for concealed carry.

It’s completed more than 54,000 since March 1st.

But Maloney argues the Department’s justifications are missing the point.

“They don’t have the right to make an argument. Right? As I said this is a ‘shall’ issue state. Her job is to make sure that we meet the requirements and then offer the permit,” said Maloney.

Other groups including the NRA have come out in support of the suit.

Former NRA President Marion Hammer told us in a statement, “The Commissioner of Agriculture is NOT above the law despite the fact that Nikki Fried obviously thinks she should be. It is clear that In her efforts to deny gun rights she also violated Florida law.”

Florida’s Attorney General Ashley Moody also warned Fried last month that halting online applications may open her office up to a lawsuit.

A spokesperson from the Department of Agriculture sent us this statement on the suspension of online applications: “This action is consistent with state law and is in the interest of Floridians seeking concealed weapons licenses — anyone who wants to apply can submit applications with fingerprint cards from a law enforcement agency by mail or through tax collector offices, as normal.”

The Attorney General’s Office told us it has not been contacted to represent the Florida Department of Agriculture in the case.

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Unemployed Turn Anger Towards Judge

May 8th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Following a judge’s refusal earlier this week to order the state to speed up unemployment payments, the judge has become a target on social media.

On Wednesday, Circuit Court Judge Angela Dempsey was sympathetic after listening to an hour and a half hearing.

“And we all feel bad for these folks that are having to wait,” said Dempsey.

She then ruled against eight unemployed Floridians in a hearing trying to force the state to move faster paying claims.

“I’m going to grant the motion to dismiss,” said Dempsey.

In his closing minutes earlier, Attorney Gautier Kitchen talked about pent up frustration.

“They are hurting, and they are hurting now, and the situation is dire. The despair is real,” said Kitchen.

And In the hours and days that followed, the frustration was turned on the judge.

A Facebook group, People of Florida, with over 4,400 members was brutal.

A previous reprimand was posted, another promised to fill up her email.

Yet another listed the website of her challenger this Fall.

The judge’s campaign facebook page was down Friday.

As a judicial candidate, Judge Dempsey’s challenger said there was nothing he could say about the judge.

But he did tell us interest in his campaign has picked up with more people offering to volunteer.

Stay tuned.

There is hope.

“It’s not over. No,” said Attorney Marie Mattox.

While the judge shot down a motion, the lawsuit is still alive.

“So that lawsuit was pending. It was going to be a longer term, and its still going to be a longer term solution, hopefully solution to the problem. But at the same time, we’re filing a petition for an emergency injunction,” said Mattox.

And the lawsuit is assigned to another judge, which gives the attorneys hope.

Court Administrator Grant Sladen provided this statement: “While some litigants and some members of the public may not be satisfied with the results in every case, our system of justice relies on due process and transparency, not particular outcomes.”

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VISIT FLORIDA Looks to Residents to Kickstart Tourism

May 8th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

You’ll likely start seeing ads in the coming weeks encouraging you to visit Florida’s natural and outdoor tourist attractions.

It’s part of the state’s tourism marketing agency’s strategy for kickstarting the economy.

It was just before the start of the pandemic VISIT FLORIDA was marketing the state as a destination to ‘get away’ and ‘get closer’.

As described in a recent Executive Meeting, the messaging for phase one of its reopening plan is quite different.

“The consumer mindset is that safety equals home,” said VISIT FLORIDA Chief Marketing Officer Staci Mellman.

But the agency already has its sights set on the next phase.

An ad campaign will be rolled out.

It’s target audience: Florida residents.

“Data suggests that people feel a lot more comfortable traveling closer to home when they begin traveling again,” said Mellman.

The campaign will feature Florida’s natural destinations, where social distancing can be easily attained.

Every Floridian can play a part in helping the state’s largest industry recover.

“Taking advantage of all the wonderful outdoors opportunities that Florida brings is a great way to support our economy, have a great time with your family and also stay safe,” said Geoff Luebkemann, Vice President of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Luebkemann tells us the timeline for the campaign’s rollout will largely depend on consumer confidence.

“It’s a careful balancing act between going too hard at it and too gung-ho without recognizing the public health aspects that still have to be respected,” said Luebkemann.

Survey data on VISIT FLORIDA’s website shows slight improvements in tourist confidence.

A growing number say they’d travel by plane or stay in a hotel in the near future.

Still, for more than half respondents it will be at least four months before they do either.

Traffic to VISIT FLORIDA’s website has also been steadily rising for the past two weeks.

It’s now nearly twice as high as it was the same time last year, suggesting there’s a pent up demand for travel and Florida is on tourists’ radar.

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