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Governor Denounces New CDC School Guidelines

February 17th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

The CDC has released new guidance for reopening schools amid the pandemic, but with its schools already open, Florida doesn’t intend to follow it.

The Governor called the new guidance a disgrace and said it is based on politics not science.

New CDC guidance establishes four designations for school reopening based on case rates over the past seven days.

Of Florida’s 67 counties, all but Franklin County fall into the red category, which recommends fully virtual middle and high school learning.

“That is a disgrace. That is not science,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

DeSantis denounced the CDC guidelines saying special interests are being put ahead of science.

“That is putting politics and special interests ahead of what the evidence and observed experience says,” said DeSantis.

Florida’s largest teachers union said the guidance is just that… guidance.

It’s not mandatory.

Andrew Spar, President of the Florida Education Association said in many instances Florida isn’t even implementing the most basic steps recommended by the CDC.

“While most schools have mask mandates, not all of them do. I don’t know of pretty much any school district right now that can socially distance. I don’t know of any school district that’s doing regular testing and contract tracing to stay ahead of it,” said Spar.

The Governor also scoffed at the Biden Administration’s plan to include $100 billion for safely reopening schools in a federal relief package.

FEA suggested Florida should take the money and use it to install ventilation systems, pay for cleaning and close achievement gaps made worse by the pandemic.

But the Governor pointed out, Florida is excelling under the way schools are currently operating.

“33 states have more cases per-capita than Florida for children and many of those don’t have a lot of in-person instruction in school,” said DeSantis. “There is no evidence to suggest that school kids should do anything else other than be in school. This has been clear for months and months and months.”

And the Governor was clear in his message: In Florida, schools will stay the course and continue offering in-person learning so long as he’s in charge.

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Mail Ballot Changes on Legislative Agenda

February 17th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Statewide, Republicans have regularly outpaced Democrats in mail in voting, until 2020, when Democrats took a 600,000 vote lead.

Now, with the 2022 cycle just beginning some GOP lawmakers are trying to cancel out ongoing mail ballot requests in place for the upcoming cycle.

Governor Ron DeSantis won by fewer than 33,000 votes in 2018, when the GOP had a 54,000 mail in ballot advantage.

But in 2020, Democrats returned 680,000 more mail ballots than Republicans.

“A lot of these don’t get address changes. They are still getting delivered. They are out there, they are like blank checks,” said State Senator Dennis Baxley.

Voters who checked the box when they returned their ballot believed they were making a continuing request, but legislation now moving through committee would throw out all those requests.

“I think to hear from them year to year; how they want to vote this year, is the way to do it,” said Baxley, who is sponsoring the bill.

Tina Polsky voted no in the bill’s first committee.

“There’s not other way to interpret it. It’s a partisan attempt to restrict or make more difficult for Democrats to sign up for mail in ballots,” said Polsky.

If someone were to make a request for a mail ballot in Florida today, current law would allow them to automatically receive a ballot up through the 2024 election.

Elections Supervisors Association Vice President Mark Earley believes the change isn’t needed

“I think we’ve got great safeguards in place, so I don’t think we need any change to the vote by mail requests process,” said Earley.

Under the bill, Supervisors would have to eat the cost of educating voters.

It’s always difficult to educate the public on changes,” said Earley.

But Baxley said the legislation will ensure issues seen in other states in the 2020 election don’t happen here.

“Let’s make sure we have the right precautions,” said Baxley.

One part of the proposed bill is liked by elections supervisors.

It allows them to start counting mail ballots up to forty days before an election.

The Governor gave them that power in an emergency order last year and it’s credited with avoiding counting delays.

The bill has two more Senate Committee stops.

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Bill Seeks to Boost Moffitt Funding by $23 Million

February 17th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida is second in the nation in new cancer cases and Moffitt Cancer Center, now considered on of the premier treatment centers in the county, has outgrown its current location on the USF Campus.

Moffitt currently gets four percent of the State’s cigarette tax receipts, but a bill approved Wednesday would bump the total to first seven, then ten percent, providing Moffitt with an extra $23 million a year.

Sponsor Ed Hooper said Moffitt has a plan.

“They want to build a campus similar to MD Anderson in Texas, where everyone that is offered in their arsenal against cancer is at one location. Every speciality that a patient may need today, instead of traveling all over the Tampa Bay Area to that specialist, they can get it with one stop,” said Hooper.

Moffitt has already acquired 800 acres for the Campus.

The legislation failed last year, but has the backing of Senate leadership this year.

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CFO’s Super Bowl Bet Pays Off for Fire Fighters in State Capital

February 17th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Firefighters in the state capital were treated to some ‘good eats’ Wednesday, thanks to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ victory over the Chiefs in Super Bowl LV.

The barbecue lunch was part of a wager between Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Missouri State Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick.

With the Bucs’ 31-9 victory over the Chiefs, Fitzpatrick delivered on his promise to cater a barbecue lunch for the firefighters at Tallahassee’s Fire Station 1.

“These men and women work on Christmas, they work on birthdays, they even work during the Super Bowl. So today we’re celebrating some of our winnings with them thanks to the winning victory of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers,” said Patronis.

Patronis said he’s considering sending Fitzpatrick some fresh Florida grouper as a friendly gesture.

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Lawmakers Give First Approval to Include Gender Identity in Hate Crime Laws

February 16th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

A crime against someone simply because of their gender, or the gender to which they identify could soon carry enhanced penalties.

Legislation broadening Florida’s hate crime law took a step toward inclusiveness Tuesday after the testimony of a grieving parent.

21-year-old Maura Binkley was gunned down at a Tallahassee yoga studio in November 2018.

Her father Jeff has been searching for answers ever since.

Jeff Binkley could barely speak to a legislative committee as it considered broadening hate crimes to include gender or gender identity.

Maura and six others were shot by Scott Paul Beierle, a self-described misogynist, who blamed women for his self-imposed celibacy.

“The last two FBI hate crimes reports show a cumulative increase of violent hate crimes of over 30 percent,” said Binkley.

Maura’s dad wasn’t alone.

Others came to share being attacked because of who they are.

“I face discrimination on a daily basis as I walk out of my door,” said victim Janel Diaz.

When it comes to hate crimes, prosecutors first have to prove their was a crime, then they have to prove the hate element as well.

Hate crimes elevate penalties one step up, carrying greater fines or jail time.

Keith Perry was one of two no votes.

He crimes should be treated the same regardless of motive.

“You kind of grieve with these people who have had things happen to them, but I don’t want to have a system where one person gets specialized treatment. I don’t think that’s fair,” said Perry.

 

But Maura’s father said the designation will help collect data.

“If you are going to address any evil, including hatred, you have to first call it by its name,” said Binkley.

The bill still faces an uphill battle over doubts that adding hate crime designations do much to curb overall crime.

The legislation also includes the disabled, so if someone commits a crime simply because someone is in a wheel chair, penalties would be enhanced.

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CPR Training Could Become Mandatory for Florida Students

February 16th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

More than 350,000 people experience cardiac arrest outside of a hospital each year in the United States.

Of those, more than 7,000 are children.

The difference between life and death often comes down to how quickly a person receives CPR.

A bill approved by its first Senate committee in the State Capitol Tuesday would require all Florida’s student learn the life saving procedure.

Ed Kosiec suffered sudden cardiac arrest in 2019 at a Boynton Beach fast food restaurant.

“There was only one person in the whole entire restaurant that knew CPR. It was a young high school girl cooking french fries in the kitchen,” said Kosiec.

He told lawmakers if it weren’t for her training and quick action, he’d likely not be here today.

“I was given a gift, a second chance in life,” said Kosiec.

Ed’s story is’t unique.

Heart disease is the number one killer in the US and sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death for student athletes.

“The doctor said he has a 50 percent chance of making it,” said Joe Cobb.

Cobb’s son also survived cardiac arrest thanks to CPR given by a friend.

“Every doctor and medical staff, when we walked in that room when we got there that morning, said he must have had good CPR. And thank goodness he did,” said Cobb.

Kosiec and Cobb joined other advocates in support of the legislation that would require CPR training be taught to Florida students.

Currently CPR training is encouraged, but not mandatory.

The bill requires one hour of CPR training in grades 9 and 11.

It would largely be up to schools to decide how to incorporate the training in the school year.

“So we tried to give them as much room. As long as somebody gets an hour of training in how to do CPR and administer it they will be a lifesaver coming out of their school,” said Senate Sponsor Dennis Baxley.

If passed, The bill would take effect July first, in time for the first round of training to start in Fall of 2021.

Florida would join 38 other states that already require hands on CPR training for high school graduation.

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Bill Would Deregulate Florida Ports

February 16th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Legislation before a Senate committee at the State Capitol would gut local regulations at Florida’s 15 ports.

Those regulations might include wastewater discharge or limit the size of cruise ships the ports can serve.

Arlo Haskell of the Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships said the legislation would leave a void at ports.

“The truth is, nobody knows what will happen with this bill. The ramifications of removing local control from the ports in the state of Florida are unknown. There would be major unintended consequences. In Key west, we’ve had local control of our ports and this would pull that away,” said Haskell.

The bill is believed to be a response to a local ordinance that limits cruise ship sizes in Key West.

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Bill Seeks More Choice in High School Athletic Associations

February 16th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Florida lawmakers are once again looking to make changes to the Florida High School Athletic Association.

A bill approved by its first Senate committee Tuesday would require FHSAA to allow schools, including charter, home and private schools, to obtain membership on a single sport basis.

Sponsor Senator Danny Burgess said currently, if schools align any of their sports teams with another association, they loose their full membership status, even if they have other teams that participate in FHSAA.

“This isn’t, in my opinion, trying to seek anything more than just the option for choice for schools, for families. You know whether you’re a virtual school, a charter school, a home school or a public school to be able to kind of have that parody both with FHSAA and another conference such as the SSAC,” said Burgess.

The FHSAA waived in opposition to the bill without testifying.

It still has two more committee stops before a final vote by the full Senate.

 

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Consumers Face Uphill Battle on COVID Immunity

February 15th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida consumer groups are protesting legislative efforts to give businesses immunity from COVID-lawsuits.

The legislation is on a fast track, but is facing partisan opposition.

Just a handful of COVID-related lawsuits against businesses have been filed so far, but hundreds are being cued up.

“There is an overwhelming concern by consumers,” said Susan McGrath with the Florida Consumer Action Network.

Legislation to protect businesses is on the fast track in the Capitol.

Unions and others have so far been unable to stop it.

“There will be no accountability for them if their employees or if their consumers get sick,” said Dr. Rich Templin with the Florida AFL-CIO.

Michael Levine, an attorney representing the family of a Publix deli worker who died last April said the grocer wasn’t thinking about its workers.

“Publix made that decision to prohibit masks because they were worried that the masks would scare off customers,” said Levine.

But Senate Sponsor Jeff Brandes said as long as businesses followed changing guidelines, they shouldn’t face lawsuits.

“So we’ve seen the standards evolve. I think that’s the key,” said Brandes. “Were business actively participating keeping up with the standards? Were they looking at the CDC guidance when it came out?

So far, just one Republican has voted against the immunity provisions.

Not one Democrat has voted yes.

”There are 22 million Floridians that are suffering,” said House Democratic co-leader Rep. Evan Jenne.

Jenne believes GOP lawmakers are looking out for the wrong Floridians.

“I think we need to pass policy that is going to be best for those 22 million,” said Jenne.

And If the immunity legislation passes as is, workers could have little recourse.

COVID is not covered under workers comp.

The House and Senate are expected to take up the immunity legislation on the chamber floor during the first week of this spring’s session, which starts March 2nd.

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Gail’s Law Would Allow Rap Victims to Better Track their Cases

February 15th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

When a victim reports a sexual assault, DNA and other evidence are collected and stored in what is commonly referred to as a ‘rape kit’, which is then tested in hopes of identifying the offender.

Florida once had a backlog of more than 13,000 kits, but legislation in 2016 helped clear the backlog.

Now lawmakers are looking to go even further to ensure kits are tested in a timely manner.

The Legislation is named Gail’s Law after Central Florida woman whose rape kit sat untested on a shelf for more than three decades.

“We’re talking about women that spent years and years and years losing sleep literally. Not being able to sleep at night for the fear that their offender would come back,” said Camille Cooper with RAINN.

When it was finally tested DNA evidence identified her offender as a serial rapist who was already in prison.

The bill would ensure victims like Gail could track the status of their rape kits in real time.

“No victims of sexual assault should have to watch their attacker escape justice because evidence was, similar to Gail’s case, just mishandled or not processed timely. Nobody should have their sexual assault kit sitting on a shelf for so many years. This will ensure that victims are not re-victimized,” said bill sponsor Rep. Emily Slosberg.

30 other states have already implemented rape kit tracking programs similar to the one now being proposed in Florida.

The legislation would task the Florida Department of Law Enforcement with establishing the uniform rape kit tracking system for the state.

Victims’ identities would remain protected.

This wouldn’t be the first reform to Florida’s rape kit system.

A backlog of over 13,000 kits was exposed in 2015, prompting legislation and a three year multi-million dollar effort to clear the backlog.

“What I’m concerned about is them staying caught up,” said Senate sponsor Linda Stewart.

Slosberg said Gail’s Law would help identify any kinks remaining in the system.

“If for whatever reason they’re not performing the rape kits in certain communities it will be exposed,” said Slosberg.

The state’s tight budget this year may make for a difficult path ahead.

Bill sponsors are still trying to work out the cost of implementing Gail’s Law.

Any additional cost to the state will be highly scrutinized.

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Florida Governor and House Speaker Look to Protect Online Privacy

February 15th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

The Governor and House Speaker unveiled legislation today aimed at cracking down on big tech companies use of user data.

The legislation would require companies to explicitly tell users what data they plan to use and what they will use it for.

It would also require Florida residents be offered the option of opting-out of data sharing practices without facing consequences or being prohibited from using platforms.

Governor Ron DeSantis said if the bill becomes law, it will impact every Floridian who uses technology.

“So the heads they win, tails Floridians lose relationship with big tech needs to end. We’re going to shift the balance of power back to consumers and away from big tech because Floridians are no longer going to be dictated to by those big tech companies,” said DeSantis.

The bill is the second piece of legislation in an effort to crack down on big tech.

Like the deplatforming bill announced earlier this year, the Attorney General and users would be allowed to sue big tech companies that fail to comply with the proposed privacy requirements.

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Liquor to Go Could Stick Around After COVID

February 15th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Floridians have enjoyed the ability to order for delivery or take alcohol to go from restraints for nearly a year, thanks to executive action by the Governor signed in an effort to help restaurants navigate the pandemic.

Now legislation filed in the State Capitol would make the change permanent.

Carol Dover with the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association said the extra sales kept many restaurants afloat in 2020 and the legislation would be another tool in the toolbox for businesses as they look to recover.

“Our industry has now gone almost a year with allowing to have alcohol to go. It’s worked. It’s helped people stay alive. It has helped people have a job. Don’t take it away. No sense in going backwards,” said Dover.

The bill would also allow restaurants to send customers home with opened bottles of wine if they don’t finish the whole thing while dining in.

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Florida Hospitality Industry Decries Potential Federal Travel Ban

February 12th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

The federal government is reportedly considering imposing travel restrictions on states seeing high rates of COVID-19 variants, including Florida.

The rumors have faced staunch condemnation from the Governor and other elected officials in Florida and the state’s hospitality industry fears limiting inter-state travel would devastate the economic gains made over the past six months.

The Miami Herald first quoted White House officials Wednesday suggesting the possibility of imposing interstate-travel restrictions on states like Florida to slow the spread of the more contagious UK COVID variant.

Governor Ron DeSantis was quick to denounce the idea.

“It would not be based in science. It would purely be a political attack against the people of Florida,” said DeSantis Thursday morning.

Following DeSantis’ remarks White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki downplayed the suggestion that travel restrictions were under consideration.

“No decisions have been made around additional public health measures that would delay, or would change I should say, domestic travel considerations,” said Psaki.

But her statement hasn’t done much to douse the fears of Florida’s hospitality industry, which likens inter-state travel restrictions to a second lockdown of the state’s economy.

“The last thing we need now is another shut down,” said Carol Dover, President of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

The tourism industry was undoubtedly the sector hit hardest by the pandemic.

Rumors of a travel ban put a damper on last month’s optimism for a quicker than expected recovery.

Dover said some hotels are reporting out of state travelers make up 60 percent of their current business.

“60 percent. I mean we’re talking about an industry that is on life support right now. So the last thing we need to do is do anything that would cause their numbers to go backwards. We’re trying to build this industry back,” said Dover.

Both the Governor and The Restaurant and Lodging Association have called into question the constitutionality of a federally mandated inter-state travel ban.

If enacted, a lengthy legal battle would likely ensue, with Florida leading the charge.

The suggestion of Florida travel restrictions has also been condemned by both of Florida’s Republican US Senators.

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Hurricane Damaged Children’s Advocacy Center Receives New Facility

February 12th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse in the panhandle have new hope Friday with the completion of a newly rebuilt therapy house at the Gulf Coast Children’s Advocacy Center.

The AshBritt Foundation & Lauren’s Kids Trauma Therapy House was destroyed during Hurricane Michael in 2018.

Therapists and the survivors they serve were displaced, but continued their work by meeting in public parks and parking lots.

Executive Director of the Center Lori Allen said the ribbon cutting ceremony marks a return to some sense of normalcy.

“Children and adults who have experienced trauma from victimization, they deserve the best of the best of the best. There shouldn’t be any lights out, there shouldn’t be carpet that’s mismatched here and there. They are so worthy. They are worthy of the very best and they’re getting the very best now,” said Allen.

Advocates told us often families don’t know about the free services provided a children advocacy centers until they are faced with a situation where they have to know.

To locate an advocacy center near you, visit the Florida Network of Children’s Advocacy Center’s website at FNCAC.org.

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Provisional Data Suggests Suicide Deaths Fell in 2020

February 11th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Provisional data from the Florida Department of Heath shows suicides were unexpectedly down in 2020 compared to previous years.

But mental health experts warn while the data paints an optimistic picture, addressing pandemic related mental health issues remains a major concern.

Since early on in the pandemic Florida officials have expressed concern about how lockdowns, record high unemployment and isolation would impact Floridians’ mental health.

“I really worry about suicide, drug abuse, alcohol abuse,” said Governor Ron DeSantis during a press conference in March of 2020.

But provisional numbers from the Department of Health paint a surprising picture.

Suicide deaths appear to have dropped in 2020.

2,989 suicides have been recorded.

It’s 437 fewer than the previous year.

“It is a little surprising to see the numbers,” said Melanie Brown-Woofter with the Florida Behavioral Health Association.

The early numbers represent a 13 percent decline in suicides compared to 2019.

She told us it’s too early to know exactly what to glean from the data.

“The numbers are not final. We won’t have those results at least until mid-year 2021, but we are seeing a rise in deaths from opioids and other substances. So we’re just looking to make a final confirmation on how the data is related,” said Brown-Woofter.

While the provisional data suggests suicides were down last year, people are reporting more mental health issues overall.

“Recent polls have shown there’s an increase in anxiety, increase in depression. And certainly the community provider is seeing an increase in individuals presenting for services, increase to crisis call lines,” said Brown-Woofter.

And experts caution the apparent decline in suicide deaths likely won’t make a large impact to the overall suicide rate.

We also don’t have data on the number of suicide attempts in 2020.

The finalized report won’t be completed until May.

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