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The Latest On Coronavirus: Tuesday, March 17th

Ron DeSantis briefs Floridians about changes to K-12 schooling amid the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Florida Channel
Ron DeSantis briefs Floridians about changes to K-12 schooling amid the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Florida Channel

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Update 6:51 p.m.

DeSantis steers K through 12 schools to remote instruction until April 15, cancels state-wide testing

Brendan Byrne, WMFE

Governor Ron DeSantis said all K through 12 schools will remain off-campus through April 15, and instruction will happen remotely.

He said state testing is also suspended, and parents can decide to hold back students for the 2021 school year.

DeSantis has freed up state dollars to help low-income students access remote learning tools like laptops.

"K through 12 school districts are instructed to redirect unspent 2019-2020 funds from various allocations to help low income students purchase digital devices and establish internet services, so that they can engage in remote instruction,"said DeSantis.

The Department of Education and the state will continue to develop the new learning plan and expect more updates later this week.

Updated 4:53 p.m.

Candidates turn to online organizing as Florida primary proceeds amid coronavirus

Amy Green, WMFE

Campaigns turned to phone calls and online organizing rather than rallies and door-knocking as the Florida primary went ahead Tuesday amid fears over COVID-19. 

Florida was one of three states to hold presidential primaries as the novel coronavirus tested the most fundamental aspect of democracy — voting.

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Shultz, speaking on behalf of Joe Biden, says the campaign was relying on social media to make sure voters knew they still had time to vote.

“Thankfully in the 21st century we do have the ability to reach far more people than we ever could before. The advent of modern technology to do that outreach through social media, through telephonic communication and through outreach through the media.”

Meanwhile Bernie Sanders’ campaign says a series of online programs drew millions of views. The polls close at 7 p.m.

Updated 4:48 p.m. 

City of Orlando clarifies no-alcohol order

WMFE Staff

Orlando leaders say to lessen confusion for businesses the city will align with Gov. Ron DeSantis's executive order closing bars and nightclubs for 30 days.

The city says the prohibition of alcohol sales does not apply to stores where alcohol is sold but not consumed.

At 5 p.m. when the Governor's executive order takes effect, restaurants within city limits will be allowed to sell alcohol for onsite consumption.

Restaurants must also limit their capacity to 50% of current building occupancy, ensure a 6 ft. distance between groups of customers and limit parties to no more than 10 people.

Updated 4:15 p.m.

Orange County Library System closing all locations

WMFE Staff

The Orange County Library System will close all 16 of its locations for an undetermined period of time, beginning Wednesday March 18th

All library sponsored events, including camps, classes, tours and outreach events are cancelled through April 30th.

Home delivery of books, DVDs and other library materials will continue. Library fines will be suspended during the closure.

Updated 3:10 p.m.

Domestic Violence prevention agencies braced for uptick in cases

WMFE Staff

The Orange and Osceola County State Attorney's office says its prepared for a surge in domestic violence and child abuse cases as the coronavirus pandemic impacts Central Florida.

State Attorney Aramis Ayala said job-related stresses, an extended period of isolation, lack of entertainment and use of drugs and alcohol could lead to an increase in domestic violence, child abuse and animal abuse.

"To those who perpetrate acts of violence, especially during this time, you will be held fully accountable," said Ayala.

"My office will proceed, business as usual, despite any other uncertainty."

Ayala spoke at a media briefing with other Central Florida leaders in domestic violence prevention Tuesday.

"All across our country and in our community, people are being asked to stay home because it's safe," said Michelle Sperzel, CEO of Harbor House of Central Florida.

"The reality is, for many people, home is anything but safe."

Updated 2:40 p.m.

VA Medical facilities transition to virtual appointments

WMFE Staff

Medical facilities in the VA Sunshine Healthcare Network, including the Orlando VA Healthcare System, are taking extra steps to slow the spread of COVID-19.

In a press release, officials said facilities would transition to virtual appointments to the fullest extent to allow Veterans to stay home, avoid exposure to others and reduce their risk. Veterans who are worried they may have symptoms of Coronavirus, flu or cold are being told to contact the clinical contact center before coming to a VA facility.

VA facilities will stop doing non-urgent elective procedures during the pandemic. Visitation to facilities is also being restricted.

Updated 2:20 pm

State Hospitals See Spike In Admissions For Cough

Julio Ochoa, Health News Florida / WUSF

As coronavirus cases continue to climb across Florida, the state began releasing more information about hospital admissions and testing.

Hospitals are seeing a spike in patients admitted for coughing.

The state's data shows that admission rates for cough, shortness of breath and fever at emergency departments across Florida remains within expected levels for this time of year. However, the data shows the percentage of emergency department visits that mentioned cough has been elevated for the past two weeks, jumping from around 6% to nearly 12%.

In Broward County, which has the highest number of COVID-19 cases, the emergency department visits that mentioned cough rose even higher to 14%.

Broward also has seen the highest percentage of people test positive for COVID-19, with about 11% of the county's 462 tests confirming the disease.

The number of people being tested for coronavirus also has jumped over the past several days as the state’s partnership with private laboratories gets up and running.

Updated 12:00

Florida bars and restaurants to close as DeSantis aims to slow virus spread

Amy Green, WMFE

Gov. Ron DeSantis is ordering bars and nightclubs across Florida to shut down for 30 days beginning at 5 p.m. Tuesday. 

The governor announced the measure as one of several aimed at preventing young people from gathering in crowds. People can spread COVID-19 even if they are not showing serious symptoms. DeSantis says the measure follows the Trump administration’s guidance Monday that Americans avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.

“You have a lot of the younger folks who really are going to be key to this, and so it is our hope these new restrictions will reduce the ability of folks to congregate in large numbers.”

DeSantis also directed restaurants to reduce capacity by 50 percent and stagger seating so that groups are at least six feet apart. He recommended ordering take-out instead and said he would support local governments that want to take further steps.

Meawhile the governor is calling on the Florida Board of Governors to transition colleges and universities to remote learning for the rest of the spring semester.

The announcement comes after four University of Florida students tested positive for the novel coronavirus. At least some of the new cases were believed to be connected with travel.

DeSantis also announced another death — a 77-year-old man at an assisted-living facility in Broward County. He says the facility was taking steps to isolate the other patients.

As of 11.a.m. Tuesday the number of coronavirus cases in Florida stood at 173. There have been 6 deaths in Florida from coronavirus.

Updated 11:15

City of Orlando bans alcohol sales on premises for the rest of the month

Bars, restaurants and nightclubs in Orlando will be unable to sell alcohol for consumption on premises for the rest of the month.

Orlando mayor Buddy Dyer made the announcement today as the city moves to try and restrict social gatherings and restrict the coronavirus pandemic.

"So effective immediately and until March the 31st, pursuant to the provisions of code 43 A of the Orlando City Code, all persons are prohibited from selling or distributing any alcoholic beverages with or without payment for consumption on premises," said Dyer.

"This applies to bars, it applies to nightclubs, it applies to restaurants, it applies to hotels, anywhere alcohol is typically consumed. This does not apply to stores where alcohol is sold, but not to be consumed on premises."

The move may be moot, as Gov. Ron DeSantis has also announced that bars and nightclubs will be shut down for 30 days from close of business today.

"Bars and nightclubs, effective five pm today, they're gonna be suspended for 30 days in the state of Florida," said DeSantis.

"I think you've seen a lot of things about people congregating at some of these things. We view that as something that could be problematic for spreading the virus."

Updated 8:45

Central Florida counties make last-minute changes to voting sites

Joe Byrnes, WMFE

Some counties in Central Florida have made last-minute changes to polling places.

In Marion County, Supervisor of Elections Wesley Wilcox listed six emergency changes. He told the Ocala Star-Banner some polling places balked at the idea of having hundreds of people visiting in the midst of COVID-19 concerns.

Signs at the old locations direct voters to the emergency polling sites.

Other changes were announced earlier to keep voters out of facilities that serve those most vulnerable to the coronavirus. Here you’ll find recent changes announced by area counties. More information is available at the supervisor of elections websites.

Marion County

  • Voters at Precinct 0013 Spanish Oaks - Social Hall will now vote at Central Christian Church, 3010 NE 14th St., Ocala
  • Voters at Precinct 2620/2621 Foxwood Farms will now vote at Quail Meadows Clubhouse, 3158 NW 49th Ave., Ocala.
  • Voters at Precinct 4600 Pine Run-Happiness Hall will now vote at the Deputy Brian Litz Building, 9048 SW State Road 200, Ocala.
  • Voters at Precinct 4640 Spruce Creek North Clubhouse will now vote at the Deputy Brian Litz Building, 9048 SW SR 200, Ocala.
  • Voters at Precinct 4660/4670 Cherrywood Estates Clubhouse will now vote at Freedom Public Library, 5870 SW 95th St., Ocala.
  • Voters at Precinct 4680 Oakbend Mobile Home Park will now vote at Cornerstone UPC Church, 3300 SW 66th St., Ocala.

Lake County

  • Voters at Precinct 63, the Mid Florida Lakes Clubhouse, will now vote at Grand Island Baptist Church, 13229 County Road 44, Grand Island.

"I want to assure all voters that each precinct/polling location is well equipped with disinfectant wipes and sprays, and we will be wiping down all of our equipment to follow the CDC "Supervisor of Elections Alan Hays said in a prepared statement. "Voters who choose to bring their own pen to mark their ballot are advised to use a black ink ballpoint pen."

Osceola County

  • Voters at Precinct 106, Good Samaritan, will be relocated to Pleasant Hill Elementary School, 1253 Pleasant Hill Road, Kissimmee.

Brevard County

  • Voters at Precinct 201 / 240, Courtenay Springs Village, will be voting at Kiwanis Island Park Gym, 950 Kiwanis Island Park Road, Merritt Island.
  • Voters at Precinct 509, Trinity Towers East, will be voting at Front Street Civic Center, 2205 Front Street, Melbourne.


Updated 8:40 a.m.

Virus fears keep some Florida polls closed

The Associated Press

Some Florida polling places have been unable to open as workers didn't show up because of coronavirus fears.

The Palm Beach County elections department says many workers failed to show up in at least five locations Tuesday. The county had 800 volunteers back out as of Monday, with 100 new volunteers offering to take their places.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has said he believes the election can be run safely.

In Ohio, health officials postponed the state's scheduled election, citing public health concerns. Officials in Arizona and Illinois say they're moving forward with their votes.

Joe Biden is hoping to widen his lead over Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary.


Updated 8:20 a.m.

Fund established to support low income families during the coronavirus pandemic

WMFE staff

Heart of Florida United Way is setting up a fund to help Asset Limited Income Constrained (ALICE) families in Central Florida, whose financial stability is being affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

The non profit says nearly half of Central Floridians are living paycheck to paycheck, and the fund aims to support people experiencing hardship due to decreased hours or unpaid leave.

The fund for residents of Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties can provide assistance with rent, mortgage and utilities to help prevent eviction and homelessness.

People seeking assistance can dial Heart of Florida United Way's 211 Information and Referral Crisis Line by dialing 2-1-1, texting their zip code to 898211 or chatting online at www.HFUW.org/Chat.

Heart of Florida United Way has invested $100,000 in the fund and is asking other businesses to help support the fund too.

Updated 6:58 a.m.

During coronavirus crisis, Florida Presidential Primary continues as planned

Brendan Byrne, WMFE

It’s election day in Florida.

Voting in the Presidential Preference Primary is proceeding as planned, despite concerns over the coronavirus.

While Louisiana delayed its April 4 election and Ohio attempted to postpone its March 17 primary, Governor Ron DeSantis said that’s not happening in Florida.

"When you go in and cancel [the primary], the signal that it sends is somehow we're paralyzed," DeSantis said Monday on the eve of the election. "I don't think that's the case."

Because it’s a short ballot -- and many people have voted by mail -- DeSantis said it was the right call.

"I think we can do it in a level headed way we can address the risks and, and do it," he said. "The health officials say given the nature of this primary -- given the way you go in and fill in one oval most of the time for most [ballots] -- it can be done safely.

Voting officials are taking extra precautions amid the coronavirus pandemic. They’re urging people who are sick to vote using a mail ballot and drop it off the same day. Voters can have someone who is not sick pick it up, as long as they have an affidavit declaring a voting designee.

Officials also moved polling sites in areas with a vulnerable population -- like assisted living facilities. Poll workers have been given instruction on how to sanitize machines.

Voters are urged to visit elections.myflorida.com for more info on voting forms, or reach out to their local supervisor of elections.

"We are fortunate to have numerous options in Florida to cast our ballots safely and securely," said Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee. "We encourage all Floridians who have not already voted to choose the option that is right for them."

Click here to read more of WMFE's reporting on coronavirus