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The Latest On Coronavirus: Wednesday, March 18th

The Florida Department of Health has partnered with private labs to speed up COVID-19 testing. Photo: Joe Byrnes, WMFE
The Florida Department of Health has partnered with private labs to speed up COVID-19 testing. Photo: Joe Byrnes, WMFE

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Updated at 8:39 p.m.

Orange County plans to expand crisis assistance program

By Abe Aboraya

Orange County plans to expand a program to provide emergency money to residents.

Orange County’s Crisis Assistance Program gives eligible low-income residents a one-time payment to help with rent or utilities.

Mayor Jerry Demings says the county commission will take up additional funding for the program next week.

“By the end of next week we hope to have dollars in hand of those individuals who have the need,” Demings said.

Residents can call 211 for more information.

Meanhile, Orange County's health department plans to open two new testing sites for coronavirus. One testing site will be at the Orange County Convention Center.

“We’ll be opening a smaller scale testing site, on the east side of town in the Alafaya Trail area, and that will be by appointment for people who qualify to be tested," said Dr. Raul Pino with the Florida Department of Health in Orange County.

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said he’s confident that businesses will follow a ban on sales of alcohol for on-premise consumption. Demings said bars that were open for St. Patrick’s Day probably didn’t know about the new rules.

“Now, I do know that at several locations our local law enforcement visited and helped to educate those businesses,” Demings said.

Brendan Byrne, WMFE

Updated at 6:04 p.m.

Gov. DeSantis asks federal government for testing supplies, announces stricter nursing home guidelines

Brendan Byrne, WMFE

Governor Ron DeSantis is asking the federal government for more testing supplies and personal protective equipment.

He said Florida will soon have 2,500 test kits, which will increase the capacity to test up to 600,000 thousand people. But the state lacks supplies like swabs to get it done

"We put in an order, probably a week and a half ago for half a million swabs," he said. "We've not gotten that fulfilled yet. We've also asked the federal government."

Swabs can be used to test people at drive-through facilities, which the state is scrambling to set up. The Governor is pushing to expand testing throughout the state to get a better handle on how and where COVID-19 is spreading.

State officials have announced stricter guidelines for those who work around senior citizens -- the most vulnerable population to COVID-19. All staff at nursing homes and assisted living facilities should be taking precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

"We are working with our assisted living facilities, and our nursing facilities to make sure that they are all that all their staff as the governor said, are wearing surgical facial masks to prevent the spread," said Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Mary Mayhew.

The state has been working with facilities to get more supplies if needed.

Updated at 4:46 p.m.

Orange County Public Schools Get Ready For Remote Learning

Amy Green, WMFE 

Orange County Public Schools are preparing for an unprecedented period of remote learning. 

That’s after state officials ordered schools across Florida to close at least until April 15th to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

Orange County Superintendent Barbara Jenkins sent a message to staff that said, in her words, “Our education system as we knew it simply does not exist today.”

Beginning March 30th schools are expected to go back to educating students -- remotely -- and are expected to do this without any additional resources. 

In Orange County staff will return to work Monday to work out logistics. The plan includes learning packets that can accomodate families with no internet connection. 

In the meantime, custodial workers are sanitizing schools to ensure they are safe for staff. Free meals will be offered at 50 schools, in the car loop of each school. 

The school district also is researching child care possibilities. 

Updated at 3:35 p.m.

Sumter County reports its first case of COVID-19

Sumter County has announced its first case of COVID-19.

The man is a Sumter County resident. And the case is believed to be travel-related.

Health officials did not report where exactly the patient lives or give his age.

Sumter County -- which includes much of The Villages retirement community -- has a median age of almost 68, the oldest for any U.S. county with at least 20,000 people. That makes it especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.

In announcing the case, County Health Director Dr. Sanford Zelnick notes Sumter has declared a state of emergency. He says residents should redouble their social distancing in hopes of flattening the curve of community spread.

That way, he says, the health system can respond more effectively.


Update 3:20 p.m.

For those affected economically, Gov. DeSantis says relief is coming

Brendan Byrne, WMFE

Governor Ron DeSantis said relief is coming for those impacted financially by business closures and slowdowns due to the coronavirus.

Fears of the virus spreading have shut down business across the state — including theme parks, resorts and bars. Small businesses are affected by people staying in and practicing social distancing.

DeSantis activated an emergency SBA loan program for businesses in the state that hire between two and 100 employees. They’re eligible for up to $50,000 dollars in loans, interest free for a year.

The state is asking the federal government for even more help. “Senator [Marco] Rubio and I talked about where we did $50 million for the bridge loan here, [the federal government is] looking to do something even more significant, which I think will be very, very important.”

The Trump administration announced a proposal to start sending all Americans direct relief payments, with hopes of delivering them by April 6.

“You’re going to have people who are living paycheck to paycheck, who were involved with industries that were doing very well, and they were gainfully employed, and they’re all of a sudden not going to have a job, and we hope that that’s a short term thing,” said DeSantis.

Update 1:30 p.m.

More than 300 coronavirus cases confirmed in Florida

Matthew Peddie, WMFE

The Florida Department of Health said Wednesday morning that it had identified 98 more positive COVID-19 cases, bringing the total to 314.

Those include 298 Florida residents and 25 non-residents.

Seven Florida residents have died and 66 have been hospitalized with COVID-19

The Department of Health has partnered with private labs around the state to expand testing capacity. Find more detailed information about the cases here.

Update 1:00 p.m.

Orlando, Ocala police say they won't enforce Governor's restaurant and bar order

Joe Byrnes, WMFE

The order closes the tap on alcohol at bars for 30 days, keeps beach parties to no more than 10 people and limits restaurants to 50 percent of capacity.

DeSantis tasked the Department of Business and Professional Regulation with keeping the bars and eateries in line. 

In Orlando, the police department issued a news release saying, no, they will not enforce the order.

In Ocala Tuesday night, Mayor Kent Guinn wanted to make sure local police wouldn't get involved. The chief assured him officers wouldn’t go door-to-door checking on restaurants.

Update 9:35 a.m.

Florida deploys 3 field hospitals, requests medical supplies

The Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Health officials in Florida are deploying three field hospitals across the state to help combat the new coronavirus.

Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz said Tuesday night via email that one field hospital is currently staged in Orlando, and the others are being sent to Broward County and Ocala.

This comes as the number of people infected with COVID-19 rose to 216 cases with six deaths reported in Florida.

Also on Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered all bars and nightclubs to shut down for 30 days and public schools were closed through April 15.

Update 9:00 a.m.

Workers in Orlando's arts and entertainment industry face an uncertain future

Abe Aboraya, WMFE

As Congress debates a coronavirus relief package that would send cash to citizens, the nationwide shutdown is impacting residents’ livelihoods.

Alina Alcántara is an actor who works at Disney. She’s not working because of COVID-19 - but said she is lucky that Disney will pay its workers while the parks are closed. She knows people who aren’t as fortunate.

“I have friends of mine that lost pretty much all of their sources of income in a matter of 24 to 48 hours. Between parks closing, shows and theaters closing, special events, corporate events, conventions,” said Alcántara.

She’s worried that the pandemic will continue.

“And the idea that we’re gonna be sitting around at a minimum three to four months with nothing coming in - that’s kinda scary.”

Alcántara said she’s also worried her elderly parents could get sick.

Update 8:20 a.m.

3 more Biden victories increase pressure on Sanders to quit

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Joe Biden's sweeping victories in Florida, Illinois and Arizona are building his delegate lead over rival Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential race.

And that is increasing the pressure on Sanders to admit defeat and leave the race. The former vice president's third big night in as many weeks came Tuesday amid tremendous uncertainty as the Democratic contest collides with efforts to slow the spread of a virus that has shut down large swaths of American life.

Biden's quest for his party's nomination now seems well within reach. Biden's trio of wins doubled his delegate haul over Sanders, giving him a nearly insurmountable lead.

Joe Biden wins as coronavirus looms over primary

Amy Green, WMFE

The victory comes in an extraordinary election, as COVID-19 has brought the country to a virtual standstill.

Across Florida schools, bars and nightclubs closed. State leaders advised restrictions on restaurants and beaches, and businesses ordered employees to work from home.

But voters trickled into voting places, preserving a fundamental concept of democracy — voting.

“We’ve seen people who if they didn’t vote, early vote, they have made an effort to get to the polls in numbers that are really amazing, given the circumstances,” said former Congresswoman Gwen Graham, speaking on behalf of the Biden campaign. “We’re in uncharted territory.”

Florida is considered a crucial swing state in the general election.

Coronavirus not the only factor impacting turnout in Tuesday's primary

Matthew Peddie, WMFE

The coronavirus pandemic was on the minds of many voters who cast their ballots in person in the presidential preference primary. Orange County supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles said turnout was down by nearly half compared to four years ago. 

“In 2016 Orange County had a 42 per cent turn out and tonight, we’re just basically at 26 per cent voter turnout,” said Cowles.

He said in 2016 the Republicans had an energetic presidential primary ballot that included Donald Trump along with Floridians Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. This year, the long Democratic ballot had become a two person race by the time of Florida’s primary.  

Cowles said coronavirus may have been a factor in keeping people away from the polls.

“We already knew that all the Central Florida Counties were going to be closed for Spring Break, so people had already made plans to go off, or grandparents backed out from being poll workers because they have to watch the grandkids while the parents work," he said.

"So we already knew we had all of that related to Spring Break. And then you throw in the virus.”

Cowles said dealing with a pandemic while running an election is a first for him.

NASA Chief Orders Telework For All Non-Essential Staff Amid COVID-19 Concerns

Brendan Byrne, WMFE

NASA is requiring mandatory teleworking for its civil servants and contracts amid concerns over the spread of coronavirus — the order includes workers at Kennedy Space Center.

Agency administrator Jim Bridenstine is elevating all NASA facilities to a so “Stage 3 Response Framework” requiring teleworking for any non-essential staff. He said only mission-essential personnel will be given access to NASA facilities.

Bridenstine said only a limited number of employees tested positive for COVID-19, and the move is a precautionary measure.

Click here to read our previous reporting on coronavirus