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Your Wednesday Update: DeSantis Says State Will Deploy Mobile Lab, Antibody Testing Lanes; In Orange County, Demings says Businesses Must Get Permits for Larger Tents

Photo: Claudia Van Zyl
Photo: Claudia Van Zyl

Mayor Jerry Demings gives businesses in unincorporated Orange County additional guidelines for phase one reopening

Danielle Prieur, WMFE

Restaurants and stores in unincorporated Orange County can’t use public property for outdoor retail space during the first phase of Governor Ron DeSantis’ recovery plan. 

Mayor Jerry Demings said owners who already own outdoor seating should maintain six feet of distance between tables and tents. 

Demings says they also must maintain a four foot ADA approved path around these areas. 

“Larger tents require a permit and cannot block sidewalks or parking areas," Demings said.

Demings says he will hold a town hall with religious leaders next Thursday to discuss guidelines for restarting services.

He says his executive order recommended but didn’t require houses of worship to limit gatherings to less than 10 people and to practice frequent hand washing.

Orlando VA Hospital prepares mobile ICU unit

Danielle Prieur, WMFE The Orlando VA Hospital has a mobile ICU unit it can deploy to help in the event of a second surge in coronavirus cases.  VHA Executive Director of Emergency Management Paul Kim says the unit has enough beds and supplies to treat 30 patients.  “We have ventilators, we have suction. We have all of those things that you would normally treat a COVID patient. But we also because it’s a field hospital we can make our own water, we generate our own power," Kim said. Kim says pods can be deployed on a tractor trailer and set up within two days.  He says the unit could also be used to treat trauma victims during hurricane season as it withstands up to 170 mph winds. 

Orange County economic task force says key to recovery is building trust with visitors

Brendan Byrne, WMFE Orange County leaders are working to bring tourism back to the region as the economy slowly reopens.  More than 50 business leaders met today at the county’s weekly economic task force meeting -- charged with helping steer Mayor Jerry Demings as the county recovers from the economic impact of coronavirus.  Alfond Inn General Manager Jesse Martinez chairs the Bring Back Tourism task force. He says the county’s priority should be building trust with future visitors. "To supply detailed information on business readiness, an abundance of information must be provided to the traveler outlining exactly how we are keeping them safe as a destination and individual business, our traveler will not travel without knowing that they're coming to a safe destination and individual businesses," Martinez said. The task force also recommends an aggressive marketing campaign to bring more visitors back to the region. Theme parks remain closed since mid April. On an earnings call yesterday, Disney CEO Bob Chapek said he doesn’t have an opening date in mind for Disney World and Disneyland.

Rep. Anthony Sabatini makes a statement, opposes Safer at Home orders

Joe Byrnes, WMFE Anthony Sabatini, south Lake County's voice in the Florida House, opposes the Safer at Home orders of the GOP governor and doubts their effectiveness.  So the first-term Republican has joined the fight against stay-at-home orders. Those state and local restrictions are designed to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus. But Sabatini sees no proof they work. "I think what's interesting is that we did something we've never done in all human history, which is basically shut down and did an untested quarantine and called that a proper response for a virus we knew very little about. I think that is what's going to be one of the big historic regrets," Sabatini said. And he argues the orders are illegal. As a lawyer, he signed on to help represent of a Pinellas Park shop owner accused of violating them. The charges were dropped, but Sabatini still wants to challenge their legality in court. He's considering a bill restricting local governments from issuing emergency orders and closing businesses.

Lawsuit aims to make it easier for Floridians to mail-vote

The Associated Press

ORLANDO Fla. (AP) — Advocacy groups want to make it easier for Floridians to vote by mail during the current pandemic.

A lawsuit they filed this week in federal court in Tallahassee asks a judge to allow ballots to be counted if they're postmarked by Election Day but arrive within 10 days of that deadline.

It also wants to allow paid organizers to collect vote-by-mail ballots from voters who require assistance and for the state to pay for postage for mail-in ballots instead of voters.

The Florida lawsuit come as states around the U.S. struggle to hold elections in the face of the highly-contagious new coronavirus.

Analysis: The NBA is proceeding with extreme caution

The Associated Press

The NBA says some players can voluntarily return to their team practice facilities starting on Friday, with specific conditions and only in places where local governments have signed off.

It is unclear how many — if any — players will be back on the floor Friday when the league ban gets lifted.

Perhaps mindful of challenges other leagues have faced in their efforts to resume play amid a coronavirus pandemic that has shut down the sports world, the NBA seems to be moving with extreme caution.

Florida prepares hurricane response with coronavirus in mind

Regan McCarthy, WFSU With the start of hurricane season less than a month away, Florida Director of Emergency Management Jared Moskowitz says officials are looking into what a storm response might look like in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. He says one thing to consider is how shelters will operate if people need to evacuate for a hurricane. “You know, temperature checks, sheltering people, or perhaps we go away from that completely and go non congregate sheltering in hotels. We’ve been talking to FEMA about that almost daily about that planning. They’ve been a real partner in that making sure that obviously we’re looking at all our standard operating procedures. We have a lot of experience here in Florida, especially in the last four years, but how do we change that, how do we modify it to take into account COVID-19 and the challenges that poses especially if we have an earlier storm in the June and July season?" Moskowitz says the state is also holding some medical masks and other personal protective, or PPE, supplies in reserve for use specifically during hurricane season.

Florida to launch mobile COVID-19 testing lab

Alexander Gonzalez, WLRN
Florida is launching its first mobile testing lab for COVID-19. During a news conference this morning, Governor Ron DeSantis said the mobile lab will give back results in about 45 minutes. "It takes 24, 48 hours at least to get those results when you’re sending it to a private lab. Now with this, you’re gonna be able to go to long-term care facilities, get results back almost immediately, and then be able to, if there is a case, isolate the worker, isolate the resident appropriately," DeSantis said. The mobile lab will tell people whether they’re positive or negative for COVID-19. It does not test for antibodies, which show a previous infection with the virus. The governor has said testing capacity plays a key role in state reopening efforts.

Early cases of COVID-19 probably spread before official announcement

Gerard Albert III, WLRN
Collier county resident Thais Tepper says she had all of the coronavirus symptoms back in January. “I had the headache, the dry eyes, stuffy head, cough, constricted breathing, sore throat over that three week period,” Tepper said. She went to her local hospital where they told her she had acute bronchitis. At the time COVID-19 testing was not available in Florida. In April, after she had recovered, she went for an antibody test in Doral. The results showed that she had contracted the virus. Erin Kobetz is the lead researcher on a study aimed at mapping cases in Miami-Dade county using antibody testing. She says it’s probable that the virus was here before March. “There is the possibility that there were exposures occurring and people who were infected but either with low level symptoms or symptoms that were confused for the flu," Kobetz said. Antibody tests look for what’s called IgG antibodies. They develop in response to the virus and can provide immunity once people recover. Health experts aren’t sure how long that immunity lasts. The Department of Health has not re-posted the data for the early cases to its website.

Rick Bright, former top vaccine scientist, files whistleblower complaint

Laurel Wamsley, NPR
The federal scientist who was ousted last month  as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority  has filed a whistleblower complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. Rick Bright was a high-ranking federal scientist focused on vaccine development and a deputy assistant secretary with the Department of Health and Human Services. On April 20, Bright said, he was transferred to a "less impactful position" at the National Institutes of Health after he was reluctant to promote the use of drugs such as hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 patients. In the complaint, Bright alleges a range of government wrongdoing by  Dr. Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services, and others. Bright was supervised by Kadlec, who in turn reported to HHS Secretary Alex Azar. At the time of his removal, Bright  said he had been ousted because of his "insistence" that the government spend funds on "safe and scientifically vetted solutions" to address the coronavirus crisis and not on "drugs, vaccines and other technologies that lack scientific merit." Bright says in the complaint that he raised concerns in January about the need to prepare for the coronavirus but encountered opposition from Trump administration officials. He says he was transferred out of BARDA in retaliation. According to the complaint, relations between Bright and Kadlec had been strained since 2018 or so, when Bright began "raising repeated objections to the outsized role Dr. Kadlec allowed industry consultants to play in securing contracts that Dr. Bright and other scientists and subject matter experts determined were not meritorious." "Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, however, Dr. Bright became even more alarmed about the pressure that Dr. Kadlec and other government officials were exerting on BARDA to invest in drugs, vaccines, and other technologies without proper scientific vetting or that lacked scientific merit," the complaint continues. "Dr. Bright objected to these efforts and made clear that BARDA would only invest the billions of dollars allocated by Congress to address the COVID-19 pandemic in safe and scientifically vetted solutions and it would not succumb to the pressure of politics or cronyism." The complaint alleges that Bright made repeated efforts to get the U.S. government to make adequate preparations for the coronavirus but was stymied by political appointees leading the HHS, including Azar. Bright says that in an effort to get the word out to the public about the risks associated with hydroxychloroquine, he shared with a reporter nonclassified emails between HHS officials that "discussed the drug's potential toxicity and demonstrated the political pressure to rush these drugs from Pakistan and India to American households." He says Azar and Kadlec removed him from his post within days of publication of an article about chloroquine  because they suspected he was the article's source. NIH Director Francis Collins  saidlast week that Bright has been reassigned as a senior adviser there, though his specific role is "under development." Bright says he stopped receiving a paycheck on April 20 and has not been assigned any further duties or responsibilities and "remains in limbo." The Department of Health and Human Services offers a differing account of Bright's employment status. "Dr. Bright was transferred to NIH to work on diagnostics testing — critical to combatting COVID-19 — where he has been entrusted to spend upwards of $1 billion to advance that effort," HHS spokesperson Caitlin Oakley said in a statement to NPR. "We are deeply disappointed that he has not shown up to work on behalf of the American people and lead on this critical endeavor." Bright's attorney made news of the whistleblower complaint public Tuesday.

The number of COVID-19 cases is climbing in Central Florida’s nursing homes and assisted living facilities

Nicole Darden Creston, WMFE The COVID-19 outbreak at Highlands Lake Center in Lakeland is one of the largest and deadliest in the state. Eighty-four cases, according to the Florida Department of Health – 61 residents and 23 staff members have been reported. Twelve residents have died. Brian Lee is with the advocacy group Families for Better Care. He says point-of-care rapid-testing machines are key to stopping the spread.  “If we were able to get one of these machines in every nursing home, we could start testing all of the residents and all of the staff tomorrow. It will slow down this virus. In fact, it won’t only slow it, it will stop it altogether," Lee said. Central Florida’s second largest reported outbreak is at the Coquina Center in Ormond Beach, with a total of 60 cases – 46 residents and 14 staff members. Nine residents have died. Tampa-based Opis Senior Services Group owns both facilities and a handful of others across Florida. Officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Federal government investigates Coleman Prison

Joe Byrnes, WMFE The Justice Department's inspector general appears to be looking into the Bureau of Prison's response to the COVID-19 pandemic at the large Coleman prison complex in Sumter County. In late April, Orlando Democratic Congresswoman Val Demings sent a letter to the IG urging him to include Coleman in his review of federal prisons. Her office has not received confirmation of that. But Joe Rojas, a prison employee and union leader, says an inspector leading the Coleman team has requested an interview with him this week. He shared a copy of an email from the inspector. Rojas says he expects to answer questions about masks. He says Coleman was slow to provide them and, until recently, wouldn't let the officers wear their own.  The prison complex in Sumterville has about 7,000 inmates and 1,300 staff members. So far the Bureau of Prisons reports two employees have tested positive for the coronavirus and one inmate.

With camps shut, families face summer in the great indoors

The Associated Press Welcome to summer in the great indoors. Parents around the country are learning their children’s summer camps will be canceled, delayed or moved online because of the coronavirus. The news has dealt a blow to parents and children, who have already spent weeks cooped up during school closures. Camp cancellations also will pinch many nonprofits that rely on camp payments to survive the rest of the year and young counselors who need summer jobs. From New Hampshire to California, camps are scrambling as Zoom campfires and “virtual cabins” in the living room become more likely.

Family of dead crew member with virus sues Royal Caribbean

The Associated Press MIAMI (AP) — The family of a cruise crew member who died after testing positive for COVID-19 has filed a lawsuit against Royal Caribbean Cruises saying the company failed to protect its employees. The wrongful death case filed in circuit court in Miami says 27-year-old Pujiyoko suffered from flu-like symptoms but was not tested for six days. The Indonesian man was disembarked in a life boat seven days after first reporting to the Symphony of the Seas’ medical facility. The lawsuit argues Royal Caribbean failed to follow virus guidelines allowing crew parties and buffets.

Florida member of Congress says new coronavirus bill could include another payment to Americans

Seán Kinane, WMNF Many Americans have already received $1,200 deposits from an earlier round of coronavirus assistance. But people are still struggling. Which is why Congress member Kathy Castor, a Democrat from Tampa, says the House is likely to include another direct payment to individuals, along with funding for states, for first responders and for coronavirus testing. “There will probably be another cash assistance payment. That has been a lifeline, especially while the state of Florida’s unemployment system has really turned into a debacle and left people in the lurch on that," Castor said. Castor also says the Democratic majority in the House is unlikely to give in to demands by the Republican leader of the Senate that any new coronavirus aid bill must shield employers from lawsuits by returning employees.

Fact check: Governor Ron DeSantis on antibody testing

Jenny Staletovich, WLRN Gov. Ron DeSantis says the state plans to roll out antibody testing for COVID-19. During a news conference yesterday, he said the tests could be an indication of immunity. "If you're a health care worker and you have the antibodies, then obviously you have immunity. We don't know how long that immunity is. Some people think six months, two years. I think eventually we'll find out," DeSantis said. Last month, Dr. Anthony Fauci told the Associated Press that doctors don’t yet know the concentration of antibodies needed for immunity. They also don’t know how long immunity would last. "I know people are anxious to say, well, we'll give you a passport that says, ‘You're antibody positive. You can go to work and you're protected.’ The worst possibility that would happen is if we're actually wrong about that," Fauci said. The University of Miami is conducting antibody tests to check for the infection rate in Miami-Dade County. They say it’s not clear if antibodies provide COVID-19 immunity. DeSantis’ office did not respond to a request for comment yesterday.

Lawsuit alleges CARES Act excludes U.S. citizen children of undocumented immigrants

Marisa Penaloza, NPR U.S. citizen children of undocumented parents who are excluded from the $2 trillion federal coronavirus relief package filed a federal class-action lawsuit Tuesday. The  lawsuit was filed in federal court in Maryland by the  Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center along with CASA, a nonprofit immigrant rights organization serving the Washington, D.C.-area and Pennsylvania, on behalf of seven children, ranging in age from 7 months old to 9 years old, and their parents. "My daughter is a U.S. citizen," said Carmen, the mother of one child in the lawsuit who did not want to give her full name because of her immigration status. "Just as any other U.S. citizen child, my daughter deserves to have equal rights, especially during this pandemic," Carmen said. "It's an injustice." As job losses continue to increase nationwide due to the public health pandemic, the federal government's enormous Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, signed into law March 27, provides an economic lifeline to millions of people who pay taxes using their Social Security number instead of the  individual taxpayer identification number, or ITIN, used by Carmen and many other undocumented immigrants. Every eligible individual receives a $1,200 check if the person has an  income of less than $75,000per year, or $2,400 if a couple files taxes jointly. If the income is higher, the amount varies. Individual taxpayers' children also qualify for $500 per child under the age of 17. Carmen said she pays income tax every year using her ITIN. Before the pandemic she worked two jobs in the food industry — one at a catering company and another at a pizzeria. "This is the first time I'm home without an income," she said. "I'm using my voice to advocate on behalf of my daughter." Carmen came to the U.S. from Lima, Peru, in 2001. She said she's concerned about her and her daughter's future in this pandemic. "It's a hard reality we are living," she said, pleading with public officials not to abandon children like hers during the crisis. "I hope their hearts soften and their minds open to see that our children are also the future of the country." Mary McCord is the lead attorney for the class-action lawsuit. "The lawsuit is based on the equal protection violation of the CARES Act that discriminates and excludes U.S. children," said McCord, a visiting professor at Georgetown University Law Center. "It's one thing to discriminate against the undocumented immigrants, which our system does, but it's a whole different thing to discriminate against U.S. citizen children." McCord estimates there are millions of children of undocumented immigrants in the country and said that these youths are being "treated as second-class citizens" with the denial of the CARES Act benefit. More importantly, McCord said, it's nonsensical to deny these U.S. citizen children the benefit of the relief package because they already qualify for other public benefit programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP benefits, as well as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. "Under the Constitution, U.S. citizens cannot be discriminated against based on alienage," McCord said. "These children have no say in who they're born to, and yet they're being treated differently than other U.S. citizen children. And that's why so many of the other public benefits programs still do cover U.S. citizen children, because otherwise it would be discriminatory." Nicholas Katz, CASA's senior manager of legal services, said the way the CARES Act is being implemented runs counter to its promise. "The purpose of the CARES Act is to help the most vulnerable members of our society during this difficult time," Katz said in written statements. "Immigrants make up almost a fifth of [front-line] workers during this pandemic. It is an absolute outrage that we are relying on immigrant families to care for our loved ones and provide our essential supplies and yet denying their children the support they are entitled to as U.S. citizens." This case doesn't have a precedent, though two lawsuits in Maryland and Illinois have been filed against the U.S. government on behalf of couples of mixed immigration status. They were denied CARES Act relief because one of them is an undocumented immigrant, while the other is a U.S. citizen.

Publix records sales of $11.2 billion dollars in first quarter

Susan Giles Wantuck, WUSF  Brick and mortar stores have struggled during the coronavirus pandemic. But as an essential business, Publix Supermarkets has thrived. The chain, which has more than 1,200 stores in seven states in the southeast, reported sales of $11.2 billion in the first three months of 2020. That's a 16 percent increase over this period last year. The Lakeland-based grocery giant said in a news release it attributes nearly $1 billion of that increase to buying in response to COVID-19. Publix CEO Todd Jones said, "Never before have we experienced a more challenging time. Our associates' efforts to serve our customers and communities have been nothing short of extraordinary." Publix reduced its hours, offered special shopping hours to the most vulnerable populations of customers, made its aisles one-way and installed plexiglass barriers between cashiers and customers. It was criticized for initially not allowing employees to wear face masks at work. It followed the lead of other grocery store chains by requiring such masks on April 6.

University system governing board begins to examine reopening schools

Lynn Hatter, WFSU  While Florida businesses have started reopening this week, the same isn’t true for the state’s public university system. The system’s governing board has set up its own task force to figure out how to reopen universities safely in the fall. Syd Kitson is Chairman of the Florida Board of Governors. “Knowing there are 12 distinctive universities within our system, I believe under the constraints of the existing pandemic, a university plan to reopen will need to be deliberate, thoughtful and with a clear, specific path," Kitson said. Both Florida A&M and Florida State University have floated testing students for COVID-19. In mid-March the schools closed, sending tens of thousands of students home and moved nearly 50,000 classes online. Students are receiving partial refunds for cancelled housing and meal plans. But a recently filed lawsuit against the board of governors calls on schools to refund course fees as well. The lead plaintiff is a University of Florida student.

Florida makes plans for dealing with COVID-19 in a hurricane

The Associated Press TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — As Florida slowly reopens, officials are contemplating what they should do if the coronavirus outbreak lingers into hurricane season. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday that the virus will be around in some form during hurricane season, and the state needs to rethink how to provide shelter for evacuees without spreading the disease. Hurricane season begins June 1 and usually peaks from late August through September. Florida is often a target for storms, forcing thousands of people to evacuate with many fleeing to shelters. Florida has had more than 37,000 confirmed coronavirus cases resulting in nearly 1,500 deaths. DeSantis partially lifted his “safer at home” order Monday, allowing restaurants and retail shops to begin operating at 25 percent capacity.

Disney profit sinks amid shuttered parks, movies and sports

The Associated Press NEW YORK (AP) — Disney reported a steep decline in profit as many segments of its media and entertainment offerings ground to a standstill during the coronavirus pandemic. Its second quarter profit dropped 91 percent to $475 million. Overall, the company said costs related to COVID-19 cut Disney's pretax profit by $1.4 billion. One bright spot was its Disney Plus streaming service, which contributed to an almost $3 billion revenue increase for direct-to-consumer and international business. Overall revenue rose 21 percent to $18.01 billion, just short of the $18.06 billion analysts expected. Click here to read more of WMFE’s reporting on the coronavirus pandemic.

Danielle Prieur is a general assignment reporter and fill-in host at WMFE.
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