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Tuesday Update: Florida Coronavirus Cases Rising, School Performance Affected by Pandemic, Trump Restarts Rallies Despite COVID-19

Photo: Arturo Rey
Photo: Arturo Rey

Florida's COVID-19 numbers increase as positivity rate remains low

Veronica Zaragovia, WLRN The number of positive COVID-19 test results in Florida has increased over the last week. Some days by well over 1,000 per day. As of Monday, Florida had 64,904 positive cases. But the state’s rate has remained relatively low, in the single digits. The positivity rate tells us how many COVID-19 tests were given in a day, divided by how many people tested positive that day. On April 26, Florida’s positivity rate was at 6.1 percent. It’s fluctuated, but hasn’t been that high since. Bindu Mayi, a microbiology professor at Nova Southeastern University, says the rate’s drop isn’t surprising. "Because of the lockdown measures because of the social isolation because of all the messages that we've been putting out there about prevention," Mayi said. Meanwhile, Cindy Prins says what we don’t know is who’s getting tested. She’s an epidemiology professor at the University of Florida. "Are we talking about people who are being tested because they have symptoms? Are we talking about people who are being tested because now all of sudden they have access, and they can go through the drive through testing, and find out whether or not they're positive, even though they don't have symptoms," Prins said. It also matters whether these are positive tests coming from a high-risk population, like inmates in a prison. But when more low-risk people in the general public get tested, they’re likely to test negative. And that brings the positivity rate down. NSU’s Mayi hopes people don’t get too comfortable. "The virus is still there, the virus is still in circulation," Mayi said. She says wearing masks and washing one’s hands remain as important as ever.

School performance can be affected by the coronavirus pandemic

Lynn Hatter, WFSU

Florida’s public university governing board is doling out millions of dollars in bonuses to schools.

The performance based funding structure is based on areas like student graduation rates, retention and cost per degree.

But with school letting out early in the spring, and questions around how many students will come back for the fall, the universities could end up getting penalized next year.

Here’s FAMU President Larry Robinson:

“This year, I’m not so sure how any of the data is going to look because it’s kind of an anomaly," Robinson said.

Florida’s public universities are already forming their reopening plans, with ideas such as moving more classes online, limiting the number conducted in person and finding ways to space students out in dorms.

The schools are planning for state budget cuts and the potential for COVID-19 related enrollment declines.

New York reopening; hindsight on Sweden's lack of a lockdown

Coronavirus Daily, NPR

After a nearly three-month lockdown and over 20,000 coronavirus-related deaths, New York City is taking its first steps to reopen parts of its economy amid protests over police brutality.

The coronavirus is surviving the heat and humidity despite initial hopes it would not last through the summer. Experts now think the coronavirus will be here for yearsto come.

Sweden's government implemented limited restrictions in an attempt to protect the country's economy during the pandemic. Now, they're seeing mixed results.

And for the first time in months, the massive Vatican Museums are open.

Trump to restart political rallies this month despite coronavirus pandemic

Alana Wise, NPR

President Trump this month will begin hitting the road once again to make his pitch for reelection in the 2020 White House race, despite the deadly coronavirus pandemic, which continues to wreak havoc on the lives and livelihoods of households across the country.

"Americans are ready to get back to action and so is President Trump. The Great American Comeback is real and the rallies will be tremendous. You'll again see the kind of crowds and enthusiasm that Sleepy Joe Biden can only dream of," campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a statement provided to NPR.

Trump is set to attend an in-person fundraiser for the first time since pandemic restrictions went into place in Dallas on Thursday.

The news that the president would begin holding rallies in the next two weeks was first reported by Politico on Monday. The Politico report, which the campaign confirms as accurate, also said Trump's political advisers are still determining where to hold rallies and what safety protocols to put in place.

The Trump campaign did not comment on the specifics of safety protocols, including whether masks and temperature checks would be mandated for entry. But in line with the president's well-documented affinity for branded merchandise, "Make America Great Again" masks are a possibility, as floated by Parscale in a tweet last month.

The president has made no secret of the restlessness he's felt in the executive mansion since the start of the coronavirus crisis.

At an event last month in Michigan — one of a handful of outings the White House arranged to mark the soft relaunch of the president's travel schedule — Trump expressed his contempt at the idea of holding socially distanced rallies with mandatory empty seating and said he would plan to hold large outdoor rallies in states like Georgia or Florida — "whoever opens up first."

"Since the day I came down the escalator with our future First Lady, we've never had an empty seat. You know that. And we'd have thousands of people we sent away. And I think the demand now, from what we see, is greater than ever before. We're going to have to go to certain states where we're able to — look, I don't want to have a stadium where you're supposed to have a person and then seven empty seats, and then another person. So we might do some outdoor big ones," Trump said last month.

"The demand has been incredible to get going with the rallies. I just hear the music in the background. I'm saying, we've had rallies like nobody has ever had, and we would love to get back to that."

Trump also had a spat with the city of Charlotte and the governor of North Carolina, during which he threatened to move the Republican National Convention after local officials refused to allow packed arenas.

Public experts continue to warn against large gatherings of people, even as the country has begun in the past several weeks to reopen the economy. The coronavirus crisis has already killed more than 100,000 people in the United States — the highest number of fatalities of any country in the world.

In Phase One of reopening, per the White House's own guidelines, gatherings of more than 10 people should be avoided. In Phase Two, congregations should be kept to no more than 50 people.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump's rival in the Nov. 3 presidential election, has spent most of the past few months in isolation at his home in Delaware. He has left for a few appearances and held a number of virtual events and fundraisers, and has offered to debate Trump, either in person or remotely.

Even in a pandemic, WHO believes that public protests are important

Pien Huang, NPR

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organization took time at its daily press conference to address another pressing issue: the wave of protests against police violence and racial injustice. The demonstrations began in the U.S. when George Floyd died on May 25 after a police officer had pressed a knee into his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while detaining him in Minneapolis.

The protests are now spreading around the world to Europe, Africa and other regions.

"WHO fully supports equality and the global movement against racism. We reject discrimination of all kinds," said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on June 8.

The demonstrations have prompted fear that the close contact of thousands of marchers could lead to a spike in case counts — which hit a new high on Sunday, with 136,000 cases reported that day.

Modelers say it's difficult to assess how the protests will influence COVID-19 infections. Because COVID-19 generally has an incubation time of up to two weeks, public health officials think it will take a couple of weeks before they see the impact.

But it's clear that a key ingredient for transmission is present at many of these rallies: close contact. The images of protesters standing shoulder to shoulder — some wearing face masks, others not — raise concerns, especially in cities with higher rates of infection.

To that end, Tedros recommends that protesters follow the guidance of local health officials and take precautions to protect themselves from the novel coronavirus. "We encourage all those protesting around the world to do so safely," he said, "Clean your hands, cover your cough and wear a mask if you attend a protest." He also advised people to maintain a safe distance from others — and to stay home if they are sick.

"The riskiest situation to be in is to be in close proximity to a case, particularly a symptomatic case, of COVID-19," said Michael Ryan, director of WHO's health emergencies program at the Monday press conference, so healthy people protesting next to one another may not meet the definition of coming in contact with the disease.

However, it's become clear to researchers that the new coronavirus can be spread by people who aren't showing symptoms of it. "Local public health official[s], on the basis of abundance of caution, could advise people either to quarantine or to get tested [after attending a mass gathering]," Ryan said.

Local officials have expressed similar worries about the interplay of the protests and the pandemic. Last week Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser said she was concerned about what mass gatherings in the streets "could mean for spikes in our coronavirus cases later." She urged protesters to consider their exposure and consider being tested.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced free tests for demonstrators. Officials in Atlanta and New York have suggested testing as well.

"Testing everyone that participated in demonstrations would be useful in communities where many new cases are being reported every day. These new cases indicate that transmission is occurring at a high rate in the communities," said Bill Miller, an epidemiologist and physician at Ohio State University.

He said an alternative to testing everyone would be active contact tracing. "With new cases, the tracers could ask about demonstration participation, including days and times," Miller said. Then, if cases are linked to a demonstration, a call could go out to get everyone who participated in that event to be tested.

Being outdoors seems to reduce the risk of exposure because the virus can't survive long in sunlight and there's better air circulation, but it's no guarantee against infection. Health experts warn that some activities linked with the protests — such as riding public transportation to attend rallies or getting arrested and jailed indoors with others — could increase a person's risk of getting exposed to the virus.

Meanwhile, protests are expected to continue in the days ahead. George Floyd's burial service will take place on Tuesday at a private service in Houston.

Much of the stimulus aid sent to states hasn't gone where it's needed most

Laura Sullivan, NPR

On the edge of the Mississippi River, the small historic city of Kimmswick, Mo. has an archaeological site with mastodon bones, Levee High Apple Pie at its famous Blue Owl Restaurant, and a volunteer mayor, Phil Stang.

What it doesn't have right now is money.

"They think I'm kidding but I'm not," Stang says. "I [will] have to go and do crazy electronic stuff like GoFundMe pages, or start a lemonade stand ... something."

Kimmswick was already digging out after spending $150,000 on last year's historic flooding. But with the cancellation of the town's Strawberry Festival this month, and the fall Apple Butter Festival now in question, Stang needs $250,000 to keep the city operating.

"I've said over and over and over again, I want a grant," he says. "And I don't want much with all these trillions and gazillions running around."

Congress sent more than$150 billion in aid to states and cities two months ago. Yet much of that money has failed to make it to places that need it.

A review by NPR has found in some cases, states and counties – which are strapped in their own right – are holding onto the money. Some states like Vermont, Mississippi and Alabama are locked in heated debates over who gets to spend the money.

Other states are struggling with how to spend the money, trying to understand pages of complex rules and restrictions that have slowed government spending.

While they hesitate, officials in many cities and towns nationwide say they have been left out altogether. Stang's county offered to share some of its federal funding with Kimmswick but required the mayor to spend city money first and get paid back later — even for protective equipment.

"Well whoop-de-doo," Stang says. "I haven't got any money to fight the pandemic. My fight of the pandemic is go in your house and stay there."

Congress allocated $1.25 billion to each state and then gave some states more, depending on the state's population. But states can't use the money to fill budget shortfalls. The money has to be used on a COVID expense.

The result is states like Alaska and Montana with large economic woes but few COVID cases can't shift funds.

At the same time, cities and towns with thousands of COVID cases have been left out altogether.

"We have not received any dollars yet," said Natasha Love Rogers, the chief operating officer for Newark, N.J. "The federal dollars from the Cares Act went to our county."

That's because another rule says only places such as cities or counties with more than 500,000 people can get direct funding from the federal government. Newark has more than 7,000 COVID cases and around 600 deaths, but only 282,000 people.

"People will have to be furloughed or laid off," Rogers says, "and now you're decreasing the amount of emergency personnel that are needed to deliver the emergency services during the emergency. So we're getting into a funnel here."

There's no simple remedy that would allow Newark to get more funding. The rules sent out by the Department of Treasury say states and counties "should" pass the money down to their local communities. But the rules don't say "shall," which in government speak means they don't really have to.

"Yeah, that doesn't do us much good," said Colin Wellenkamp, executive director of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, which represents 96 cities from Minnesota to Louisiana.

The cities account for more than 5 million Americans, but all but one of those 96 cities was shut out. "Five hundred thousand is a really high bar," Wellenkamp says. "Not even the city of New Orleans meets that."

For those places that do get money, puzzling restrictions await, says Brad Gair, a former federal coordinating officer for FEMA and a principal at Witt O'Brien's, an emergency management firm.

"Everyone is confused," he says. "They're frustrated and they're worried."

Gair has helped the government and communities manage dozens of disasters including 9/11, Katrina and Hurricane Sandy. But he says he's never seen this kind of complexity. Recently, Gair set up a free webinar to help counties understand the rules. More than 1,000 counties dialed in.

"What is unusual in my experience ever is to have that same 1,000 there at the end of an hour-long call," he said. "There are hundreds and hundreds of cities and towns that aren't even applying because they don't understand the programs and they don't have time to figure it out."

San Jose in the heart of Silicon Valley does have the time and the know-how, but even they are struggling.

This is "the most complicated Rubix cube of financing we have ever had to solve and we are really good at solving that kind of stuff," says Kip Harkness, deputy city manager for San Jose.

San Jose has more than 500,000 people, so it got a direct grant from the federal government of $178 million. But Harkness says they are still working through the night trying to understand the rules.

They recently discovered, for example, that they can use the money to feed homeless people within the city's borders, but they can't spend the money on homeless people one block over in the county.

"We're not allowed to spend our CARES Act money in other jurisdictions," he says. "We're having to navigate a complex bureaucracy whereas in any other disaster this would be a shared responsibility that would fall on the state and federal government to step in and assist."

Mayor Phil Stang, planning a lemonade stand in Kimmswick, says that particular rule is a shame.

"There's a song about that: 'Do You Know The Way To San Jose'," he says laughing, "and if they happen to have $250,000 in a bag out there, I'll be happy to travel out there and bring it back."

Many cities will also be coping with the economic fallout from continued protests and rioting in the weeks ahead. Some mayors may be looking to move federal money from one crisis over to the next. But, that along with pages of other rules, is not allowed.

Texas reports record-breaking COVID-19 hospitalizations, as state reopens

Vanessa Romo, NPR

Texas reported a record-breaking number of COVID-19 hospitalizations Monday, as the governor plans to reopen more businesses and double capacity.

Texas Department of State Health Services figures show 1,935 people were admitted as hospital patients for coronavirus-related treatment. That is up from a previous record of 1,888 more than a month ago on May 5.

The department's new figures were released as Gov. Greg Abbott moves forward with a plan to open bars, restaurants, amusement parks and other businesses to 50% capacity.

Abbott led most of the nation's governors in allowing Texas to lift statewide stay-at-home orders and urging businesses to reopen at limited capacity on May 1.

But even in states where officials left stringent restrictions in place, the number of newly diagnosed cases are also rising. About20 states, including California and Arizona, have also reported a rise in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, according to The New York Times. All as state leaders have come under increasing pressure to restart the economy.

The pattern also holds true worldwide. On Monday, the World Health Organization warned the outbreak is worsening around the globe. The U.N. body said the world had recorded its highest daily jump of cases — 136,000. And the U.S. and Brazil continue to report the highest number of new cases on a daily basis with roughly 20,000 each.

Meanwhile, virus experts and epidemiologists are concerned that the recent protests that have cascaded across the country since the killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day, will lead to an unprecedented spike in coronavirus cases.

In Texas, the availabilityof intensive-care beds and ventilators — 1,600 and 5,800 respectively — have been seen as markers of improvement and evidence that it is time to reopen the economy.

Some officials have stated the increase in cases has more to do with the spread of testing. Some counties are now including prison testing results in their data, which is driving reporting rates up.

And the numbers are likely to continue to rise. On Monday Abbott pledged to increase testing "in underserved and minority communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the virus."

Throughout Texas, more than 75,000 people have been infected and more than 1,800 others have died from COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University.

CBS pushing for players to do their part to boost broadcast

The Associated Press

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — The PGA Tour returns this week at Colonial with a different look and perhaps more voices.

CBS Sports anchor Jim Nantz will be alone in the booth at the Charles Schwab Challenge as the network cuts its footprint in half.

But CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus says the network will be trying to get the players more involved during the round.

He says “Inside The Ropes” is a new feature in which players will walk into a small tent near one of the tees and speak briefly into a remote camera. McManus also says CBS is working aggressively to get players to wear microphones.

Miami-Dade to reopen beaches, lift curfew

Jenny Staletovich, WLRN
During a hurricane press conference Monday afternoon Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said county beaches will open no later than Wednesday. He says he also plans to lift the county’s curfew. "We are planning to open the beaches no later than Wednesday...We need a little bit of time to get the people prepared to open up the beaches. So I want to do that no later than Wednesday," Gimenez said. The curfew has been in place since last weekend.

Like what you just read? Check out our other  coronavirus coverage.

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