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Your Wednesday Update: Eviction Moratorium Extended Through September, Florida Appoints New Long-Term Care Watchdog, Hundreds of Thousands Behind in Utility Payments

Photo: Maria Ziegler

Gov. Ron DeSantis extends eviction moratorium through September

Danielle Prieur, WMFE 

Gov. Ron DeSantis has extended the eviction and foreclosure moratorium that would have expired this Saturday.

The statewide ban is now in place until September 1.

This is the third time the governor has extended the order since the pandemic began in mid-March.

The relief only applies to, “single-family mortgagors and residential tenants adversely affected by the COVID-19 emergency.”

Florida appoints new long-term care watchdog after position remains vacant for months

Stephanie Colombini, WUSF

Health News Florida has learned that Florida has a new long-term care ombudsman – a position that’s been unfilled almost a year.

The state appointed long-time Department of Elder Affairs employee Michael Phillips to become the chief advocate for nursing home and assisted living facility residents.

He takes over 10 months after the former ombudsman abruptly resigned, leaving Florida without someone solely dedicated to the role during the coronavirus pandemic.

Nearly half of the deaths in Florida related to COVID-19 are tied to long-term care facilities.

Brian Lee is director of the advocacy group Families for Better Care. He recently complained to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, which told him this week about Philip’s appointment.

“I think it’s about time, I think it’s a top notch hire. He’s an outstanding advocate for residents. He’s had a great familiarity with the ombudsman program. He’s worked in it for 14 years.”

The Department of Elder Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.

Hundreds of thousands behind in utility payments

Tom Urban, WLRN

Nearly 600,000 electrical customers in Florida are behind in monthly payments since the coronavirus pandemic put the brakes on the economy in March, state utility regulators were advised Wednesday.

While the overall number of those overdue has improved from the initial peak in April, officials from the various power companies in Florida told members of the Public Service Commission that the challenge remains in getting in touch with many of the late-paying customers.

Commissioners are trying to establish a collection method for customers impacted by the pandemic.

Christopher Chapel is the Vice President of Customer Service for Florida Power and Light, which currently has more than 350,000 delinquent accounts that collectively owe more than 100 million dollars.

“I am fearful that their balances will get out of hand, and by the time they do call us, that conversation won’t matter anyway. What will be presented to them will be unaffordable, and we need to figure that out.”

Some of the costs will eventually be written off, but the bulk of the unpaid bills could fall on all other customers for payment.

The Florida Office of Public Counsel, which represents ratepayers, cautioned regulators against using customers to insure a utility’s profit.

Over the past few months, most power companies have waived late fees, halted disconnections, and offered long-term payment plans for customers to make up the overdue costs.

DeSantis on potential storm: Get a plan

Lynn Hatter, WFSU

Florida is casting a wary eye to a developing storm system in the Caribbean.

Early projections show nearly the entire state is in the path of potential Tropical Cyclone 9. Its possible impact to the state is not yet known.

Gov. Ron DeSantis says the system is a reminder to Floridians to have their hurricane plans together:

“They need to secure 7 days of supplies, food, water and medicine, just like you’re told to do at the beginning of every hurricane season. Listen to your local officials, and go visit floridadisaster.org/getaplan for more information on how to prepare.”

This year’s hurricane season has already produced several tropical storms and a hurricane.

Florida adds more than 9,000 new coronavirus cases

Danielle Prieur, WMFE

The Florida Department of Health reported 9,446 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday and 216 new coronavirus-related deaths.

That brings the total number of cases in the state since mid-March to 451,423 cases and the death toll to 6,457 people.

In Central Florida, Orange County leads with the most COVID-19 cases at 28,191 positive test results.

More than 780 people have been hospitalized in the county and 203 people have died from the virus.

Landlords show their best and worst in pandemic

Mary Shedden, WUSF

The economic strain created by the coronavirus pandemic is being felt acutely in Florida’s housing market.

Sudden unemployment has translated into many people being unable to pay their rent or mortgage, according to Camilo Parra, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Orange County.

He says a statewide ban on evictions hasn’t been enough to prevent some people from being kicked out. He says, luckily, that has not always been the case.

“We’ve seen some landlords do everything in the book and outside the book that you can imagine to try and evict people during these times. We’ve seen just as many landlords do the opposite.”

Since the pandemic hit Florida in March, Parra says he has seen landlords offer tenants options like setting up payment plans.

Florida’s moratorium on evictions is scheduled to end Saturday, but Gov. Ron DeSantis told reporters Tuesday that he might extend it.

In breaking, non-coronavirus news: Potential Tropical Cyclone 9

Ray Hawthorne, WUFT

The strong tropical wave forecasters have been following this week is passing near the island of Dominica in the eastern Caribbean this morning.

Squally weather is likely over the Lesser Antilles, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands today — but any possible effects on Florida remain unclear.

“The forecast models are showing a variety of possible outcomes because the system’s center is still organizing and consolidating. If the storm affects Florida, South Florida would be the first to see tropical storm force winds and heavier showers as soon as Saturday.”

The National Hurricane Center says it’s likely this potential tropical cyclone will become a tropical storm later today as it passes just south of the Virgin Islands.

Most of Florida is in the forecast “cone” of uncertainty, but forecasters say there’s higher than usual uncertainty in the system’s track and intensity.

Leon County Schools to delay start–again

Lynn Hatter, WFSU

Leon County students will now go back to school August 31st.

The school board voted to push the date back a week following the deaths of two Fort Braden School employees from COVID-19.

Local teachers are overwhelmingly afraid to return to a physical classroom. Some are opting for early retirements or extended leave. And the district is still trying to determine a threshold that will trigger schools to close.

Board member Alva Striplin says there are still too many unanswered questions:

“I felt the panic today from our schools that they’re just not ready…and we’re also giving our parents more time to decide.”

Parents can choose to send their kids back to in-person school, or do classes remotely. Districts have to submit reopening plans to the state by Thursday, and they must offer classes in-person. Some 60% of families want their kids to go back to a physical classroom. The district also ordered about 35,000 tablets to hand out to kids, but the shipment has been delayed.

Tallahassee officials urge continued school shutdown

Tom Flanigan, WFSU

Leon County Commissioner Bill Proctor says he and City Commissioner Jeremy Matlow want to ramp up the pressure on state officials not to reopen schools.

“On Thursday, we will join together for the community’s announcement at 12 noon in front of City Hall to ask our schools to stay closed, to state our reasons, to say what we need to say to our governor.”

Proctor says children of color from low-income families would be most likely to be harmed if forced back into the classroom while the pandemic rages.

Florida is reporting rapidly growing COVID-19 outbreaks in two women’s prisons north of Ocala

Joe Byrnes, WMFE

One of them, Lowell Correctional Institution, is the largest women’s prison in Florida, with 2,200 inmates. At least 444 of them – along with 20 staff members – have tested positive for the coronavirus.

And 183 inmates at the nearby Florida Women’s Reception Center have tested positive, plus 22 employees there.

Kim Lawrence communicates often with her daughter at the Women’s Reception Center.

The young woman just learned that a 32-year-old former dorm mate has died – though they don’t know that it was the virus.

“So they’re freaking out. You know, I mean, it’s now you’re not just getting a cough and a cold. Some people, they’re realizing, are dying.”

The state would not disclose whether anyone at those prisons has died from COVID-19. A state report indicating prison deaths is updated every Wednesday.

The controversy around COVID-19 hospital data

Short Wave, NPR

Data are so much more than just a bunch of numbers, especially when it’s the data hospitals are reporting about COVID-19.

Earlier this month, the Trump Administration made a sudden change to the way that information is shared. The process bypasses the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, raising concern among some public health officials.

NPR’s Pien Huang explains the recent controversy, and why the way COVID-19 hospital data are reported is such a big deal.

Lauren Neustadter and Sarah Harden on the changing landscape of entertainment with Guy Raz

How I Built This, NPR

One of the first industries to feel the effects of the coronavirus shutdown was the entertainment industry.

With nearly all production being halted, people in the industry have had to scramble to find new ways to continue creating content.

How I Built This host, Guy Raz, sits down with Lauren Neustader and Sarah Harden from Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine to discuss the future of entertainment during these trying times.

Florida judge upholds coronavirus ordinance requiring face masks

The Associated Press

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A Florida judge has upheld a county’s coronavirus ordinance that requires masks be worn in public places like stores.

The judge said Palm Beach County’s recently enacted order legally protects its residents from infectious diseases and he rejected the challenger’s claim that it violates their rights to privacy and personal autonomy.

He cited a century-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said a state can mandate vaccinations.

This is at least the fourth Florida city or county ordinance to be upheld. The challenger’s attorney said he plans to appeal, saying the ruling paves the way to tyranny.

NBA restart likely to provide TV audience with new sights, sounds

During a normal NBA season, the sights and sounds of arenas serve as both a backdrop and home court advantage for its teams.

But with no fans allowed in the stands for the upcoming restart because of the ongoing pandemic, the league’s “Florida bubble” setup will have a different feel for both players and coaches, as well as the television audience watching from afar.

The NBA has promised to do its best to bring some of the familiar noises and environment that players are used to playing in and fans have grown accustomed to seeing when the curtain officially drops.

COVID-19 is putting a strain on hurricane shelters

Jenny Staletovich, WLRN

With a storm in the Atlantic pointed our way, South Florida could soon get its first real taste of a hurricane season during a pandemic.

COVID-19 has changed how we prepare and how we evacuate.

To try to prevent the spread of the virus in shelters, South Florida emergency officials have written a new game plan for this storm season. They’ll screen people as they arrive and give them more space.

“I would say, as my daddy used to say, ‘we’re in pretty good shape for the shape we’re in’.”

Frank Rollason is Miami-Dade County’s Emergency operations chief.

He oversees the county’s 82 shelters. He’s working on installing dividers in the shelters – like the kind used at COVID field hospitals – and fans equipped with ultraviolet lights to help kill the virus. Masks and gloves will also be handed out.

“We have stocked up on a tremendous amount of PPE…. I’ve got over four million surgical masks in stock now, but it’s just been buying wherever I can find them. We got a lot of hand sanitizer. We got. Wipes are hard to come by.”

He says the county won’t be able to meet CDC guidelines for social distancing.

He says 3,000 county workers are assigned to staff shelters. But with family obligations and illness, he worries not all will be available, so he’s negotiating with the company that provides event staff at Marlins Park, Hard Rock and other venues.

“We’ve asked them for a thousand people. And I talked to him on the phone the other day, he says, ‘I don’t have a thousand’. I said, ‘hey, get me five hundred. You get me 250’. It’s what I don’t have.”

Palm Beach County is trying to meet CDC guidelines.

“We’ll give every family member 20 square feet. And then we’ll try to space families six feet apart. Single people will get 60 square feet.”

Emergency Operations Chief Bill Johnson says that’s cutting capacity from about 50,000 to 17,000. But he says it’s unlikely shelter space would run out.

Nursing homes prepare for hurricanes during COVID-19

Amber Amortegui, WLRN

The weather doesn’t care that there’s a pandemic. A tropical storm Isaias is forecast to hit South Florida over the weekend.

How are nursing homes preparing for rough weather during the pandemic?

Nursing homes hold a vulnerable population.

Kristen Knapp is the director of communications at the Florida Health Care Association. She says providers go through a process to gear-up for hurricane season.

“They have a comprehensive emergency management plan that outlines the various steps they take to keep the residents safe, to make sure their facility is prepared, make sure their staff are properly trained. So that’s something that they do on an ongoing basis throughout the year.”

But union leader Margarette Nerette says otherwise. She’s with SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. She says caregivers aren’t prepared.

“…What we’re dealing with right now is too much. If something else comes up, like the hurricane…we’re in big, big, big, big trouble.”

Right now, she’s hoping for the best – for the sake of nursing home patients and caregivers.

“We hope hurricanes stay away from Florida. We don’t think we have capacity to endure anything else right now.” Hurricane season ends November 30.

How solitude can help you regulate your mood

Life Kit, NPR

This year has given many of us a whole new understanding of solitude — whether we wanted it or not.

That’s been one of the odd side effects of the coronavirus: Between the shelter-in-place orders and social distancing guidelines issued across the world, many of us have spent weeks at a time seeing no one in person but our local grocery store clerk. Or perhaps cramped among family or working at a busy hospital or grocery store — just dreaming of a lot more alone time.

Either way, being alone has been on our minds — and on the minds of experimental psychologists, too. Over the past few years, researchers have devoted significant study to the concept of solitude — its potential benefits, its role in our lives, even its basic definition.

So, here are a few takeaways from their recent work — with an eye toward how you can make solitude a healthy practice in your life.

Read the full article here.

Trouble accessing Florida DMVs during COVID-19 brings unintended consequences

Danny Rivero, WLRN

Florida’s DMV offices closed in March, and only opened up again in June. In the meantime, a lot of people had their driver’s licenses expire.

Since the DMV offices reopened, the only way to get service in-person has been by appointment. The state says that’s necessary in trying to enforce social distancing.

But attorney Evan Hoffman says some of his clients need to renew their licenses or do other things that can only be done in person. And they can’t get appointments.

He says – this is increasingly becoming an issue.

“So now you have people who can’t drive like they’re supposed to because they can’t get a license so they’re driving anyway and they’re picking up another law violation.”

One of Hoffman’s clients was arrested for driving without a valid license in Key West, but lives in Miami-Dade County. After he was released from jail – he tried to reinstate his license.

“So he made it his priority but he could not get a DMV appointment locally in the time we needed. He actually went out of county. And we went to Palm Beach.”

Because of people traveling to get appointments, some counties have started to limit services to people who live in that county.

Another impact is on voter registration. About half the new voter registrations in a normal year come from DMV office visits. But state records show:

“Plummeting rates of registration.”

Page Gardener is the chair of the board for the Voter Participation Center and the Center for Voter Information. The groups have mailed out more than a million voter registration forms across the state.

“It’s really, really incumbent upon groups like ours to help people register, because the state doesn’t send out voter registration applications to unregistered people. So how are these people going to enter the system?”

The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles says – most services can be done online.

Census response rates in South Florida are low as organizations try to raise awareness during a pandemic

Sherrilyn Cabrera, WLRN

Several local and statewide organizations in Florida had big plans for Census 2020 outreach. Then – COVID-19 hit.

The coalition Florida Counts works with 45 nonprofit organizations to get people to fill out the census.

The New Florida Majority is one of those groups. Mone Holder is policy director. She says they had to get creative.

“We hosted an event called ‘Census And Chill’ via Zoom and it was literally like ‘Netflix and Chill’. So we invited people to bring their census invitation, if not we told them they could just know their address. Sit in front of a laptop, their favorite beverage and just sit with us on Zoom and fill out your census.”

Despite Zoom meetings and other digital means, South Florida’s census response rates are low compared to a decade ago.

Broward and Palm Beach County’s current response rate is 3 to 5 percentage points lower than in 2010. In Miami-Dade and Monroe County, the response rate is 8 to 11 points lower.

Susan Racher is spokesperson for Florida Counts. She says some cities are worse.

“Hialeah is 17 points behind where they were in 2010. The city of Miami, the response rate is 48.6 percent. Versus 62 percent in 2010.”

But, low response rates in Florida are nothing new. The state left out about 1.4 million people in 2010.

Holder says the census count is vital in determining the amount of funding communities get for things like health care – especially in Black and immigrant communities.

“Right now, we see in the middle of a pandemic how important health care and education is. What are the missing pieces now that we could have maybe avoided 10 years ago?”

The deadline to complete the census has been pushed until October 31st. It can be completed online, via phone or by mail.

Voting rights advocates urge Floridians to cast ballots prior to Election Day

Robbie Gaffney, WFSU

As Florida’s primary election draws near, voting rights advocates are urging people to cast their ballots prior to Election Day.

The group All Voting is Local is encouraging people to vote early, whether that be by mail or in-person. The group’s Florida director, Brad Ashwell, says Florida should learn from the challenges other states saw during this year’s primaries.

“We’ve seen long lines. We’ve seen lots of problems. In Georgia, they had almost every problem you can imagine and we don’t want to see that relived in Florida.”

Ashwell says voting early takes the pressure off election officials, who he says are short on poll workers this year because of concerns about the coronavirus. The last date to request a vote-by-mail ballot for the primary is August 8.

If someone misses that date, they can still pick up a mail ballot at their supervisor of elections’ office. Early voting for the primary elections begins August 3rd

Restaurant employees who test positive can return to work after symptoms disappear

Blaise Gainey, WFSU

Restaurant workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 could soon return to work without needing a negative test result.

Gov. Ron DeSantis says he wants to let restaurant workers who are no longer showing symptoms get back to work.

This comes after a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the dead virus can show up in tests weeks after a person stops being contagious.

“CDC said that can be up to 12 weeks. Where an infection can be 12 weeks old obviously you’re no longer infectious, you don’t have live virus. But it could pick up some of the dead virus in a PCR test. So that obviously is not something that should keep somebody out of work.”

Under an executive order passed in March, restaurant workers who tested positive for COVID-19 were required to get two consecutive negative test results before employers could let them back in the building.

DeSantis says he wants to “tweak” the state’s “guidance” on the issue, but did not say how the change would apply to people who are asymptomatic, but could still be contagious.

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Danielle Prieur

About Danielle Prieur

Reporter & Fill-in Host

Danielle Prieur is a general assignment reporter at WMFE. You can hear her reporting on a daily basis on the station. She also fills-in as a host during the morning and afternoon drive times. Her reporting has been featured on NPR, Marketplace, Here & Now, and Vox. Danielle is originally from Rochester Hills, ... Read Full Bio »