Photo via Ron DeSantis/Facebook
As the novel coronavirus continues to spread in Florida, hammering almost every aspect of our daily lives, the ripple effects of the contagion came into full view this week.
Unemployment filings skyrocketed. More and more cities and counties set curfews and urged residents to stay home. Law enforcement officers began to lock up fewer people – and in some cases released dozens of offenders back into communities – to halt the potential spread in jails and prisons.
And as coronavirus cases soared to 2,900, officials across the state confirmed the virus has infected people of all walks of life, including poll workers, prison and jail employees and dozens of long-term care residents.
In the midst of the public health crisis, Gov. Ron DeSantis continued to face intense scrutiny from Democrats for leaving it up to local officials to issue stay-at-home orders and for refusing to close beaches statewide.
DeSantis argued a one-size-fits-all approach is not the best approach, citing concerns about intensifying the virus’ negative impact on the state’s economy.
But he ordered all travelers from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to self-isolate for 14 days when they get to Florida, a move that Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, called a “thoughtful data-driven approach” on Tuesday.
DeSantis said he also wants people who are 65 and older and people with serious medical conditions to stay home for two weeks.
"A huge increase"
Jobless claims are spiking as numerous types of businesses, including the vital tourism and hospitality industries, have shut down or cut back while the state struggles to combat the coronavirus.
The U.S. Labor Department announced that 3.28 million jobless claims were filed during the week that ended Sunday, with just a little more than 74,000 from Floridians. And tens of thousands of claims continued pouring into the state throughout this week.
“This is a huge increase, and it just shows you how so many people have been dislocated,” DeSantis said Tuesday. “We’re working on getting them the relief. We want the federal government to do stuff as well. But man, that’s not only going to have an economic cost but a health cost unless we work hard to remedy that as soon as possible.”
Imposed closings have come down hard on bars, restaurants, entertainment venues and vacation destinations such as Key West. Other employers that have been hit hard include hotels.
The state offers 12 weeks of unemployment benefits that top out at $275 a week, though a new federal stimulus package is slated to provide an additional $600 a week, for four months, to people who qualify.
Democrats and labor organizations called this week for Florida to beef up benefits and said the state needs a more accessible unemployment-compensation system. Problems with that online system could be an impediment to jobless Floridians tapping into the federal benefits, they said.
“You still have to go through the Florida unemployment process in order to access those (federal) benefits,” Wendi Walsh, secretary of UNITE HERE Local 355 in South Florida, said. “And if the system is broken, that means that not only you won’t get the Florida benefits, but you’re not going to get the federal benefits either. And people are desperate to receive those benefits right away.”
In non-corona news
A federal judge delivered an ultimatum Thursday to attorneys representing DeSantis and his administration in a lawsuit challenging a 2019 law that implemented a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle warned the state’s attorneys to come up with a process to determine whether felons have paid “legal financial obligations” as required by the law and whether those felons have the ability to pay the court-ordered fees and fines. He said that work needs to be done before an April 27 trial in the case – or else.
“If the state is not going to fix it, I will,” Hinkle snapped during a telephone hearing.
Hinkle issued a preliminary injunction in October and ruled that it is unconstitutional to deny the right to vote to felons who are “genuinely unable” to pay financial obligations. A panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Hinkle’s ruling, but DeSantis has requested what is known as an “en banc,” or full court, review.
In the preliminary injunction, Hinkle told the state to come up with an administrative process in which felons could try to prove that they are unable to pay financial obligations and should be able to vote.
Months later, state elections officials have not developed such a system, Mohammad Jazil, a lawyer representing Secretary of State Laurel Lee, told Hinkle during a Thursday hearing in the challenge filed by voting-rights and civil-rights groups.
But Hinkle, who for months has chided the state for failing to come up with a plan, interrupted Jazil.
“If you don’t have a position in place by the time of trial, and I decide that it is a constitutional right – and if you read the 11th Circuit decision you probably don’t want to bet against that – the answer’s not going to be, oh, start working on this. If the state is not going to fix it, I will,” the federal judge admonished.
Hinkle’s October injunction applied only to the 17 plaintiffs in the case, but the judge said Thursday he intended to grant class certification in the lawsuit. In addition, any declaratory judgment ordered by Hinkle would apply more broadly.
Story of the week:
Gov. Ron DeSantis took steps to address the coronavirus, including signing an executive order that imposes a two-week quarantine on people traveling to Florida from New Jersey, New York or Connecticut.
Quote of the week:
“If you have a mother just walking down the beach with her daughter, I think that can be done safely. If they (local governments) are willing to put the resources in, I want to give them a chance to do it. That is much different than a (beach partier) doing a Jell-O shot off somebody’s stomach. We are not tolerating that. We’ve told them that the party is over, and I am glad they’ve finally listened.”– Gov. Ron DeSantis, addressing his logic for not closing down all beaches because of the virus.
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