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'Courthouse' open despite pandemic, water damage

SEBRING — Two weeks after a water pipe broke and flooded two floors of the Highlands County Courthouse, the Clerk of Courts Office has moved almost everyone to the second floor of the Government Center.

Deputy Clerk of Courts Jerome Kaszubowski said Tuesday that while he’s not sure if repairs will take any less than a month to get done, the Clerk of Courts Office is open for business, with 20 people moved from the Courthouse to the Clerk’s Recording Department at at 590 S. Commerce Ave. in the Government Center.

This includes staff from Criminal Division, Probate Division, Pretrial Release, Civil Traffic, Civil Division/Child Support and Pro Se filing. Cashiers from those departments have been stationed in the lobby of Recording to handle payments and/or filings, Kaszubowski said.

Hearings for first appearances and other legal matters have been held in conference rooms, often using teleconferencing via Microsoft Teams software between defendants, the judge and the clerk staff, all in separate locations.

Assistant State Attorney Steve Houchin, who would normally have to step outside a courtroom to confer with a reporter, was able to take a call Wednesday during hearings by turning down the volume on his computer at his office.

Kaszubowski said all phones have been rerouted, so that the same number will reach people at their new locations.

The only people left in the courthouse now, Kaszubowski said, are a few people from the Civil Division and the Law Library — all on the third floor.

He is working with Highlands County Government administration to see about using the Board of County Commission boardroom for some hearings.

“It’s been fun,” Kaszubowski said of the rearrangements. “[We] got all the COVID stuff, the remote work for everybody. [We’re] trying to keep as many people out of there as possible.”

Already, he said, as many as 50% of the Clerk’s staff were working from home or remote locations.

“Obviously, [we] want to keep the social distancing down,” Kaszubowski said. “We’ve got a plan and it is working.”

He said that’s very important given that the economy has taken a hit from COVID-19 and civil unrest to keep as much revenue coming in as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady has issued an order that would allow counties to resume jury trials, based on local circumstances.

Canady initially suspended criminal and civil jury trials in March and subsequently extended the suspension through July 17. But he issued an order Tuesday setting up a process that would replace that blanket suspension.

The order is tied to courts moving into what is known as “Phase 2” operations, which would involve limited personal contact and use of protective measures.

For now, though, Kaszubowski reports that all grand jury proceedings, jury selection proceedings and criminal and civil jury trials through July 17, 2020 have been suspended.

Pursuant to Governor DeSantis’ Executive Order 20-137, all mortgage foreclosure sales set through July 1 have been canceled, and all eviction causes of action related to non-payment have been suspended through July 1.

Court-related payments, including Child Support, being accepted in person at 590 S. commerce Ave., may also be made over the telephone, by credit card or by check mailed to Clerk of Court, 590 S. Commerce Ave., Sebring, FL 33870.

Payment numbers are as follows:

• Child Support payments — 863-402-6585

• Traffic payments — 863-402-6604

• Criminal payments — 863-402-6598

For further details, about court or clerk operations, call 863-402-6567.

Highlands CARES Act committee starts work on aid plan

SEBRING — A panel of county government officials held its first committee meeting Thursday to discuss how the initial $4.6 million from the CARES Act will be distributed to those impacted by COVID-19.

The $4.6 million is 25% of the total amount that has been earmarked for the county under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which provided $8 billion to Florida to help those affected by the pandemic.

The urgency to develop a plan and distribute the funds equitably was stressed at the meeting, which was held in the County Commission Chambers in the Highlands County Government Center.

County Administrator Randy Vosburg said the first 25% — $4.6 million — has to be spent by Sept. 30.

Vosburg said the grant cannot be used by the local government to make the county whole for lost revenue due to COVID-19. The Tourism Development dollars are anticipated to be down, but they can’t take any of this CARES Act money to make up for that loss.

The county has looked at the plans of the 12 counties that received the initial CARES Act dollars, Vosburg said.

Sebring Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Liz Barber said the distribution plan the chamber board liked the most was from Polk County, which not only helped individuals, but also helped businesses.

“What we are hearing from some of these small businesses is that they’re in trouble and in a month down the road or two months, if things continue the way they are, we are all going to feel it,” she said.

The Polk plan provided $2,000 to households that could show a loss and helped business based by the number of their employees, Barber said.

Vosburg asked Barber what percentage of businesses have been affected by the pandemic.

Barber responded that about 20% of the county’s businesses were either not affected or had a sharp increase in business because they served a need related to the pandemic.

Legislative Affairs Grants Coordinator Sydney Armstrong said the Orange County plan gave priority to businesses that were mandated to close.

Avon Park Mayor Garrett Anderson said every type of business experienced some type of loss from the pandemic. Even businesses that were allowed to stay open had to do additional cleaning and may have had key employees who were out either sick or taking precautions.

Employee hours have been cut in half in some cases, he said. So the trick is what the qualifications are going to be, if it is something like the payroll protection plan (PPP) it was extremely lenient and almost everybody qualified.

Vosburg summed up the meeting stating there was talk of an individual’s component, a business component and potentially having a non-profit component and assistance for governments for the extra costs they incurred.

“We want to get the dollars out to the community as much as we can in a fair manner,” he said.

Two more meetings were scheduled — 2 p.m. on June 24 and July 1 prior to a plan going before the Board of County Commission.

Statewide cases increase by 3,822

The number of positive COVID-19 cases in Highlands County increased by six as of Friday’s update. Highlands now has a total of 206 confirmed positive cases. The total hospitalizations are 47 with 46 residents and 1 non-resident. The number of deaths remains at 9.

The first positive case reported in Highlands County was on March 21.

Statewide, a total of 89,748 cases have been confirmed with deaths reaching 3,104.

The total number of tests administered in Highlands County is 6,393 with 6,184 negative tests results of which 65 are non-Florida residents. No results have come back inconclusive and five are waiting for results. The percent of positive cases is 3.2%.

Of the 206 positive cases in Highlands County, 204 are residents and 2 non-residents. The cases include 97 males and 107 females, ranging from ages 0 to 91, with a median age of 50.

The total number of positive cases in Florida increased by 3,822 from Thursday’s dashboard update. Florida has been in quadruple digits for 16 consecutive days with the first day of quadruple digits being on June 3; 2,105 of the total statewide cases are non-Florida residents. The total number of deaths increased by 43, bringing that total to 3,104.

FDOH is releasing details of ethnicity and race regarding the positive cases in each of the state’s 67 counties. Highlands County’s cases by ethnicity are 81 Hispanic, 109 non-Hispanic and 14 unknown/no data. The cases by race are 127 white, 41 black, 28 other and eight unknown/no data.

Several residents commute to surrounding counties. Just to the north, in Polk County, where there is a higher population, the total reached 1,856 positive cases with 406 hospitalizations and reached 77 deaths. Polk has also administered 35,237 tests, of which 33,374 have come back with negative results. Polk was one of the counties to show a triple digit increase in positive cases in Friday’s report.

Highlands County has more cases than DeSoto, Glades, Hardee and Okeechobee counties. Okeechobee has a total of 230 cases with no deaths; Hardee has 244 cases with one death; Glades has 121 cases with one death and DeSoto County has 431 positive cases with 10 deaths. There are many variables that could affect the numbers such as population and testing availability.

Miami-Dade continues to lead the state in positive cases with 24,376 confirmed cases, which is an increase of 1,103 since Thursday’s update. The total number of deaths in Miami-Dade reached 864 deaths.

Across the state, 11 counties had triple digit increases. Broward had 337, Collier 109, Duval 175, Hillsborough 372, Lee 121, Manatee 100, Orange 374, Palm Beach 262, Pinellas 378, Polk 154 and Seminole with 125, accounting for 2,507 of Florida’s 3,822 positive cases.

Nationally, the number of positive cases is 2,192,279 with 118,467 deaths and 599,115 recovered. Worldwide, the number of positive cases has increased to 8,520,761 with 454,625 deaths.

A free testing event is currently scheduled for 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. today at Samaritan’s Touch, 3015 Herring Ave. in Sebring. No insurance is required.

For more information on COVID-19, visit floridahealthcovid19.gov. In Highlands County, call 863-402-6800 or text hccovid to 888777.