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Florida governor takes first 'baby step' to reopening state

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s restaurants and retail stores will be allowed to reopen Monday at 25% capacity, if the local government allows it, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Wednesday, as the state begins the slow climb from the economic abyss caused by the coronavirus.

The governor specifically excluded hard-hit, heavily populated Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, saying their businesses will begin phase one when it is safer.

His order will also allow hospitals and surgical centers to restart nonessential, elective procedures in the rest of the state — but only if they have sufficient medical supplies and agree to help nursing homes and assisted living facilities prevent and respond to coronavirus outbreaks. Parks, golf courses and other outdoor recreation areas already began reopening in some counties Wednesday.

DeSantis, a Republican, is being more cautious than the neighboring state of Georgia, as well as the task force DeSantis formed last week to study how to get people back to work. The task force suggested restaurants could operate at 50% capacity, but the governor is easing in more slowly. He said earlier this week that Florida will take “baby steps” in trying to resume business and is following through with that approach.

The task force also suggested reopening gyms and barbershops with restrictions, but he’s not allowing that in the first phase. DeSantis is also not setting a date for the second phase. Instead, he’s taking a wait-and-see approach to how the state fares during the first phase, his staff said.

Bars and nightclubs also won’t reopen yet, but DeSantis is giving approval to sporting events if they don’t include spectators. The state will continue to restrict visitors to nursing homes and state prisons.

Florida has had more than 33,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus, resulting in at least 1,218 deaths, according to the state Department of Health. But there has been a downward trend in new cases since early April.

The state, like the nation, has seen large swaths of its workforce thrown into unemployment because of the shutdown and its two biggest economic sectors, tourism and agriculture, decimated as visitors fled and institutional produce buyers such as hotels and schools closed.

It’s been more than a month since the governor ordered the first closures and more than 800,000 Floridians have filed for unemployment.

Still, many Floridians did not seem eager Wednesday to resume even partial normalcy. Retired Jacksonville teacher Pamela Riggs-Stoia said reopening anything without more testing for the disease and contact-tracing is foolish.

“I feel like we are treating people as disposable. Remember that not only are the participants in the newly opened places susceptible to infection, but the resulting secondary infections to family, roommates, etc, and most importantly exposing our medical providers to more and more viral load,” said Riggs-Stoia, 60.

Sherif Andretta, a 35-year-old Miami music producer, said he welcomes the opening of parks and outdoor spaces especially since his dog misses her walks. But he is hesitant to go to a restaurant or anywhere that draws people into tight quarters.

“Living in Miami, we are the most dense part of the state, and have to be more cautious than other cities,” Adretta said. “I will continue to practice social distancing, and will avoid restaurants and other nonessential businesses until I believe it is safe.”

Zeytin Turkish Cuisine in Orlando will remain closed to sit-down dining for up to another month for safety reasons. Co-owner Michele Bourassa said that since the lockdown the mom-and-pop restaurant has only been serving takeout and earning about half its normal revenue. Any economic benefits to reopening don’t outweigh the risks, she said. Even if the restaurant were to reopen, with a requirement for only 25% capacity, “a restaurant isn’t going to make any money.”

“We don’t feel like it’s safe to open,” Bourassa said. “We don’t want someone coming in here who is sick.”

DeSantis was one of the last governors to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, preferring a county-by-county approach throughout March. Statewide, he essentially closed bars March 17 and on March 20 he closed gyms, limited restaurants to takeout and delivery and banned gatherings greater than 10. Schools also closed in March.

On April 1, the governor ordered the closure of nonessential businesses statewide starting two days later and ordered employees to work from home wherever possible.

Spencer reported from Fort Lauderdale. Associated Press reporters Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale, Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami, Curt Anderson in St. Petersburg and Mike Schneider in Orlando contributed to this report.

Community united to host virtual prom

This good news story sponsored by America’s Best Hearing, 4119 Sun N’ Lake Blvd., Sebring, FL 33872; 863-210-2764.

Nothing has been normal or traditional for this year’s graduating class or any of the students. One of their biggest disappointments was missing out on prom. The City Electric Supply (CES) Sebring branch (cityelectricsupply.com/aboutus) joined several community members to put on an unconventional prom for local students. Jeremy Daugherty, of Mobile Music and More, provided the music and video for the area’s first virtual prom.

CES Branch Manager Kip Doty stated, “We helped sponsor a virtual prom night. It was something we haven’t done before, but when we were approached to be a part of this, we thought it was a great idea. Most of these kids won’t get to experience prom, so this was just a way for us to give back and try to give them something positive to remember during this hard time.”

Cross Fit Sebring donated the space for the DJ to set up all the speakers, lights and cameras.

“About eight people were onsite just to monitor comments, handle giveaways and make sure everything ran smoothly. The best part was that students got to dress up and request songs through the comments and we got to sponsor the food. We gave money directly to the students to get a free pizza from a local pizza shop,” Doty said.

Over 400 students from Lake Placid, Sebring, Avon Park and a couple out-of-county schools participated in the event that was broadcast through Facebook Live and YouTube. Over 30 people and businesses sponsored the event announced prizes, cash giveaways and more.

“We gave away about $3,000 to these students,” Doty stated. “It happened all throughout the night — $50 here, $100 there and even more prizes and giveaways between songs. In addition to sponsoring the food, our branch gave out sunglasses to the students.”

The meant a lot to Lake Placid senior Kasi Lorenzo and her mother.

“It was really fun and I liked that they had a different variety of music for everyone,” Kasi said. “It really made me feel special for them to do this.”

Kasi said the event made her feel like the community really wanted to help the seniors celebrate their final year of high school. She won two of the door prizes given away through the evening.

Her mom, Lake Placid Middle School teacher Patty Lorenzo, said, “At first as a parent you wish you had that magic wand to make everything go away for your kid but unfortunately it is what it is.

She also commented on how the community came together to help the county’s seniors celebrate.

“Music is universal and connects people. I think it gave them an opportunity to say ‘hey, people really care. We are not the only ones that are going through this. We are not going through this alone. The community is going through this with us.’ That is the part I really enjoy. I don’t think you get that in a big city, this is a small-town thing.

“We call Lake Placid High School ‘One Dragon’ but I think this is more than that, this is ‘One Highlands County’ to honor our kids. As a parent I am very appreciative for what they did not only for the seniors but also the underclassmen. We have these eighth graders also that are ending their year and they don’t know what is going on and they can’t really celebrate it. As a teacher, I feel their pain. I won’t be able to see my eighth graders and be able to give out those last hugs before they head off to high school. It is definitely difficult,” she said.

It was an unorthodox way of spending prom night but Sebring senior Arieli Montalvo enjoyed herself.

Arieli said, “We are all home anyways so my mom and I thought ‘why not’ and at one point we dressed up. It was just a cool way to do something, even in these hard times. It was really fun. For me it was a way for not only my friends from Sebring but friends from Avon Park and Lake Placid to come together and do something one last time. There were even people from Frostproof as well. This prom made it a little less sad for us.”

It was a night that students will not soon be forgetting. Some parents took the opportunity to dance with their children, have a special father-daughter dance or mother-son dance.

“It was a really touching moment,” Doty stated. “it felt great to be a part of it, but I wish we could do more. When you think about your own experiences in high school, it kind of pales in comparison to what these kids are going through. The good news is that the virtual prom night went over so well and the students loved it so much. My brother-in-law (Jeremy Daughterty) is going to put together more events for our community to give these kids more to do.”

In addition to Daughtery, Rob Bullock helped emcee the event and Michael Flowers provided the audio, video and lighting skills.

Several businesses joined City Electric Supply and Crossfit Sebring to help make the evening come together by donating “door prizes” to be given away including McPhail Auto Sales, Handley Foundation, Baker & Sons Septic, Amerilife with Lisa Rivera Pearson and Drew Hendrickson, Lerma’s Landscaping, Freedom Lawn Care, Mama Bear Unlimited and Frost Bite Ice Cream and More in Frostproof.

A Tri-County Virtual Teen Dance is being planned for May 23 for teens in Highlands, Hardee and Polk counties. Watch the Highlands News-Sun for more details.

Highlands COVID-19 total holds at 81; national number tops 1 million

SEBRING — Highlands County stayed with 81 COVID-19 cases as of Wednesday morning’s update from Florida Department of Health. The most recent change had been one more person on Tuesday, with some of the more recent cases including a preteen, a teen and an adult in their 30’s.

That total number of cases still has only one non-resident, who also was among the 29 total number hospitalized in Highlands due to the novel coronavirus. All other hospitalizations were residents.

Highlands County as seen seven deaths attributed to the virus, with the most recent death on April 11.

Case numbers, based on zip codes, give Highlands 38 cases in Sebring, 27 in Avon Park, 11 in Lake Placid and three in Venus.

Clewiston, which covers the entire eastern part of Hendry County, has a relatively high number of cases with 61, up from Tuesday’s total of 54, which is the same number of cases reported Wednesday in Brandon, just one municipality of many in Hillsborough County.

The most recent Highlands County case increases include three from Sunday: a 12-year-old female, a 16-year-old female and a 38-year-old male, whose case is listed as travel related (Florida and Mississippi). The two girls are reported to have been in contact with another positive case.

A new case reported Monday was a 57-year-old male.

Of the 1,127 tested in Highlands, 1,036 tested negative for COVID-19, one was inconclusive and nine are still awaiting test results, as they were on Tuesday.

The county’s 81 positive cases represent only 0.076% of the county’s entire 106,221 people, but are almost 7.2% of those who have been tested.

So far, the number of people tested in the county is just 1% of the entire population.

Highlands County has avoided having more than one single case attributed to an assisted living facility — an employee at The Palms of Sebring — unlike Suwannee County in north Florida, which had an outbreak at a Live Oak nursing home with more than 50 cases among staff and patients.

Suwannee has less than half the population of Highlands, but high numbers related to COVID-19 with 129 cases — up one from Tuesday — and 14 deaths.

Statewide, there have been a total of 375,300 tested, approximately 1.8% of the state’s 20.3 million people.

Florida has had a total of 33,193 cases — approximately 9% of those tested and up from Tuesday — with 5,419 hospitalizations and 1,218 deaths, an increase of 47 deaths from Tuesday.

Florida saw 355 new cases on Tuesday, after a dip of 528 new cases on Sunday and an increase of 784 new cases on Monday.

The United States saw 21,055 new cases on Tuesday, for a total of 1.4 million cases and 59,256 deaths — the highest single-nation numbers at this time.

Worldwide, there have been 3.14 million cases and 219,000 deaths.

Seniors want traditional graduation ceremony

SEBRING — The vast majority of high school seniors, who responded to Superintendent Brenda Longshore’s survey, do not want a virtual graduation ceremony.

Due to the current COVID-19 social distancing measures some school districts in Florida have planned virtual graduations while others are looking to postpone the event until summer.

Longshore said Wednesday, “The students have spoken loudly that they want a face-to-face traditional graduation.”

Less than 9% approved of having a virtual ceremony, she said.

In the questionnaire that went to seniors, they were asked if holding the graduation in a sports field to maintain social distancing should be considered.

A very large percentage said they would be glad to have it in a sports field, Longshore said. Among those surveyed, 93% answered “yes” to a sports field if that was an option.

Maintaining social distance with a large number of family members and guests would be the issue with having the ceremonies in an auditorium environment, she said.

Governor Ron DeSantis’ Wednesday announcement on the state’s reopening plans will likely affect the district’s discussions on where and when to hold the graduation ceremonies.

“We will see if the governor makes some decisions today and begins to roll out some more directives,” Longshore said. There will be another meeting before making a decision on how to handle graduation.

Longshore will meet today with the high school principals, senior class sponsors, senior class presidents and the superintendent’s student council.

Some districts, including Leon and Sumter, are having “drive-in” graduations.

The Leon County graduations will be held May 26-28 with seniors and family members parking at a civic center, facing two large movie screens and tuning into a radio station to listen to “Pomp and Circumstance.” Class presidents, valedictorians and salutatorians will give speeches, and a photo of each graduating senior will be shown on the screens as their names are announced.

Graduations will also be live-streamed for those who can’t attend, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.