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Circle Theatre suspends operations

SEBRING — The Champion for Children Foundation has suspended its operation of the Circle Theatre in downtown Sebring due to the pandemic.

Champion for Children Founder and Chairman of the Board Kevin Roberts said operations have been suspended for a period of time until they get through the pandemic situation.

A subcommittee of the Champion for Children Foundation is looking at the situation and decided to put a pause in operations while it makes recommendations on what direction to go with the theater and what services will be provided there.

“We have got to get past this COVID-19 because we are not able to do the monthly concerts; we are not having weddings down there,” Roberts said. No service clubs, civic groups or businesses are having events there.

“We are not able to bring in parents to teach them in classes on self-esteem building or anger management or budgeting,” he said. “We are not able to do these things, so obviously that has taken a hit. The business is falling off.”

COVID-19 is hurting retail business and non-profit groups as well as individual families, Roberts said.

“You have to be mindful that we are still in a pandemic and there are issues and concerns specifically in Florida and specifically in Highlands County,” he said. “It is hard to have large gatherings at the Circle Theatre.”

The subcommittee will determine the best way to maximize the Circle Theatre’s mission and service to others and still generate enough revenue for sustainability. Roberts noted that as a big and old building, built in 1923, the Circle Theatre has frequent repair and maintain issues.

The Champion for Children’s website states: “Circle Theatre – Where prevention programs meet positive community entertainment.”

Possibly there could be an annual fundraiser at the Circle Theatre specifically for the sustainability of the services being offered in there, he said.

The temporary suspension did not affect any employees because the Circle Theatre hasn’t had a manager for several months and it has been decided not to hire a theater manager until the board decides on a direction and they get past the pandemic, Roberts said.

Roberts said he doesn’t know how long the pause in operations will last. “It could be six months; I don’t know.”

“I love the Circle Theatre. There was a lot of blood sweat and tears that went into it and the community invested huge bucks into that,” he said.

There is no debt there because the Champion for Children Foundation has never borrowed money and it will never borrow money, Roberts stressed. So they paid as they rehabilitated the historic building, which has added great value to the downtown.

“We want to make sure we are being wise and we are spending our resources correctly,” he said. “I would like to think that we are going to move forward.”

Champion for Children CEO Carissa Marine said, “The board is taking this time to re-evaluate the current programs and overall impact of the Circle Theatre, and we look forward to when we will be fully back open to the public on the Circle.”

Although events have clearly been limited due to COVID-19 at the Circle Theatre, prevention programs and direct assistance services of the Champion for Children Foundation have continued nonstop as the organization serves families in need through COVID-19 and for the overall safety and well-being of the community’s children, she said.

“We are incredibly grateful for the community’s ongoing support and partnership allowing us to do so,” Marine said.

According to the Champion for Children Foundation, in 2011, the Foundation began working tirelessly on the project to restore the theater for future generations. After three years of renovations, the Circle Theatre opened to offer various art-related activities and programs for children as well as serving as an elegant venue rental for the community.

In 2017, the Circle Theatre restructured to focus on bringing beneficial prevention programs and enhanced services to local families. Mission-focused programs provide community trainings, support groups, educational events and family resources.

Fires kept first responders busy during holidays

SEBRING — Fire is no respecter of persons, property or dates on the calendar. Firefighters and other first responders busy over Christmas and the following days.

Highlands County Fire Rescue responded to a fire on North Berkeley Road in the Avon Park Lakes subdivision around 3:15 a.m. Tuesday. Highlands Lakes station 1 and 2, Sun ‘N Lake station 7 and EMS, Medic 4-1, and Battalion 1 arrived to find smoke coming from the garage of the home. Items inside the garage were on fire. The residents got out of the home unharmed and firefighters made quick work of the fire.

No injuries to first responders were reported. The cause of the fire is under investigation. The damage is estimated at $7,500.

On Sunday afternoon, Highlands Lakes Volunteer Fire Department was called out in response to a brush fire at East Albritton Road, near Geneva Road. The fire consumed about a quarter of an acre. HCFR Chief Marc Bashoor said the fire was caused by a vehicle driving over tall and dry grass.

Bashoor warned that the county is heading into the dry season and the low humidity is not helping things.

Earlier Sunday morning, HCFR and Avon Park Fire Department responded to a tri-plex residence on the 5500 block of Granada Boulevard in Sebring. The middle unit was ablaze, but the firewalls that separate the units contained the fire to the center residence.

There were injuries in this fire. According to Bashoor, three people went to local hospitals: one for a burn injury, one for smoke inhalation and one went to be checked out.

The fire marshal was on scene at the Granada Boulevard fire. Bashoor said the fire was still under investigation but there was “no reason to believe it was anything other than an accident.”

Duke Energy was also on scene. HCFR units on scene included from Sun ‘N Lake 7, West Sebring 9 and 10, Avon Park 5, Desoto City 19, Medic 4-1 and 4-2, the rehab unit. Other units stepped up to provide coverage while the fire was being battled.

The family from the Granada Boulevard fire were assisted by the American Red Cross.

A fire consumed a gold/tan pickup truck on Christmas Eve. The truck was ablaze on Kenilworth Boulevard in Sebring. According to HCFR officials, there were no injuries in this fire.

County passes 200 deaths from COVID
  • Updated

SEBRING — Highlands County surpassed 200 deaths from the coronavirus on Tuesday, according to the Florida Department of Health’s daily COVID-19 reports. With two deaths reported overnight, the death toll is now 201 people that have died.

In addition, the FDOH reports show 41 new cases of infection. Six of the new cases were from minors ages 14 and under. There has been a total of 4,863 cases of COVID-19. Residents make up 4,817 cases and non-residents comprise 46 infections. That is three more non-residents than reported on Monday.

The positivity rate skyrocketed to 54.17%. The high positivity rate was due, in part, because there were only 72 tests processed from Monday.

Statewide, the COVID vaccine (first dose) has been given to 146,160 people thus far. On Monday, Highlands County administered 114 doses of the vaccine.

There has been a total of 525 people in the county to have their first dose of the vaccine to date.

The Highlands County Board of County Commission posted on social media platforms that the county will soon have additional vaccines in the form of Moderna. Public Information Assistant Karen Clogston’s post said the first phase of the vaccinations will be given to residents and staff members of long-term care facilities, “persons 65 and older, health care personnel with direct patient contact.” Hospitals can vaccinate those they feel are “extremely vulnerable” to the coronavirus.

Following Gov. Ron De Santis’ Executive Order, those 65 and older will be next. After the initial phase of vaccines, the county will set up vaccination points of distributions and will post days and times of of availability.

Statewide. Florida added 12,075 new cases of COVID infections to bring the overall total to 1,292,252. Residents of Florida make up 1,270,063 of those cases and non-residents comprise 22,189 of the total cases.

In addition to the new cases, Florida added 105 new deaths, including 101 residents and 4 non-residents. Deaths attributed to COIVD were 21,718 on Tuesday.

Throughout Florida testing was the lowest it has been in at least two weeks with 52,324 tests processed. The positivity rate was 22.72%.

Numbers across the United States continue to be lower in the three major metrics – cases, deaths and tests – all of which remain well below the week-long averages. The United States reported 162,190 new cases, 1,491 deaths and just 1,540,320 tests, according to the COVID Tracking Project’s Monday night report. One week ago there were more than 2 million tests given.

Current hospitalizations are at another all-time high, with 121,235. The hospitalization numbers are the one not influenced by holiday lags in reporting.

California’s case numbers were lower once again, with 31,245, but the number of deaths climbed to 242 after Monday’s artificially low count of 64. That brings the state to 24,526 deaths.

According to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering, there have been 19.41 million cases in the United States and 336,325 deaths.

On the global front, there have been 81.68 million cases and 1.78 million deaths.

Colorado health officials announced their first case of the of COVID-19 variant B.1.1.7 on Tuesday, the same variant discovered in the UK earlier this month.

Senate GOP blocks swift vote on Trump's $2K checks

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday blocked Democrats’ push to immediately bring President Donald Trump’s demand for bigger $2,000 COVID-19 relief checks up for a vote, saying the chamber would “begin a process” to address the issue.

Pressure is mounting on the Republican-led Senate to follow the House, which voted overwhelmingly on Monday to meet the president’s demand to increase the checks from $600 as the virus crisis worsens. A growing number of Republicans, including two senators in runoff elections on Jan. 5 in Georgia, have said they will support the larger amount. But most GOP senators oppose more spending, even if they are also wary of bucking Trump.

The outcome is highly uncertain heading into the rare holiday-week session.

“There’s one question left today: Do Senate Republicans join with the rest of America in supporting $2,000 checks?” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said as he made a motion to vote.

McConnell, who has said little publicly on Trump’s request, objected but gave almost no indication of his plans ahead.

“The Senate will begin a process,” the GOP leader said. He said he plans to bring the president’s demand for the $2,000 checks and other remaining issues “into focus.”

The showdown has thrown Congress into a chaotic year-end session just days before new lawmakers are set to be sworn into office for the new year. It’s preventing action on another priority — overturning Trump’s veto on a sweeping defense bill that has been approved every year for 60 years.

The president’s last-minute push for bigger checks deeply divides Republicans, who are split between those who align with Trump’s populist instincts and those who adhere to what had been more traditional conservative views against government spending. Congress had settled on smaller $600 payments in a compromise over the big year-end relief bill Trump reluctantly signed into law.

Liberal senators led by Bernie Sanders of Vermont who support the relief aid are blocking action on the defense bill until a vote can be taken on Trump’s demand for $2,000 for most Americans.

”The working class of this country today faces more economic desperation than at any time since the Great Depression of the 1930s,” Sanders said as he also tried to force a vote on the relief checks. “Working families need help now.” But McConnell objected a second time.

The GOP blockade may not be sustainable in the face of Trump’s demands and as senators face the constituents at home.

The two GOP senators from Georgia, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, announced Tuesday they support Trump’s plan for bigger checks as they face Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in runoff elections that will determine which party controls the Senate.

”I’m delighted to support the president,” said Perdue on Fox News. Loeffler said in an interview on Fox that she, too, backs the boosted relief checks.

Trump repeated his demand in a tweet ahead of Tuesday’s Senate session: “$2000 for our great people, not $600!”

Following Trump’s lead, Republican Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marco Rubio of Florida, among the party’s potential 2024 presidential hopefuls, are pushing the party in the president’s direction.

”We’ve got the votes. Let’s vote today,” Hawley tweeted.

The House vote late Monday was a stunning turn of events. Just days ago, during a brief Christmas Eve session, Republicans blocked Trump’s sudden demand for bigger checks as he defiantly refused to sign the broader COVID-19 aid and year-end funding bill into law.

As Trump spent days fuming from his private club in Florida, where he is spending the holidays, millions of Americans saw jobless aid lapse and the nation risked a federal government shutdown Tuesday.

Dozens of Republicans calculated it was better to link with Democrats to increase the pandemic payments rather than buck the outgoing president and constituents counting on the money. House Democrats led passage, 275-134, but 44 Republicans joined almost all Democrats for a robust two-thirds vote of approval.

In the Senate, McConnell is expected to be devising a way out of the bind, perhaps incorporating two other issues Trump raised Sunday as he ultimately signed the massive package into law.

Trump repeated his frustrations over the outcome of the presidential election, which he lost to President-elect Joe Biden, as well as the ability of technology companies like Facebook and Twitter to regulate content in ways Trump believes are unfair.

“Those are the three important subjects the president has linked together,” McConnell said.

Trump’s push could fizzle out in the Senate and do little to change the COVID-19 relief and federal spending package Trump signed into law.

But the debate over the size and scope of the package — $900 billion in COVID-19 aid and $1.4 trillion to fund government agencies — is potentially one last confrontation between the president and the Republican Party. The new Congress is set to be sworn in Sunday.

For now, the $600 checks are set to be delivered, along with other aid, among the largest rescue packages of its kind.

The COVID-19 portion of the bill revives a weekly pandemic jobless benefit boost — this time $300, through March 14 — as well as the popular Paycheck Protection Program of grants to businesses to keep workers on payrolls. It extends eviction protections, adding a new rental assistance fund.

Americans earning up to $75,000 will qualify for the direct $600 payments, which are phased out at higher income levels, and there’s an additional $600 payment per dependent child.

Biden told reporters at an event Monday in Wilmington, Delaware, that he supported the $2,000 checks.

Economists said a $600 check will help, but that it’s a far cry from the spending power that a $2,000 check would provide for the economy, particularly into summer when vaccinations are expected to have reached a wider swath of the population.

”It will make a big difference whether it’s $600 versus $2,000,” said Ryan Sweet, an economist with Moody’s.

Trump’s delay in signing the bill stunned lawmakers, who thought they had the president’s blessing after months of negotiations with his administration. Several sprang into action to push him not to stall aid during the holidays.

The president also objected to foreign aid funding that his own administration had requested and vowed to send Congress “a redlined version” with spending items he wants removed. But those are merely suggestions to Congress. Democrats said they would resist such cuts.

Colvin reported from West Palm Beach, Florida. Associated Press writers Bill Barrow in Atlanta and Ashraf Khalil in Washington and Matt Ott in Silver Springs, Maryland contributed to this report.

Happy Holidays (copy)

In honor of the holidays, the Highlands News-Sun will be printed on New Year’s Eve.

We hope your holidays are peaceful and safe.

The Highlands News-Sun office at 321 N. Ridgewood Drive in Sebring will close at 3 p.m. through New Year’s Day. Happy Holidays to each and every one.