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Local businesses feel left out of Phase 1

Phase 1 of the reopening of Florida kicked off this week with beaches and state parks reopening, restaurants offering outdoor seating with 6-foot space between tables and indoor seating at 25% capacity, and retail stores operating at 25% of indoor capacity.

Several local business that are considered “personal service” feel they were left out of Phase 1 — barbershops, hair dressers, nail salons and massage therapy, just to name a few.

Heal by Touch posted on Facebook that the store would be reopening May 4 but then had to retract the post after learning that massage therapy would not be a part of the initial reopening phase.

“We haven’t been able to work since mid-March,” said owner Tim Wheaton. “We have had no income but still have to pay rent, utilities and all those other basic necessities for business. Our landlord has not forgiven any of our rent, so we are still obligated to pay our entire rent but we have technically been out of business for seven weeks now.”

Considered a medical facility, Wheaton said it is frustrating not being a part of Phase 1. “To our patients, we are essential. If someone has a chronic migraine or injured shoulder, neck, back, sciatica and all of those things, we fix it. People can’t live two weeks with sciatica, let alone two months without treatment. Even if we were limited to having only five people a day, that is still something. I know during Phase 1 they are allowing restaurants to open at 25% capacity, we could be under that same jurisdiction.

“We sanitize everything all the time anyways. We have ordered disinfectant wipes that are specifically for COVID-19. One thing we will be doing differently, that I haven’t discussed with my staff yet, is using protective shields. I am going to talk with my team about ways we can make our facility feel friendly and personal without having direct contact. We want to be warm and comforting but staying a distance away.”

Above and Beyond Hair & Body in Lake Placid was hit hard by the shutdown and not being a part of Phase 1.

“The shutdown order has affected us tremendously,” said Samantha Twiggs, Above and Beyond Hair & Body. “We deal with hygiene everyday. We take our state boards and a lot of the questions are about infectious diseases so we already had to implement that before any of this happened. This is something we implement day one when we started our jobs so when the virus hit we put more implements into play, like a UV light that cleans when we leave and we use hospital grade disinfectant.”

Twiggs said it was hard when put in the same category as bars and nightclubs. “That hurt us. We are nowhere near compared to a bar. We have guidelines we follow on a daily basis,” she said.

“The shutdown meant a total stop of income for all of my barbers,” said Skip Adams, owner and operator of Adams Barber Shop. “The way my shop works is the barbers are independent contractors so they lease my license to work there, the state requires it. They applied for unemployment but none of them have received confirmation of it yet. That has been our biggest issue right now. I know the reasoning and the need to shutdown, I’m all for it. We are all learning as we go, but the biggest disappointment is the lack of income right now.”

Adams expected not to be a part of Phase 1 because of the closeup personal service offered. “But, if we limit the amount of people in our space and use masks and gloves, would we be able to open? I’m a big believer of my civil rights and I’m not a fan of the government telling me when I can work. We are being civil right now.”

He kept his barber shop open as long as possible, admitting he defied the order to shut down and did a few haircuts. 

“Someone reported me and the city shut me down,” Adams said, adding there were shops outside the city limit that still performed services.

“We have to practice good health and hygiene. We are required to disinfect our tools and wash our hands between clients already, the only thing I can think of that could be a problem from one client to another is the chair cloths. Maybe find a way to use throw-away chair cloths, the capes we use on each client to keep the hair off. More scheduled cleaning will have to happen as well.”

Adams said when he first shutdown he cleaned the shop from ceiling to floor. “I didn’t know what kind of rules we would be facing when we are allowed to go back to work,” he said.

Tiwggs has already emailed the governor, messaged the county commissioners and emailed the mayor of Lake Placid, voicing her disappointment in the listing of businesses allowed to reopen.

“If we are not open by May 11, I will be speaking on behalf of not only hair and body but also our fellow hairdressers in this county and town,” she said.

And it’s not only businesses, but clients who are affected by “personal care” not being allowed to open yet.

Twiggs said, “A lot of customers come in on a weekly basis just to get their hair washed because they can’t lift their arms above their head. Same with their toenails, they can’t reach down to clip them or make sure there isn’t any fungus going on. We have more compassion for our clients right now and those that can’t do that.

“That is why I reached out to the governor and the mayor, to have them lift the mandate to open the salons,” she said.

Twiggs and other personal care providers encourage people to call the governor’s office at 850-717-9337, or email the governor by going to www.flgov.com/contact-governor and click “Email Governor DeSantis” to complain. Letters can be sent to Office of Governor Ron DeSantis, State of Florida, The Capitol, 400 S. Monroe St., Tallahassee, FL 32399-0001.

Statewide COVID-19 death toll surpasses 1,500

SEBRING — Florida’s death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 1,500 in the latest update Wednesday morning from the Florida Department of Health. The update shows the total number of cases in Florida at just over 38,000, an increase of 563 over Tuesday’s count.

There were 68 more deaths in the Tuesday count, with deaths of people who tested positive in Broward, Charlotte, Clay, Collier, Miami-Dade, Escambia, Hillsborough, Lee, Leon, Manatee, Orange, Osceola, Palm Beach, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota counties.

Total number of cases for Highlands County went down by one in the Wednesday morning update from 88 to 87, with FDOH incorrectly reporting a day earlier that one case was a county resident. The county’s positive cases include 45 males and 41 females with a median age of 56. The number of deaths attributed to the virus in Highlands remains at 7.

In the past four days (May 2-5) there has been 140 tested in Highlands County with only 2 new cases of COVID-19.

There has been 1,406 tested in Highlands with 6.2% showing a positive result for the virus.

Miami-Dade County had 173 new cases on Tuesday. The south Florida county had its highest daily total of new cases, 513, on April 3. Now Dade County has had 13,371 cases (13.1%), 1,850 hospitalized and 432 deaths.

New York (state) continues to have the highest number of cases (321,192) and deaths (25,100) in the nation.

Montana has the lowest number of cases with 456, while Wyoming has the fewest number of deaths with 7.

In Florida, the total number of cases is 38,002, with 6,557 hospitalizations and 1,539 deaths. As of Wednesday’s report, more than 480,000 tests have been reported by FDOH, with 7.9% of those resulting in positive tests. More than 102,000 of those test results were reported from Miami-Dade County.

News Service of Florida reports that 390 prison inmates in Florida have tested positive with the highest number of cases coming from Tomoka Correctional Institution. Nineteen staff members at the facility have tested positive.

Nationwide, there has been 1,212,123 cases and 71,463 deaths.

Worldwide, there has been 3,711,425 cases and 259,695 deaths.

Survey gives glimpse of damage in tourism industry

TALLAHASSEE — Tourism-related businesses that reported laying off employees over a three-week period because of the coronavirus pandemic reduced staff by an average of 73%, according to an industry survey released Tuesday.

Also, the group Destinations Florida found that many travel-related businesses aren’t getting requested federal stimulus assistance to help deal with the crisis.

“We knew the numbers for April would look worse than the numbers from March as our state began to institute closures and stricter guidelines as part of its pandemic response,” said Robert Skrob, executive director of Destinations Florida, which represents travel-marketing organizations.

In a survey of 1,009 tourism-related businesses that dealt with the period from March 19 to April 15, Destinations Florida found that 72% of respondents had applied for federal assistance. But just 17% of those businesses had received federal money.

The survey also found mid-April hotel occupancy at 13%, down from 84% at the same point a year earlier.

The Orlando Sentinel on Monday reported a Florida Department of Revenue preliminary estimate on sales tax collections showed revenue at least $770 million below estimates for March, about 25% less than expected for the month. Tourism businesses are a key player in sales tax revenue.

Skrob expressed “hope is on the horizon” as the state on Monday began the first of a three-phased economic reopening under Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“Now, more than ever, we will need the funds collected for tourism promotion through local tourism taxes to promote our destinations to potential visitors,” Skrob said. “Our local tourism promotion organizations are ready to do their part to bring visitors back to Florida so we can rekindle Florida’s and local economies.”

DeSantis’ first phase, considered a soft reopening that excludes coronavirus hotspots Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, limits restaurants and retailers to 25% occupancy. There are no timelines for the second and third phases.

DeSantis said Monday that getting the tourism industry back will require a renewed confidence in the industry.

“We’ve kept a lot of things going. Construction, we’ve accelerated road projects. The tourism is just going to be something that once people have confidence, and once we’re ready … I think, can turn on,” DeSantis said. “That’ll be a process as well. But I think a lot of the things in the economy we’ve tried to keep going. So, if you take away kind of our tourist stuff, hopefully we’re not in as big a hole as some of these other states, and we can get back going a little quicker.”

The industry survey asked tourism-related businesses whether they had laid off employees in the three weeks leading up to April 15. Of the respondents, 45% said they had laid off employees. Those businesses said they had laid off an average of 73% of their employees.

In a March survey, 67% of respondents said they had laid off employees. Both surveys also showed widespread reductions in employee hours.

Since March 15, the state has received 1.78 million unemployment applications, of which more than 1 million are considered “unique,” as some people filed more than one claim.

As of Sunday, 478,666, or 45.7%, of the unique applicants had started to receive weekly state unemployment checks of up to $275.

The state Department of Economic Opportunity said more than $979 million has been paid out to applicants, of which $702 million, or 71.7%, was money from a federal stimulus program.

DeSantis said the goal of the phased approach is to get people back to work “sooner than in a normal recession.”

DeSantis noted that outside of Southeast Florida, where the epidemic has hit the hardest, he’s tried to minimize “as much damage as I could.”

The state’s tourism marketing agency Visit Florida is putting together a multi-year, four-phase marketing “rebound” plan in response to the virus.

Visit Florida President Dana Young said last month that hotel revenue in Florida was down more than $1.6 billion from March 1 to April 11, compared to the same period a year earlier.

In the same time, the number of people flying into Florida was down more than 65%, with international flights off nearly 80%, Young said.

High school graduations set for July

SEBRING — It will be a jubilant July for Highlands County high school seniors with there graduation ceremonies pushed back two months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The graduations will be scheduled as follows: Sebring High on Thursday, July 23 followed by Avon Park on July 24 and Lake Placid High on July 25.

The times have not been finalized.

Superintendent Brenda Longshore said, if allowed at that time by the state’s health safety guidelines, the Sebring graduation would be held at the Alan Jay Arena at the Highlands County Fairgrounds. If that is not an option, it will be at the Firemen’s Field Football Stadium.

The Avon Park High and Lake Placid High graduations will be held in their football stadiums in the evening, she said.

About 500 students responded to Longshore’s survey seeking input on graduation options.

“It was very clear they wanted a traditional ceremony similar to what we have always done,” she said. “They also responded that they would certainly be willing to wait to have that, but that was really important to them.”

In addition to the graduation ceremonies, the schools are working hard to provide some type of special acknowledgement and recognition of seniors on the weekend that would have been their graduation, Longshore said.

“It certainly wouldn’t be a mass gathering of kids or anything like that, but to do something special for the students so that we recognize and acknowledge our seniors on that weekend,” she said.