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Unofficial voting results are in

SEBRING — Venus was not included in the precinct reports as of press time Tuesday night. By Wednesday, the Highlands County Supervisor of Elections website showed all of the 25 precincts had reported. However, the vote-by-mail ballots are not yet fully counted.

Supervisor of Elections Penny Ogg said the results of the election are not yet official. Some of the mail-in ballot voters have to be contacted because of things like missing signatures or signatures that do not match. Ogg said the voters will be contacted “by any means” such as text, mail or phone to “cure” the ballots. Ogg said there are not many to be cured and she does not expect them to change the outcome of any races.

After the mail-in ballots are counted, a manual audit will be done and the final official total will be given on Thursday, Aug. 27.

Highlands County has 63,651 registered voters per the Supervisor of Elections Office. In total, 21,236 ballots were cast for a voter turnout of 33.36%.

The unofficial results of Tuesday’s voting are:

State Representative District 55

In Highlands County, Ned Hancock-R, had 44.36% with 6,185 votes and Kaylee Tuck-R, had 55.64% with 7,757 votes. The county race had a total of 13,942 votes.

In the district – which includes Glades, Highlands, Okeechobee and St. Lucie counties – Hancock received a total 8,738 votes to Tuck’s 11,235. The breakdown of those votes: In Glades, Hancock received 558 votes and Tuck received 852; in Okeechobee, Hancock received 1,731 votes to Tuck’s 2,341; and in St. Lucie, Hancock had 264 votes and Tuck had 285.

Tuck will now face off with her Democratic opponent Linda Tripp of Labelle in November.

Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller

Don Elwell-R, had 35.68% and 7,382 votes.

Kyle Green-R, had 17.98% with 3,720 votes.

Jerome Kaszubowski- R, took 46.34% with 9,586 votes.

This race’s total votes were 20,688.

County Commission District 2

Shird Moore-R, had 31.89% and 6,405 votes.

Kathy Rapp-R, took 47.98% and had 9,635 votes.

Joedene Elizabeth Thayer had 20.13% with 4,042 votes.

The race had 20,082 votes in all.

County Commission District 3

Jeff Carlson-R, had 47.96% and 6,502 votes.

Scott A. Kirouac-R, earned 52.04% with 7,054.

A total of 13,556 were cast in this race.

Kirouac will now face Democratic candidate Bobbie Smith-Powell in the November election.

County Commission District 5

Chris Campbell-R, took 36.39% and 7,356 votes.

Greg Harris-R, had 28.46% with 5,752 votes.

Vicki Pontius-R, earned 35.15% and had 7,105 votes.

The race’s total votes were 20,213.

Campbell said Wednesday he wanted to thank the voters of Highlands County for putting him in office and trusting in his abilities to serve as their county commissioner.

Harris served 10 years on the commission and was the only incumbent seeking reelection.

Three precincts had committeeman/committeewoman which is rare, according to Ogg. A precinct committeeman/woman is a leader for the political party in the precinct they represent. The precinct can have one committee person for each 1,000 people within the precinct.

According to Florida State Statutes, a precinct committeeman/woman is elected for a four-year term in the primary election in each year a presidential election is held. That person’s role is to serve in their precinct as an ambassador for their political party.

In Highlands County, only three precincts in Sebring have a precinct committeeman/woman.

Those results were as follows:

Precinct Committeewoman Precinct 5

Michelle D. Backus-D, took 37.84% with 249 votes.

Janice McCarthy-D, earned 32.67% and 215 votes.

Patricia Mary Myers-D, had 29.48% with 194 votes.

There were 658 votes in all for this race.

Precinct Committeeman Precinct 8

Neal T. Golden-D, had 25.81% and 32 votes.

Mark Wilson-D, took 74.19% with 92 votes.

The race had 124 votes.

Precinct Committeewoman Precinct 24

Mildred B. Grime-D, earned 55.09% and 119 votes.

Roxie W. McMillon-D, had 44.91% with 97 votes.

In total, the race had 216 votes.

Ogg said she was very pleased with the election.

“The election was smooth and I was glad for the turnout whether it was early voting or by mail or in person. The election office is here if anyone needs us, just call,” Ogg said.

Prepped to play - School Board approves sports start date

SEBRING — County high school sports teams will start practicing soon and preparing for competitions with The School Board of Highlands County approving the county’s sports task force’s recommendation to start practices on Aug. 31

At Wednesday’s special School Board meeting, District Director of Safety and Security Michael Haley noted that the Florida High School Athletic Association recommended allowing fall sports practices to start on Aug. 24.

The Highlands County Athletic Task Force met Monday and discussed the district’s preparations for fall sports, he said. The Task Force proposed starting a week later on Aug. 31 to give more time to see how things are going in the schools and see if there are any positive cases, he said. It would allow an extra week to get things going on the ball fields.

Haley said the competition start dates would be Sept. 12 for bowling, cross country, swimming and volleyball; Sept. 18 for varsity football, which would provide three weeks of practice with pads. Then junior varsity football would start a week later on Thursday, Sept. 24.

All coaches will be required to complete the National Federation of State High School Associations course, COVID-19 for Coaches and Administrators, he said.

Haley noted the number of possible competitions based on the Aug. 31 start date: football — eight games if no bye week, volleyball — 12 to 14 matches, bowling — nine to 10 matches (depending on east coast), golf — eight to nine matches, cross country — seven to eight meets, and swimming and diving — eight to nine meets.

The Highlands County Athletic Task Force will have another meeting to discuss other considerations and challenges with the opening up of fall sports, Haley said.

The decisions to be considered include: the capacity for spectators, masks (if they will be required), temperature checks, social distancing of athletes, seating design for spectators, packaged food at concessions, seating for transportation and locker rooms.

Some school districts would not allow Highlands to travel to their county because they are only playing in-house in their areas.

“So we might not even have enough teams to play, where we start playing ourselves [within the county] and that’s the things we are looking at,” Haley said.

Dr. Brenda Longshore, school superintendent, said the medical advisory board that worked with the Florida High School Athletic Association recommended a few weeks time from the start of school until the start of competitions. Many school districts are not starting school until Aug. 31, so they could start sports later in the year and extend their season and perhaps not participate in a state championship, she said.

The graduation ceremonies worked well so the district has some experience to build on so the football fields can be marked to provide distancing for families, Longshore said.

“All of those things need to be given some great consideration, so we can do this very safely and making sure that safety is our first concern,” she said.

There were no comments from the public and the School Board voted unanimously to approve the Highlands County Athletic Task Force’s recommendation of an Aug. 31 start date for sports practice.

After the meeting, Lake Placid High Athletic Director Jason Holden said, “We are really excited about this. We feel the kids are safe. We feel we can do the things to keep the kids safe. I know this is where the kids want to be and where we want to be also.”

The student athletes are going to be excited to hear they can get started, Holden said. “They have been working really hard for a really long time and waiting for this moment.”

Florida resident COVID-19 deaths surpass 10,000

SEBRING — More than 10,000 Florida residents have now died from COVID-19 after an additional 117 virus fatalities were reported Thursday by the Florida Department of Health.

With three more deaths listed in the latest update, Highlands County now has a total of 50 deaths attributed to COVID-19.

The total state resident death toll from the virus is now 10,049.

The number of deaths in the other Heartland counties are: Hardee — eight, DeSoto — 21, Okeechobee — 12, Glades — three and Hendry — 39.

Statewide, there was an additional 4,555 coronavirus cases reported since the Wednesday update for a total to 588,602 cases over the course of the pandemic.

Highlands County added 19 cases for a total of 1,679. The Highlands cases have ranged in those age 0 to 99 with a median age of 47. Those infected have been 47% male and 53% female.

Currently, Highlands has 37 hospitalized due to COVID-19. The number of those hospitalized is decreasing. On Saturday there were 51 hospitalized due to the virus.

The previous day’s testing data shows statewide from 68,393 tests there was a positive rate of 6.73%. In Highlands, with 206 tested, there was a positive rate of 9.22%.

Locally, AdventHealth and the Health Department are working together to provide free drive-through testing, for Highlands County residents only.

Reservations are required. Call 863-386-5690 Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Fridays 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. for the following test dates:

- Lakeshore Mall (near Sears on the north end) at 901 U.S. 27 S., Sebring from 8-10 a.m. Aug. 25.

- Lake Placid Camp & Conference Center at 2665 Placid View Drive, Lake Placid from 8-10 a.m. Aug. 27.

- The Shoppes at Avon Park at 1583 U.S. 27 N., Avon Park from 8-10 a.m. Aug. 26.

Glades County broke its three-day run of no increases. The previous day’s results for only 14 tested showed six positive for a positive rate of 42.86%.

From the 55 tests in Hendry County, there were nine (16.36%) who were positive.

Nationwide, there have been 5,532,566 COVID-19 cases with 173,241 deaths.

Worldwide, there have been 22,460,293 cases with 788,803 deaths.

Talking about masks: Commissioners agree to revisit mask question at each meeting

SEBRING — After discussion Tuesday, the Board of County Commission went along with requests to revisit the question of a mask mandate.

By a non-unanimous consensus, commissioners agreed that they could discuss the issue along with each regular meeting’s report from Emergency Manager LaTosha Reiss about the state of COVID-19 infections in the county.

They did not agree to have a new hearing on a mandate, unless Reiss’ report and that discussion called for it.

County residents Michelle Gresham and Margaret Hamilton both spoke in favor of reopening the matter.

When Hamilton came to the podium, wearing a mask, she asked if commissioners could hear her. Commissioner Arlene Tuck, grinning, said she couldn’t.

“I’m sorry. Can you hear me now?” Hamilton then belted into the microphone and through the house speakers.

The sharply increased volume caused Commissioner Ron Handley, several yards away to put his hand to his left ear.

“No. You just sound muffled,” Tuck answered.

“Well, it’s going to be muffled,” Hamilton said, then asked again, softer, if people could hear her.

Hamilton reminded commissioners that when they voted on July 21 not to have a mandate and to strongly recommend people wear masks, Commissioner Don Elwell suggested they could revisit the issue if matters got “exponentially worse.”

“And I think they have,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton said 15 people had died in the county in the five months before July 21, and 26 had died in the four weeks since then. It’s an average increase from three deaths per month to 6.5 per week.

Even though the county’s epidemic status had been downgraded to spreading, “that’s still up there,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton said children returning to schools, elections taking place, winter visitors returning and eventual increases in holiday shopping, gatherings and festivals would pose the types of gatherings the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises against in a pandemic.

She cautioned about the danger of evacuation or sheltering for hurricanes and the pending flu season in the midst of a pandemic.

Hamilton asked commissioners if they would consider a mandate right away, making it an agenda item, advertised to the public for discussion in a public meeting, giving everyone a chance to speak on the new data.

“I think we [need] to address this issue before it gets any more too late, because being too late is not going to make it get better,” Hamilton said.

Elwell said he didn’t think it a bad idea to have this as a continuing agenda item, especially since infection rates could turn either way at any time.

Handley readily suggested having a discussion at each meeting during the COVID-19 update, but Tuck disagreed.

“I really feel we’ve already taken a stand on this and that’s the way it should stand. I’m sorry you two ladies keep coming every time and asking the same thing,” Tuck said, correcting herself to point out Gresham, “and of all the emails I’ve got on this [people say] ‘Do not go mandate.’ You two are the only ones that I’ve ever heard say that.”

“OK, we’ve all heard from both sides, and I’ve heard more than just two that want to bring it back, and I’m sure we all have,” Handley said. “Let’s just agree to put it on the agenda and we can discuss it and we can just keep rolling that forward.”

Commissioner Greg Harris repeated his concerns that Highlands County Sheriff Paul Blackman should be in on the discussion because enforcement would fall on him, and funding enforcement would fall on the county.

Elwell said that was a good point, but added that if the situation spirals, the county might need to enact a mandate and have officers enforce it as best as they can.

“I hate to say it: It’s kind of like speed limits on [U.S.] 27. They’re not looking at those very often,” Elwell said. “I don’t see a whole lot of enforcement there either, but the speed limit’s there and most people are following it.”

“Without any of us saying it’s going to be there, it’s in all our minds,” Handley said, noting that the County Commission has the option of calling an emergency meeting and taking action. “We’re watching it and we are very cognizant of the issues.”

Hamilton reminded Elwell how, when he spoke of shorter fire and emergency response times, that he said “one life matters.” She said six lives per week matter.

Gresham said many people want a mandate, not just two, then took issue with Tuck saying at a previous meeting regarding children returning to schools that hand washing is more effective than masks.

“That is not true,” Gresham said.

As for a resolution recommending masks, Gresham said the county had a Second Amendment resolution “that does nothing to benefit this county.”

“You bring that up every time,” Tuck said.

“Yes, Ma’am, and I do and I will,” Gresham replied. “This will help slow the spread of a disease that is killing people.”

Gresham then said the matter wasn’t political, but something she believes will help keep people alive and from getting sick.

“It does affect our economy,” Gresham said. “It is not political, not political at all. We’re trying to stop the spread of a deadly virus. There’s no agenda here. It’s to keep people alive and keep our economy going, at the same time.”

She said other counties have mandates and enforce them, she said, and she believes Highlands County can, too.