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Record increase in COVID-19 cases brings state total near 86K

SEBRING — Wednesday’s record daily increase of 3,207 COVID-19 cases pushed the Florida total to 85,926 cases with 3,061 deaths.

Highlands County added three cases for a total of 200 while Hardee County increased by seven to 228, Okeechobee County increased by seven to 207 and Glades County increased by two to 121.

The number of cases by zip code in Highlands includes: Sebring 33870 at 66; Avon Park 33825 at 57; Lake Placid 33852 at 29; Sebring 33875 at 9 and Sebring 33876 at 7.

The 200 Highlands cases includes two non-Florida residents. Among the 198 resident cases, there have been 95 male and 103 female cases within an age range of 0-91 with a median age of 51.

According to the dashboard, three have been 6,119 people tested thus far in Highlands County. Only six of those are still awaiting results. Statewide, 1,512,315 million have been tested with 1,425,386 million of those with negative results.

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

Hendry County continues to have very high numbers for a rural county with 25 new cases for a total of 700, according to data from the Florida Department of Health.

More than two-thirds of the new cases are in the seven counties that had triple digit increases: Miami-Dade with 581, Palm Beach with 382, Hillsborough with 337, Orange with 316, Broward with 299, Lee with 167, Duval with 115 and Seminole with 100.

The Miami-Dade County totals of 23,854 cases and 859 deaths are the highest in Florida.

Statewide there were 43 more deaths compared to the Wednesday dashboard count, with deaths of people who tested positive in Alachua, Broward, Charlotte, Collier, Miami-Dade, Duval, Escambia, Hillsborough, Lake, Lee, Manatee, Martin, Palm Beach, Pinellas, Polk, Seminole, St. Johns and Volusia counties.

Nationwide, there have been 2,168,414 cases with 117,832 deaths.

Worldwide, there have been 8,391,551 cases with 449,898 deaths.

Fireworks will still fly

SEBRING — Many events have been postponed or canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but fireworks will fly at Independence Day celebrations throughout the county. All three municipalities will have a fireworks show but missing will be many of the festivities that encourage gatherings.

City officials have stressed social distancing, hand washing and the CDC precautions.

“The state does not mandate wearing masks,” Avon Park City Manager Mark Schrader said. “I would recommend that people wear masks among groups. COVID-19 has not gone yet.”

Sun ‘N Lake Improvement District will be hosting a fireworks show at 9 p.m. Friday, July 3 but has decided to cancel the normal festivities of its Independence Day celebrations. The rockets red glare can be seen over Hog Lake off Edgewater Drive. Many residents can view the fireworks display from their homes and there are grassy open areas to view them along Edgewater Drive.

Lake Placid will host its annual show that is put on by the Jaycees at dark, about 9 p.m., on the Fourth of July. Sun ‘N Lake Improvement District will be hosting a fireworks show at 9 p.m. Friday, July 3 but has decided to cancel the normal festivities of its Independence Day celebrations. The fireworks will light up the sky over Lake June in Winter and can be seen at the public boat ramps around the lake. The grassy areas of Lake June Ball Park are a popular spot to watch the show.

The City of Sebring will also be firing off pyrotechnics at 9 p.m. on the Fourth of July. The fireworks will be shot off a barge on Lake Jackson that is anchored off City Pier Beach.

Sebring Assistant City Administrator Bob Hoffman said the show’s price tag is $20,000, the same as last year. The City of Sebring put $7,500 toward the bill. Contributions from local businesses and individuals pick up the rest of the tab. Hoffman said they were still a couple hundred dollars short but was confident the difference would be made up by July 4.

The fireworks in Sebring can be seen from many different spots. Hoffman suggests Veteran’s Beach, Hidden Beach and along U.S. 27. There is no parking on the lake side of U.S. 27, so parking would have to be done on privately owned land. Several public parking spots are available near the lake downtown. Patriotic music will be provided by Mobile Music and More DJ Services.

Avon Park will follow suit with fireworks being set off at 9 p.m. over Lake Verona of July 4The City of Sebring will also be firing off pyrotechnics at 9 p.m. on the Fourth of July. Donaldson Park is a favorite viewing area.

Good news of live performances: Highlands Lakeside Threatre, at 356 W. Center Ave. in Sebring, will be hosting its traditional Patriotic Revue with limited capacity. The shows will start at 11 a.m. and run on the hour until 3 p.m. The performances last about a half hour. The City of Sebring will also be firing off pyrotechnics at 9 p.m. on the Fourth of JulyThe performances are free, but donations are appreciated. Funds will be used for scholarships and camperships. For more information, call 863-382-2525.

The 26th annual Firecracker 5K will look far different as it is being held virtually this year. Complete your 3.1-mile or 5k run/walk distance between now and July 4th on a route in your neighborhood, on a treadmill or park. Report the time to Race Director Chet Brojek via email at cbrojek@comcast.net.

The race supports Avon Park High School Cross Country teams and local youth runs. Shirts, medals and a bib will be given to participants. Register to race at endurancesportstiming.com.

School district to hold town hall meetings

SEBRING— Superintendent Brenda Longshore will hold three town hall meetings to share the planning process, and to seek community input, on the reopening of schools in August.

Longshore said Tuesday it looks like about 73% of the parents prefer their children return to school.

“I am hopeful that the town hall meetings will provide a platform to share new procedures and processes to increase the confidence of our parents to have their children return to school in August,” she said.

The announcement of the town hall meetings quotes Longshore as saying, “as we move through the planning process together, input from parents and families is vital.”

CDC guidelines will be followed for the meetings with the room occupancy limited to 50 people with appropriate social distancing, however each town hall will be livestreamed online.

The district’s school reopening task force will be utilizing Gov. Ron DeSantis’ school reopening plan as it takes its next steps toward a safe and healthy return to school in the fall. Also, the district will be using the feedback from the parent back-to-school survey, which was posted on June 11.

As the district moves through the reopening planning process, it will keep Highlands County families updated, according to the announcement.

DeSantis’ schools reopening recommendations include opening up campuses for youth activities and summer camps in June, expanding campus capacities further for summer recovery instruction in July and opening up campuses at full capacity in August for a traditional start of the academic year.

While The School Board of Highlands plans for a traditional reopening of schools, with additional safety measures, the district is enhancing its Highlands Virtual School so it is ready to enroll students in K-12 if parents would prefer that their children stay at home.

A blended reopening is also being considered using a combination of in-person and virtual learning.

The School Board of Highlands County’s Reopening Schools Town Hall Meetings will be 6-7:30 p.m. at all locations:

• Monday, June 22 at Lake Placid Middle School.

• Tuesday, June 23 at Avon Park High School.

• Thursday, June 25 at Sebring Middle School.

Farmworkers: DeSantis' remarks 'shameful'

TALLAHASSEE — Farm workers are pushing back after Gov. Ron DeSantis said clusters of “overwhelmingly Hispanic” day laborers and agriculture workers are the source for Florida’s recent surge in coronavirus cases.

The Republican governor told reporters on Tuesday that migrant workers and Hispanic construction workers have been testing positive for COVID-19, in part, because of cramped living and working conditions.

“Some of these guys go to work in a school bus, and they are all just packed there like sardines, going across Palm Beach County or some of these other places, and there’s all these opportunities to have transmission,” DeSantis said during a press conference in Tallahassee.

Between June 4 and June 11, for example, Florida reported 8,886 new COVID-19 cases. During the past three days alone, it had 7,151 new cases.

DeSantis pointed to cases in migrant camps, a watermelon farm and Immokalee, a major hub for tomato production, to explain the uptick.

The Collier County community, with roughly 24,000 residents, has logged nearly 1,200 cases as of Wednesday, according to the Florida Department of Health.

But members of the tightly knit agricultural enclave say it isn’t the farmworkers’ fault that they are getting sick.

They maintain the federal government has deemed them “essential workers” and the state has been slow to provide the community with the resources farmworker advocates have requested to slow the spread of the highly contagious virus.

Antonio Tovar, executive director of the Farmworker Association of Florida, accused DeSantis of ignoring pleas from a coalition of 50 groups that asked the governor for help in late April.

“We sent this letter to the governor more than two months ago and now he is realizing that foreign workers are more suitable to get infected. That is very shameful because he was advised, he was told when we sent the letter,” Tovar told The News Service of Florida on Wednesday.

The letter asked DeSantis, Florida Cabinet members and state lawmakers to expand access to COVID-19 testing in rural areas, provide more personal protective gear to farmworkers and offer alternative housing options to workers who live in crowded conditions.

When the request went unanswered, Tovar said the association enlisted three women to make more than 200 cloth face coverings for workers.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried also highlighted the farmworkers’ plight in a 10-page report submitted to a task force set up by the governor to make recommendations about reopening the state following widespread shutdowns in response to the novel coronavirus.

Fried asked the task force to provide better health care services to farmworkers to prevent the spread of COVID-19, noting that less than half of farm workers have health insurance. She also called on the state to provide more face coverings for workers and less crowded housing options.

DeSantis’ spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferre said the governor long ago targeted the agriculture industry as potentially high risk for the spread of COVID-19.

“For months, Governor DeSantis has been speaking about the importance of proactively testing in areas of high risk, such as agriculture areas where migrant/farm workers tend to live and travel in confined spaces that are conducive to the spread of this disease,” she said in an email on Wednesday.

The Department of Health has worked to “strengthen and foster relationships” with farming communities and migrant camps by distributing face masks and COVID-19 “testing opportunities, ” agency spokesman Alberto Moscoso told the News Service on Wednesday.

But Tovar said some of the resources came in May, after the virus had already infiltrated the Southwest Florida farming community.

“It is too little too late,” he said. “It was about two weeks ago when the department (DOH) sent an email to a lot of organizations saying, ‘Hey! We received 2 million face masks. If you want we can give you face masks.’ ”

Further complicating the situation, many farm workers who work in Florida have struggled to learn about COVID-19 because of a language barrier.

“There’s a lot of information in English, but what about Spanish? There is not. So, that is why we decided to do it ourselves,” Tovar said in a telephone interview.

Many farm workers rely on YouTube and Spanish-language radio for news updates, he said. To reach the community, Tovar recorded dozens of educational videos in Spanish and posted them on Youtube. He spoke about the benefits of using face masks, what to do if people show symptoms of a respiratory illness, and measures to take to slow the spread of the virus.

The DeSantis administration also has tried to reach out to Spanish-speaking Floridians about the pandemic.

For example, Lt. Gov. Jeannette Nunez has made regular appearances on Spanish-language radio shows, according to her public schedules.

And Moscoso said the health department has used radio advertisements, social media, flyers and billboards to spread the message about COVID-19 in multiple languages.

Silvia Perez, who works for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, said she has spent months knocking on doors to distribute pamphlets and educate people about the virus.

Perez said she visits neighborhoods where farmworkers live and uses a loudspeaker to announce when coronavirus testing is available in the area.

Perez said DeSantis’ comments on Tuesday were hurtful to Immokalee workers, who are reeling from the deaths of some of their colleagues and the spread of the virus throughout the farming community.

“Our community is very small so when a worker loses their life, the community notices and comes together to raise money to help send the worker back to their home country,” she said. “When you hear those comments, it’s like ... Wow, why does he not value us?”