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Your Thursday Update: Uber Offers Free Rides for Domestic Violence Victims, Initial Jobless Claims in Florida Are Down This Week, Bird Sightings are Up as Humans Stay Indoors

Photo: Mitchel Lensink
Photo: Mitchel Lensink

The number of women who need shelter from cases of domestic violence has gone up during the COVID-19 pandemic

Daniel Rivero, WLRN Constance Collins is president of the Lotus House shelter in Miami. She told the City of Miami commission today they’ve had to hire additional staff to address the increase.

"We are seeing enormous demand from women and children for shelter. Many with domestic violence issues. Lotus House has become not just shelter but home school and after school. Home school and after school, with a whole host of after school activities and programmings for our 250 children," Collins said. About 480 women and children are being sheltered at Lotus House. Collins asked the city commission for additional money to continue serving the population. They expected about 400,00 dollars but have only received about 100,000 dollars. Also in the meeting, city leaders learned that 18 homeless residents of the city of Miami have tested positive for COVID-19. That’s out of more than 500 tests conducted.

Scent preservation kits can help find Alzheimer's and dementia patients during the coronavirus pandemic

Robbie Gaffney, WFSU Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare’s Vicky Rose says COVID-19 is disrupting the routine of those who have Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia.  She says that could cause some problems—like wandering and getting lost—to get worse.  Now, the Florida Department of Elder Affairs is partnering with Scent Evidence K9 to hand out scent preservation kits.  These kits are meant to help K9s locate lost loved ones faster. Company founder and CEO, Paul Coley, says when there are multiple people in a home, their scents mix together, making it harder for K9s to lock onto the right scent. “I refer to it as the Pig-Pen effect. If you’ve seen Pig-Pen from Charlie Brown, the way the dust comes off of him that’s how human odor works. So in a home that odor travels and can contaminate any potential scent articles," Coley said. Coley says even if its dirty laundry, a family member’s scent could be on the garment. He explains that the kits allow caregivers to collect someone’s scent and isolate it for years to come.  The Florida Department of Elder Affairs says 50 kits will be given to the Memory Disorder Clinic at Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare. 2,000 will be distributed statewide.

The ride-sharing company Uber is now offering free trips to shelters for victims of domestic violence

Tom Urban, WLRN When someone calls Florida’s domestic violence hotline and has no other way to escape their home, the local shelter can order an Uber ride to pick the person up at no cost. According to the attorney general’s office, there has been an increase in domestic violence calls since mid-March, but contacts to shelters and counseling services are decreasing. Attorney General Ashley Moody says some victims likely feel trapped, because they are less likely to have the opportunity to get away from their abuser. “As we are encouraging people to social distance and stay at home more, we absolutely do not want those that are being abused to be home, trapped with their abusers," Moody said. Currently, the service is available in Orange, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Miami-Dade counties, but it could be expanded further. Florida’s domestic violence hotline is staffed 24 hours a day and can be reached at 1-800-500-1119.

Bird sightings are up during the coronavirus pandemic, as humans stay indoors

Cary Barbor, WGCU  If the stay-at-home order has allowed you to get to know your local birds better, you can contribute what you're seeing to a worldwide scientific effort.  This Saturday, May 9th, is the Global Big Day, an initiative managed by the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. Sally Stein of the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary explains how wide-ranging the effort is: "Last year they had 174 countries submit data from birds that were in peoples’ backyards," Stein said. To participate, people can create a free account on ebird.org, or download the app, then submit bird sightings. The site will gather the data to help inform bird research worldwide.

Initial jobless claims in Florida down this week compared with last

Brendan Byrne, WMFE Initial jobsless claims in Florida dropped by more than half last week compared to the prior week. That’s According to U.S. Department of Labor figures released today. Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity says 1.1 million unique claims have been filed with the state’s unemployment system, but less than half have received benefits.  DEO has been shutting down its online portal at night to fast-track approving or denying claims.  Restaurant server Hilda Renteria-Hernandez says she's been waiting since March 20 to hear about her status.  “I’m really angry that I’m having to wait so long for these benefits that the governor or the government could fix. I just want to say I want these benefits to be fixed. I want this system to be fixed," Renteria-Hernandez said. The unemployment system has struggled to keep up with the demand of out-of-work Floridians.  Governor Ron DeSantis announced an investigation into the 78 million dollar unemployment system, approved by then Governor Rick Scott.

Players with Orlando City SC began individual training sessions at the team’s facilities in Kissimmee

Danielle Prieur, WMFE Executive Vice President of Soccer Operations Luiz Muzzi said it’s uncertain whether group practices will still begin on May 15. Muzzi said the decision will ultimately be made at the national level by the MLS, but if it was up to him they would have started sooner. “If this was a league in Orlando, man, I feel like we could have started last week because conditions are different. But we have to be very careful and we have to be conscious about things that may happen and we don’t want to happen," Muzzi said. Muzzi said players are bringing their own gear to practice and any shared equipment is sanitized between uses. He said in conversations with players it’s clear they’re ready to get back on the pitch. “The conversations have been centered on how do we get back that has been the focus of the conversations not because we’re pushing it that way but because that’s how they’re feeling," Muzzi said. He said the team still plans on playing all the games in their regular season, but that the first few games might be played without fans in the stands. Germany’s Bundesliga announced today its first game will be played on May 15.

CDC warns federal prisons and jails to identify COVID-19 cases quickly

Joe Byrnes, WMFE A CDC report says America's prisons and jails need to identify COVID-19 cases quickly and apply consistent measures against the pandemic. This is needed to protect inmates, workers and the communities around them. By late April, at least 15 workers and 88 prisoners had died of COVID-19 across the country. As for Florida, it has seven reported inmate deaths, and the virus is rampant in several prisons. Crowding in the shared environment, as well as infections brought in by staff and new intakes, create a particular challenge. People showing no signs of the virus can spread it, so symptom screening isn't enough. The CDC urges physical distancing, movement restrictions, masks, intensive cleaning and disinfecting of high-touch areas.  The report says some places have reduced crowding by eliminating bail or releasing inmates to home confinement. And testing could be important.

Mosquitoes can't spread coronavirus, but protection is still important

Angela Cordoba Perez, WUSF Mosquito activity is picking up, and some are concerned by the diseases that they carry. Fortunately, COVID-19 is not one of them. According to RJ Montgomery, the director of Hillsborough County mosquito management services, there is no scientific evidence that the bugs can transmit coronavirus to humans or other animals. “Mosquitoes have an immune system themselves and they have to become infected and then replicate that virus. There are a lot of pathogens that mosquitoes are unable to do that with and COVID-19 is one," Montgomery said. However, they do transmit other illnesses like West Nile Virus and encephalitis, which is common in Florida, so Montgomery says taking precautions at home and protecting yourself when you go out is important.

Tallahassee Memorial therapy dogs help salute nurses

Tom Flanigan, WFSU Workers heading to and from the evening shift change at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital received a unique honor last night. Dozens of the hospital's therapy dogs and their handlers were lined up along Surgeon's Drive in salute.

It was a very special Nurses Day observance. Not only nurses, but all hospital employees arriving to start their shift or those leaving for the day got a heroes welcome from about forty Animal Therapy staff and their canine companions. Among them was Cindy Burgess and her four legged pal "Dolly." Burgess believed it would give hospital staffers a welcome respite. "I think it's very important! I've always thought the dogs were a calming effect on anybody. Just looking at them it makes you smile because - well, Dolly's so cute - and you know I've been through my troubles too and they always helped. Petting the dog, looking at them. I think it's extremely important," Burgess said. Since the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, therapy animal visits in the hospital and other health care facilities have been suspended.

Many houses of worship have sought government aid, surveys show

Tom Gjelten, NPR  Religious leaders in America who have had qualms in the past about taking money from the government may be relenting under financial stress. Surveys suggest that between a quarter and a half of all Christian churches in the country have applied for emergency loans under the Small Business Administration's Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), with most of their applications approved for funding. Of the approximately 17,000 Catholic parishes in the country, about 10,000 applied for PPP loans in the first round of lending, according to Pat Markey, executive director of the Diocesan Fiscal Management Conference. Of those, 6,000 had their applications approved. About 3,000 additional parishes have been notified that their applications were accepted in the second round, Markey says. A  survey of Protestant pastors by LifeWay Research found that a somewhat smaller share of those congregations, about 40 percent, applied for PPP loans in the first round. More than half of them reported that they were approved for assistance, according to Scott McConnell, LifeWay's executive director. No data are available for the second round. "As the window of opportunity closes, the majority have chosen not to apply," McConnell says. Among the apparent motives, he says, were philosophical objections to taking money from the government, a sense that other institutions were in greater need of the assistance and a lack of the expertise or institutional support necessary to complete the application process. The LifeWay survey found that larger churches were more likely than smaller churches to seek financial aid. About half of the pastors of churches with an average weekly attendance of 200 or more reported that they had applied for loans, compared to a third of those with attendance of fewer than 50. Synagogues have also applied for government funding, though in a significantly smaller proportion. Of nearly 4,000 synagogues in the United States, about 250 were approved for PPP loans in the first round of lending, according to surveys by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. Even that number came as a surprise to some U.S. Jewish leaders, given that many in the past have expressed concerns about any erosion of church-state separation. In addition to the synagogues, more than 300 Jewish non-profit organizations such as schools, summer camps, community centers and senior homes have been approved for PPP loans, according to Rebecca Dinar, associate vice president of the Jewish Federations.

Workers lose effort to get the state to speed up processing unemployment claims

Steve Bousquet, WFSU As agonizing delays dragged on week after week with Florida’s overwhelmed re-employment assistance web site, some workers sued the state. They want a judge to force the state to immediately pay benefits. But after a 90-minute telephone hearing in Tallahassee, they got no relief. Because of the controversy surrounding Florida's broken benefits program, Wednesday’s hearing attracted an overwhelming amount of news media interest, so much that it took nearly 10 minutes for all the media outlets to identify themselves. After hearing arguments, Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey dismissed a lawsuit that sought a writ of mandamus. That’s typically sought in cases in which the government fails to perform a duty it is legally required to perform. Tallahassee lawyer Steve Andrews is one of the attorneys for the workers. "This isn’t like putting a man on the moon, this is like using a program that’s obsolete. So you, certainly have the right to issue an order, taking over the payment process and directing either DOE to hire a competent person to process these claims, or you find a competent company to process these claims,” Andrews said. Attorneys for the state cited numerous steps Governor Ron DeSantis has taken to speed up payment of benefits. One of the lawyers defending the state’s track record is James Uthmeier. “State employees by the thousands are working around the clock 12, 14-plus hour days to try to help Floridians. We know people are struggling out there. This unpredictable event, the coronavirus and its related implications, has really hurt people. We understand. The governor has taken numerous steps to try to help people,” Uthmeier said. The plaintiffs' attorney’s were infuriated with the state’s position that the current conditions are not an emergency. And they were dealt a further blow when Judge Dempsey didn’t rule in their favor. “I just don’t have the authority to rewrite the statute or create a whole new pay and chase system as the plaintiffs are suggesting,” Dempsey said. Wednesday’s hearing was mostly procedural, with very little detailed discussion of the difficulties workers are facing. The attorneys for the workers said they plan to immediately appeal Dempsey’s decision to the District Court of Appeal.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist expects 'legitimate immunity' for businesses against COVID-19 lawsuits to come from Washington

Ryan Dailey, WFSU At both the state and federal level, lawmakers are hearing from business-owning constituents who want protection from potential COVID-19-related lawsuits. Democratic Congressman Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg is the latest to address the issue.

Ibrahim Moussa, the owner of Clearwater restaurant Abe’s Place Tap & Grill, told U.S. Representative Charlie Crist he has employees still afraid to come to work. He’s worried, as the economy reopens, lawsuits could come from people claiming they got sick at his establishment. "We are not asking for immunity, but some sort of a safe harbor when we open, if we do our job, and do it to the best of our ability," Moussa said. Moussa was on a conference call hosted by Crist Wednesday, to share concerns from the hospitality industry. Crist is a lawyer who formerly served as Florida’s attorney general. "This is termed, in a legal sense, an act of God. So, it’s hard to hold any particular business (accountable) – not that people don’t try, we have a litigious society," Crist said. Crist expects coming legislation from Washington will include some sort of protection for business owners who do their part to prevent the spread of COVID-19. "I think additionally, in the legislation, previous and going forward, some kind of legitimate immunity would be included," Crist said. Crist’s legislative director, Chris Fisher, pointed out in order to protect them, state and federal health safety guidelines for businesses will be paramount – but those don’t exist yet. Republicans in Congress have reportedly prioritized protections for businesses as part of the next stimulus package. At the state level, Saint Petersburg Republican Senator Jeff Brandes said earlier this month he’s preparing a bill that would protect Florida businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits. Other states, including Alabama and Utah, have recently considered legislation that would do the same.

I got tested for coronavirus in Hillsborough County, here’s what to expect

Stephanie Colombini, WUSF My initial attempts to call were met with busy signals and a menu that wouldn't redirect me to testing when I'd hit the right key. I finally got through to someone and 45 minutes of mind-numbing hold music later I secured a 9 am slot at Raymond James Stadium. I signed my boyfriend Shean up too. He's been working at a grocery store since losing his server job at the start of the shutdown. The morning of our test we fed the dogs and got ready to go. We grabbed our face masks and IDs and hopped into Shean's truck. During the drive we talked about why we were doing this. We're both young and healthy, and we know that doesn't make us invincible but the threat is still low. I have to go into the station once a week, and Shean's constantly exposed to strangers at his job. And while we've been doing our best to stay home, we'd be lying if we said we were perfect. We pulled into the stadium and were directed onto a large field where we weaved through lanes of cones that led to a big white tent. A friendly woman wearing a blue Baycare shirt and face shield checked our names off a list and then we joined a few dozen other cars in line. Health workers in head-to-toe protective gear were able to handle several cars at once so it moved pretty quickly. After fifteen minutes or so it was our turn. In order to ensure my experience was the same as anyone else's I did not record the test itself but it was quick. We had braced ourselves to get sticks up our noses but learned they ran out of nasal swabs that morning -- we were not complaining. They told us the test would go to Quest Diagnostics and we'd get our results in 3 days. We left feeling really good about what we just did. We knew we were doing our part to help public health workers identify where this virus is and isn't. Three days turned into four and then Shean got an email. His results were in and negative. I was starting to get pretty frustrated. It took another day for mine to come in. It was also negative, but that was less comforting than expected. I'm still glad I got tested - at least I know for a period of time I wasn't infected or putting others at risk. And the state is working on it. Testing has already expanded significantly since the start of the outbreak and will have to continue to do so. But this experience has reinforced the need for me to keep up with proper distancing and cleaning because for now, it's the best way to know I'm safe.

FSU: Most classes online for Fall

Lynn Hatter, WFSU What could college classes look like when students return in the Fall? It’s likely fewer of them will meet in-person according to Florida State University Provost Sally McRorie. In an email to faculty, McRorie says some labs or courses that require special equipment or environments could meet in person while most others will need to be done through distance learning. In the April meeting of FSU’s Board of Trustees, university president John Thrasher said welcoming students back to campus depends largely on the health and safety situation. “I think we’re all waiting to see that. Hopefully the plateau is there. No one believes there’s going to be a vaccine but there may be some treatments that will be available. There are going to be some testing issues we’re going to have to deal with. A lot of logistics out there, before I would feel comfortable opening the university," Thrasher said. Thrasher says universities will need to make decisions for Fall around July. Florida A&M University President Larry Robinson has suggested testing students for the coronavirus may be considered. The State university system governing board has made a task force of university officials to make recommendations on how universities should proceed.

Florida seeks new ways to expand coronavirus testing

The Associated Press TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida will look to new ways to expand coronavirus testing, such as allowing tests at pharmacies and randomly checking blood donations for COVID-19 antibodies. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis discussed testing during a news conference in Miami. He also rolled out a mobile testing lab that will travel the state to do rapid tasting at long-term care facilities. State provided statistics show Florida has more than 38,000 confirmed cases resulting in more than 1,500 deaths. Of the fatalities, at least 577 have been long-term care residents or employees.

Four MLS teams allow individual workouts, more to follow

The Associated Press

Four Major League Soccer teams have taken the first small step toward returning to play by allowing players to use team training fields for individual workouts.

Sporting Kansas City, Atlanta United, Orlando City and Inter Miami had players in on the first day they were allowed by the league.

Nashville, LAFC, Real Salt Lake, Houston and Portland are among the league’s 26 teams that plan to start Thursday, with more lined up next week.

Click here to read more of WMFE’s reporting on the coronavirus pandemic.

Danielle Prieur covers education in Central Florida.