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Your Wednesday Update: Orlando International Fringe Theatre Fest Goes Virtual; Florida Community Health Centers Get Funding for PPE, COVID-19 Tests; Florida Citrus Commission Puts More Money Into Digital Advertising

Photo: Kyle Head
Photo: Kyle Head

Virtual Orlando International Fringe Theatre Fest begins

Nicole Darden Creston, WMFE

The 29th Annual Orlando International Fringe Theatre Fest started at 6:00 Tuesday evening…kind of. 

The Orlando Fringe was supposed to kick off yesterday in its traditional way, with hundreds of plays taking over theaters in the Loch Haven Park complex for two weeks.

The pandemic nixed that plan, so in its place comes “Fringe Today,” a daily Facebook Live series that runs the duration of the original festival.  

Orlando Fringe Executive Director Alauna Friskics says Fringe Today is not a replacement for the festival. But it will host plays and other familiar Fringe staples.

"It’s also going to have an outdoor stage, visual Fringe, Kids Fringe events, so everyone in your family can enjoy it from the comfort of your own home," Friskics said.

Find the Fringe Today stream on the Orlando Fringe Facebook page.

Navigating risk as Florida reopens

Alexander Gonzalez, WLRN
South Florida is beginning to reopen and that could mean navigating some risky behaviors. John Quelch is a consumer behavior expert and dean of the University of Miami’s business school. He says there are people prone to risk who aren’t worried about wearing masks during a pandemic. "The notion that, 'I just don’t like wearing a mask. It’s uncomfortable. It’s unsightly. I’m a good looking guy. I need to be seen and know that I’m being seen'," Quelch said. Quelch says risk perception depends on the situation. People might perceive a visit to a park as safer than eating indoors at a restaurant. Broward and Miami-Dade counties are discussing their reopening plans — with a target date of Monday. Palm Beach County reopened this week.

Tallahassee maker space gives away face shields

Tom Flanigan, WFSU When the pandemic hit, Tallahassee's Making Awesome maker space went into the face shield production business. So far the facility has crafted more than 1,500 shields and given all of them away.

Making Awesome Board Member Alan Hanstein says it began when the federal government approved 3-D printer software for medical face shields and made it available to everyone. "There was something we could do to give back to the community. It's interesting because if not, all of those 3-D printers, the whole space, would be idle right now," Hanstein said. Instead, it's been a hotbed of activity with free face shields going out to medical professionals and first responders from Tallahassee to Chattahoochee. Now Hanstein says Making Awesome wants to honor other organizations that are doing similar things. "You will see a very unique award that will be given out to all of those people who have given back to the community by producing PPE for medical professionals and those that need it," Hanstein said. Hanstein says nominations are still being taken for the rest of this week at the Making Awesome web site.

As tourism recovers, Leon County will stress natural attractions

Tom Flanigan, WFSU Leon County will never equal Central Florida as a visitor destination. But County Commission Chair Bryan Desloge thinks it may become more competitive as tourists avoid big crowds and look for smaller, safer, more natural places to visit. "You know, we had a billion dollars of economic impact from tourism last year. And in no small part, the outdoors and the recreation things and the trails. And frankly what they're expecting is not a lot of air travel, not a lot of international travel; a lot of regional travel. And we're the kind of market that is perfect," Desloge said. Meanwhile, Desloge says the county's drop in sales and other taxes connected with the pandemic now exceeds fifteen million dollars.

Americans are driving less and snacking more

Scott Horsley, NPR Gasoline prices dropped like a rock last month but food prices shot up the most in nearly 50 years. Both have something to do with how we're living these days. Overall, we're spending less and spending differently than we did just a few months ago. And that's affecting consumer prices for everything from pasta to auto insurance. New  inflation numbers out Tuesday from the Labor Department offer a window on how consumers are coping in the COVID-19 era. Most of us aren't driving much, so gasoline prices tumbled 20.6% last month. The price of auto insurance also dropped in April, by 7.2% — more than any other month on record. "With people driving less, that will inevitably mean fewer accidents," said Sean Kevelighan, CEO of the Insurance Information Institute. Auto insurers are offering discounts and refunds  totaling more than $10 billion this year. Kevelighan warns, however, that with fewer cars on the road, some people are driving faster. That means the accidents that do happen are often more costly. "In fact, people are driving more recklessly at this time. And so that means we're having more injuries and greater damage," he said. The new inflation report is filled with mixed messages like that. Overall, consumer prices were down 0.8% in April — the sharpest drop since the Great Recession in 2008. But food prices at the grocery store jumped 2.6% — the biggest jump since 1974, when double-digit inflation became a national concern. The price of pasta and rice bubbled up 2.5% in April. Hamburger prices ground up 4.8%. And anyone who bought cookies had to lay out 5.1% more dough. Americans had grown used to spending more than half their food budgets on meals eaten outside the home. But that changed abruptly when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Restaurants closed their doors and families were forced to cook for themselves. "We saw an immediate, drastic decrease in expenditures away from home and an increase in the expenditures that we made at the grocery store," said David Ortega, a food economist at Michigan State University. Ortega sees the change in his own habits. Instead of buying a prepared coffee at the campus bagel shop, he's making his own coffee at home with store-bought beans. He's also shopping for his wife and two-year-old daughter. "Yep, I have to now go to the grocery store and make sure we have snacks and goldfish crackers and just about everything that's going up in price," Ortega said. There's little evidence that people's overall food consumption has increased (although the price of snacks jumped 3.8% last month). But  where and  what we're eating has shifted. And that's created some costly kinks in the supply chain. Something similar  famously happened with toilet paper, where household demand soared while office supplies went unused. Household paper prices jumped 4.5% last month. There are a handful of other categories where prices rose — including hospital care (up 0.5%) and funerals (up 0.3%). But while Americans are spending more on necessities like pasta and toilet paper, they're cutting back on everything else. "Accordingly, prices are falling. Apparel was down on the month again. Airline fares are plummeting. Hotel prices [are] down," said Kathy Bostjancic, chief U.S. financial economist for Oxford Economics. The price of used cars dropped 0.4% last month and could fall further if rental car companies decide they have too many cars and sell some of their surplus. There could be some bargains on the used car lot. But with millions of Americans suddenly out of work, it's not clear who will want to buy. "Therein lies the issue," Bostjancic said. "And that's why you're seeing across the consumer spectrum deep discounting." If you take out volatile food and gasoline prices, the cost of everything else fell 0.4% last month. Over the last year, these so-called "core prices" rose just 1.4%. That suggests the government could afford to keep borrowing and spending money on emergency relief programs without fear of runaway prices. "Inflation is the least of our worries right now," Bostjancic said.

Florida Community Health Centers to get funding for COVID-19 tests, PPE, and more

Robbie Gaffney, WFSU Florida Community Health Centers are getting more than 28 million dollars from the federal government to cover COVID-19-related costs. That includes testing, personal protective equipment, staff training, patient outreach, and setting up drive-through or walk-up test sites. This is the third round of funds given to the state by the Health Resources and Services Administration. Governor Ron DeSantis has said ramping up testing will be crucial in getting things back to normal in Florida. In Tallahassee, some residents have been charged upwards of 175 dollars to get a test at some offices. HRSA Administrator Tom Engles says community health centers could charge some patients, but won’t turn anyone away. "If they have some form of insurance, the insurance may be charged for that care. But again, anybody that comes in regardless of their ability to pay the health center will see them. So a health center will work with the individual patient on—if they’re asking for testing they will work with that individual to get that testing," Engles said. Engles says since the pandemic began, Florida has received about 96 million dollars in total from his administration.

Florida Citrus Commission to put more money into digital ad campaign

Robbie Gaffney, WFSU The Florida Citrus Commission will be adding more than 200,000 dollars to a continuing ad campaign meant to increase sales of orange juice. Most of the money is coming from employee travel plans that were cancelled due to the coronavirus.

Twenty years ago, Florida used to produce about 200 million boxes of oranges a year. The News Service of Florida reports for the 2019-2020 growing season, the state is projected to produce about 69 boxes, weighing about 90 pounds each. Part of the decline comes from the impacts of hurricanes, citrus greening disease, reduction in acres due to rapid development, and people changing their drinking habits. To combat this the Florida Citrus Commission has decided to invest more money into a digital ad campaign. It's targeted at parents between the ages of 30 and 60 that have recently stopped buying orange juice.

Key Westers protest in favor of opening islands to visitors

Nancy Klingener, WLRN The Florida Keys have been closed to visitors since March 22. Five days after that, the county put up a checkpoint at the Monroe County line. Only people who live, own property or work in the Keys are allowed in. On Tuesday some people in Key West said it's time to open back up. Historic Tours of America has 350 employees in Key West running Conch Trains and trolleys and operating attractions like the Key West Aquarium. Ed Swift is the company's president. He led a protest at a busy Key West intersection calling on the county to allow hotels to open and remove the checkpoint. "It's time. It's time. Our people need to work. They need the money for their families," Swift said. Tourism provides about 44 percent of jobs in the Keys. Bonnie Bowik has run fishing charters out of Key West for 10 years. "We just want to fish. We want them to open the hotels so people can come in, fly in, they don't have to open the border but let 'em fly in so we can all get a little bit of work, maybe not a lot right away but we need to get started. Because we have no income," Bowik said. Monroe County says it plans to remain closed to visitors at least through the end of the month. Officials say they worry that too many cases of COVID-19 would overwhelm the local health care system.

Broward County commissioners workshop reopening ideas ahead of May 18 target

Caitie Switalksi, WLRN Broward County commissioners are trying to get ready for a phase one reopening. During a special virtual workshop Tuesday the commission swapped ideas for things like, how to open up restaurants, and businesses. County Administrator Bertha Henry said she is also talking with Miami-Dade County, to coordinate more. "We do know that this virus is still active in our community...every resident has a role in this," Henry said. Some commissioners still have concerns, including Barbara Sharief. "Maybe it's not that we go straight into phase one like we've been talking about, maybe we phase phase one a little bit more, until people understand the importance of good hygiene, good social distancing, wearing the masks" Sharief said. The governor still has to approve any plans. Despite support from most of the Broward commissioners -- the current version does NOT include opening beaches.

4-H making masks for those in need

Blaise Gainey, WFSU More businesses, and even communities, are requiring people to wear masks. But getting ahold of one can be difficult. Now 4-H, a life skills youth organization, is teaching its members to make masks. They’ll be distributed to those in need.

John Lilley is the Director for the 4-H group in Jefferson County. He says his members have made more than 250 masks for nursing homes in the area. “Before we even started making masks I reached out to the directors of both of the nursing homes and they were just overwhelmed. Said yes they were ecstatic yes please we need them because at that particular time everybody was low on PPE," Lilley said. Jefferson County’s group is just one of the 18 4-H groups across Florida making masks. Rachel Pienta a 4-H agent in Wakulla County says they’ve made masks available for free to anyone. "They’ve all actually been giving them away for free to family members and first responders and pretty much anyone who’s asked. They’ve just been doing it as a service to the community," Pienta said. Pienta says a lot of the connections and orders have come in through Facebook. Some require shipping and others are delivered locally.

Price gouging refunds reach half million dollars

Tom Urban, WLRN New numbers show Floridians have now received nearly half a million dollars in refunds from businesses, related to products that had seen their prices inflated because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Florida’s price gouging hotline has been contacted approximately 4,400 times and more than 497,000 dollars have been returned to Floridians since a state of emergency was declared two months ago, due to the coronavirus. Attorney General Ashley Moody's office has contacted over 6,300 businesses about price gouging allegations. Moody says her office will continue to go after those looking to take advantage of the current situation, so Floridians can continue to protect themselves. “We want to make sure these essential commodities like cleaning supplies and protective gear are available to them at a fair price. So, as long as this COVID-19 emergency is in place, we will keep fighting," Moody said. Those who violate Florida’s price gouging law face penalties of one thousand dollars per violation, up to 25,000 dollars per day.

Florida ER visits plummet, virus scares patients from care

The Associated Press

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Emergency room visits have dropped by almost 50% across Florida since the pandemic began and hospital officials are warning that patients suffering from heart attacks and strokes are delaying or refusing care because they are afraid of hospitals.

In Broward County, twice as many people were already dead by the time first responders arrived in April, compared to a year earlier.

UF Health Jacksonville recently started public service announcements assuring residents it’s safe to seek treatment after ER visits dropped 40%.

Broward Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Joshua Lenchus says “People are waiting to come to the hospital until it’s too late and then they die.”

Florida's 2 biggest counties preparing to reopen

The Associated Press

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Florida's two largest and hardest-hit counties are making plans to reopen from the coronavirus economic shutdown.

Miami-Dade and Broward counties are hoping to begin reopening Monday, joining the rest of the counties that began last week.

The current Miami-Dade and Broward plan would mirror the rest of the state.  Restaurants and retailers would have to keep crowds to 25% of capacity.

Schools and youth activities, theaters and sports venues would remain closed. Nursing home and hospital visitations would still be prohibited.

Limited reopening for Universal's entertainment district

The Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — After being shuttered for almost two months, Universal Orlando plans to allow the reopening of some restaurants and shops on a limited basis in the theme park resort’s entertainment district this week.

Company officials say about a half-dozen restaurants and eateries, as well as two retail shops and some merchandise carts, will reopen at Universal Orlando Citywalk on Thursday.

It's a sign of the baby steps Orlando’s theme parks are taking to get back to business after they closed in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Next week, Walt Disney World will allow some third-party shops and restaurants in its Disney Springs entertainment district to reopen.

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

Danielle Prieur covers education in Central Florida.