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Your Wednesday Update: Orange County Approves $1K Grants For Individuals, $10K For Small Businesses; Meet The Small Attractions Vying To Reopen, Pence to Visit Orlando Nursing Home, Researchers Demand Answers on Ousted Scientist

Photo: Science in HD
Photo: Science in HD

Orange County Approves $10,000 Grants For Small Businesses, $1,000 Grants For Individuals

By Abe Aboraya, WMFE Relief could be coming for Orange County residents and small business owners in the form of $1,000 grants for individuals and $10,000 grants for small businesses. Orange County got more than $243 million dollars through the federal CARES Act relief bill. The county has about $36 million dollars set aside for the individual grants. People can apply for the grants to pay for rent, medical bills and utilities. “The plan to start is June 1," said Orange County’ Director of Budget and Management Kurt Petersen. "The plan is to process 1,000 (applications) a week, hopefully 200 a day. It could take three weeks to process payments, but would send guarantee letters to the landlords to let them know of the funding commitment.” Additionally, the county is setting up grants for small brick and mortar businesses. The Orange County Commission approved a $72.9 million grant program for small businesses. Brick-and-mortar businesses with 25 or fewer employees would be eligible for a one-time $10,000 grant for regular business expenses. The county expects to give the grants to more than 6,000 businesses. “The program will offer one-time, $10,000 grants to qualifying small businesses to cover normal business expenses, vendor bills, rent, to help offset the significant temporary revenue to qualified small businesses,” Petersen said.

County Recommends Reopening Smaller I-Drive Attractions

By Abe Aboraya, WMFE An Orange County task force is recommending that eight smaller tourist attractions be allowed to reopen. The attractions include Gatorland, FunSpot, Wonderworks and K1 Speed. The businesses submitted plans showing how they would sanitize attractions, use face masks and temperature checks, and operate at no more than half capacity. Chuck Whittall, a developer on the committee, said he would rather have the county approve guidelines - and not have to certify that each individual attraction’s plan meets the criteria. “I just think you’re going to see an uproar from all those other ones if these eight are able to open and they’re not considered just because they’re not involved in this process,” Whittall said. The reopening plans would still need approval from the full Economic Recovery Task Force, which is meeting Thursday. They would also need approval from Gov. Ron DeSantis. Several of the attractions say they could open today if allowed, and could hire more than 1,000 employees back if allowed to open. The attractions looking to open are:

  • Nona Adventure Park, the inflatable water park in Lake Nona, requesting a May 20 opening
  • K1 Speed Orlando, an indoor go-cart racing track requesting a May 22 reopening.
  • FACE Amusement, owner of Arcade City Icon Park and 7-D Dark Ride Adventure Icon Park, requesting a May 21 reopening. FACE Amusement has more than 200 employees
  • Gatorland, the 110-acre theme park and wildlife preserve, is requesting a May 23 opening. It has 190 employees.
  • Icon Park, the 20-acre site that’s home to the 400-foot tall Icon Wheel, better known as the Orlando Eye, and Madame Tussauds Wax museum. It wants to open June 3.
  • Fun Spot America, a 15-acre park with roller coasters and go-carts, wants to open May 22. It has about 400 employees.
  • Wonderworks, the upside building on International Drive, which would hire back 100 employees in Florida.
  • Magical Midway Thrill Park, which features go-karts and bumper cars. It wants to open May 22 and has 40 to 50 employees.
  • The Orlando Slingshot, which is a separate company on the same property, also wants to open May 22. It has about 20 employees.
  • Orlando Starflyer wants to open May 22, and has 25 to 30 employees. Magical Midway Thrill Park, Orlando Slingshot and Orlando Starflyer are all owned by Ritchie Armstrong.

Concerns erupt over integrity of Florida's COVID-19 website

The Associated Press TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Questions about the integrity of Florida's public health data are being raised anew after a key Health Department employee was fired over a dispute about what information to release publicly. The revelation underscores how entwined public health data and politics have become as elected officials move to reopen their communities amid the coronavirus pandemic. Gov. Ron DeSantis has said his decision to begin reopening his state has been driven by science, but now that is coming under fire by Democrats and some researchers who wonder if the data is being manipulated to drum up support for reopening the state.

White House Coronavirus Coordinator encouraged by decline in new cases in most of U.S.

Franco Ordonez, NPR  White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said on Tuesday that she is encouraged by the latest data showing declines in new cases of the virus, hospitalizations and deaths across all but a few areas of the United States. Birx told a group of reporters at the White House that clinical, laboratory data and surveillance data from across the country shows that new hospitalizations have dropped by 50% in the last 30 days, and deaths continue to decrease week over week. "All states have dropped under 20% test positive, and New York has gone from over 45% test positive just 30 days ago, to under 10% test positive," Birx said. "These types of declines are being seen across the board except in a few areas." Three exceptions, where indicators have plateaued rather than declined: the Washington D.C., metro area, Chicago, and Los Angeles. "We're dissecting each one of these plateaus and providing daily updates to the task force on what's community spread and what's outbreak in terms of new cases. We study these three metros that are closed and have been closed to understand where precisely the new cases are coming from and how to prevent new infections," Birx said. Otherwise, Birx said major metropolitan areas are starting to improve significantly. Testing has expanded, including among populations most vulnerable to the virus, to find asymptomatic cases early and expand contact tracing and isolating new cases, she said. Outbreaks at nursing homes, meat packing plants and prisons are being stopped "on a regular and ongoing basis" she said. "A lot of states have been doing exactly what we asked them to: find, test, contact trace, and contain. They are finding the first case, finding the other 50 cases — or finding the other 100 cases that are often asymptomatic by testing everyone in the plant, or nursing home, or prison — and stopping community spread. And that's been very reassuring to me," Birx said. She added that the task force is focused on finding where the virus starts in a community before it spreads. Birx said she has been talking to the military about how they've created teams and sub-teams, and wants to work with manufacturers and other groups to adopt such measures in the workplace. "When you can align work shifts and physically who you regularly interact with in the factory, teams of people always working together, it's an easier way to test these specific groups and stop outbreaks," she said. The U.S.  has had more than 1.5 million confirmed cases so far and more than 90,000 deaths according to Johns Hopkins — by far the highest counts in the world.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer says testing is key to reopening safely with phase one of the statewide plan in effect

Matthew Peddie, WMFE “Full phase one” of Governor Ron DeSantis’s re-opening plan includes restaurants at 50 percent capacity and gyms open again.  Dyer says testing needs to be accessible to all, and sites will cycle through all six city commission districts. He says the goal is to identify asymptomatic carriers of the virus.  “So a lot of things are going to be opening up, and we’re doubling the capacity of  restaurants and retail establishments, so it’s critically important that we test, test and test. So we’ve set up neighborhood testing facilities that we’re operating on Tuesdays and Thursdays," Dyer said. One hundred forty people were tested at the Northwest Community Center site, which had capacity for 200 tests.   Test centers will be set up at Lake Nona on Thursday and at the James R. Smith Neighborhood Center next Tuesday. 

Pence to visit Orlando nursing home Wednesday, pass out PPE

Amy Green, WMFE Vice President Mike Pence will be in Orlando Wednesday. The vice president will meet with Governor Ron DeSantis to discuss Florida’s gradual reopening during the coronavirus pandemic.  Then Pence will deliver protective gear to a nursing home and participate in a roundtable discussion with hospitality and tourism leaders about reopening plans.  His visit comes on the same day Walt Disney World is opening some shops and restaurants at its entertainment attraction, Disney Springs.

Researchers demand answers on ousted data scientist

Stephanie Colombini, WUSF Researchers and elected officials are demanding answers from the state amid reports that it fired a scientist that was managing Florida's COVID-19 dashboard for "refusing to manipulate data." Health News Florida's Stephanie Colombini talked with a University of South Florida researcher who depends on that state data.

Lori Collins with USF Libraries is one of many researchers who worked with ousted scientist Rebekah Jones when she managed the state's COVID-19 dashboard for the Florida Department of Health. Collins helps manage a coronavirus information hub for USF that's geared to serve the Tampa Bay area. "Well one of the most key and important factors in that platform is the data that we get from FDOH. And early on, Rebekah - I mean I don't know what all the problems are, I'm not saying I know any of that - what I know is from my experience, from my experience she was extremely professional, she was transparent, she was committed to working on this project," Collins said. Collins says Jones was always good about communicating with researchers who had questions about evolving data or technical issues with obtaining it. That's why she was confused when Jones sent an email in early May saying she'd be taking a long vacation and that her team would no longer be managing the dashboard. Within days, Collins says the state dashboard crashed and researchers began experiencing a number of problems trying to pull data. "All of us were emailing everybody we knew, like what's going on, because we've got major research projects that are also relying on this data as well it's not just our hub at USF it's other researchers using our daily data in particular that we're pulling in," Collins said. Collins says she eventually heard back from the state that the Florida Department of Emergency Management had taken over the dashboard and they were working on the glitches, but it still wasn't clear what happened with Jones. Fast forward to May 15 when Jones sends researchers another email, cautioning that the new data team is making a lot of changes and may not be as accessible or transparent as she was. Writing quote "after all, my commitment to both is largely - arguably entirely - the reason I am no longer managing it." Those words alarmed Collins. "When I got that email, the first thing our team did was say, get in there and any database - even parts of the data that we weren't necessarily monitoring like grab it, grab everything just get it as fast as you can because you don't know. That was a very strange email," Collins said. This week Jones told a CBS station in West Palm Beach she was fired from the health department after she refused to quote "manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen." And the Tampa Bay Times obtained state emails from the beginning of the month that seem to show department workers asking Jones to do things with data she didn't agree with. All of this news further concerns Collins, who says transparent data is essential both in terms of combating the pandemic now and planning for the future. What scientists learn about this pandemic today can help them prevent another one from happening. "These kinds of things have real impact on policy and on decisions and on how people feel about things, you know is it okay to go out, is it okay to reopen," Collins said. At a press conference Tuesday evening Governor Ron DeSantis called the situation a "non-issue" when a reporter asked about it. "I don't know who she is but they gave me an email that she sent to her supervisor, said, 'uh, uh, you know, uh oh! I may have said something that was misrepresented'," Collins said. DeSantis continued to say the state's dashboard has received national praise and eventually left the stage as reporters tried to ask follow-up questions. His spokeswoman later shared Jones' email with the Times along with a statement that said Jones "exhibited a repeated course of insubordination during her time with the Department." The state says it will continue to provide accurate information on the dashboard. Lori Collins hopes so, and says her team at USF will continue to share health department data on its hub. Some Democratic lawmakers are calling for a formal investigation into Jones' removal.

Senators clash over how soon to reopen the economy

Scott Horsley, NPR  Members of the Senate Banking Committee squabbled Tuesday over how quickly the U.S. economy can rebound from the coronavirus shutdown and whether the federal government is doing enough to support struggling families and businesses in the meantime. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell defended the government's  multi-trillion-dollar relief efforts to date. Powell stressed additional measures may be necessary to prevent lasting economic damage. The challenges of reopening parts of the economy were underscored by the hearing's format. It was held virtually, with both witnesses and senators on videoconference, though Mnuchin said he would have been willing to testify in person. Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, the ranking Democrat on the committee, accused the Trump administration of pushing businesses to reopen prematurely, without adequate safeguards for workers. "How many workers should give their lives to increase our GDP by half a percent?" Brown asked. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., countered: "The longer that we continue a shutdown — when weeks turn into months — doesn't that necessarily increase the risk that some businesses will fail, some jobs won't be there to go back to?" The treasury secretary agreed. Mnuchin and Powell said the Fed's emergency lending programs for midsize businesses and for state and local governments should be up and running by the end of this month. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., complained that those programs — authorized by Congress with some $450 billion in seed money — do not include binding requirements that loan recipients keep workers on the payroll. "We're in a situation where 35 million Americans have filed for unemployment," Warren said. "You're in charge of half a trillion dollars. You're boosting your Wall Street buddies and you are leaving Americans behind." Mnuchin disputed that characterization and said the terms of the lending programs had been negotiated with both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. The treasury secretary also said the government is willing to take some risks in financing the emergency loans. "We are fully prepared to take losses in certain scenarios," Mnuchin said. Powell reiterated his view that Congress may have to authorize additional relief spending to keep families, businesses and cash-strapped state and local governments afloat until the virus is under control. "What Congress has done to date has been remarkably timely and forceful," the Fed chairman said. "I do think we need to take a step back and ask, over time, is it enough? And we need to be prepared to act further." In addition to the Fed's lending programs, the government has made hundreds of billions of dollars worth of loans available to small businesses, which can be forgiven so long as most of the money is used for payroll. Mnuchin said he's eager to work with lawmakers to give borrowers in that program more flexibility.

Head of state's unemployment system says don't hang up the phone when calling

Robbie Gaffney, WFSU The man overseeing the state’s unemployment system is advising Floridians not to hang up the phone when calling to inquire about their benefits. Jonathan Satter acknowledges the wait is long—up to an hour and 39 minutes. “It’s really long and that’s why we’ve scaled up from about 40 people answering the phone to 6,000. We have hundreds of people that are in different stages of training so that we can get those wait times down," Satter said. In March, as the unemployment rate began to climb, some Floridians reported wait times of up to several hours. Satter says the best time to call is in the late afternoon.

Broward County waits to reopen gyms

Gerard Albert III, WLRN The debate around whether or not to open gyms in Broward County continued today. Commissioners decided to wait for stricter guidelines. Mayor Dale Holness said he doesn’t want to rush reopening. “I believe we must be very cautious, the one thing we don’t want to do is have it spread again," Holness said. Florida is currently in “Phase one” of reopening which allows gyms to operate with limited capacity. But the county is waiting to see results of reopening in other businesses, which started this week. That hasn’t stopped Fort Lauderdale from reopening their gyms. The county will start sending letters to gyms in the city urging them to shut-down and is considering charging them a fine if they don’t. “The distancing of ten feet and shields and those things probably oughta be put in place to ensure that we are protecting the public and protecting our economy also," Holness said. As for the rest of the county, Holness said stricter guidelines for reopening could come as soon as next week.

Martial arts and yoga studios are re-opening this week across Florida alongside gyms

Sky Lebron, WJCT

The Training for Warriors gym in Ponte Vedra Beach opened Monday, and owner Phil Squatrito says so far, members have been eager to get back in the gym to pump some iron. But, finding enough sanitation products has been tough. “Your hand sanitizers, your wipes, your Lysol sprays... that's like finding diamonds in the, in the desert right now," Squatrito said. Meanwhile, All Star Martial Arts in Jacksonville reopened its doors, although it’s restricting group sizes. Owner Ernie McKinney says the studio is now making their own hand sanitizer to keep up with the demand for cleanliness. “You gotta get creative if you don't have it, you got to make it," McKinney said. Students have to get creative in other ways, too. Sparring isn’t allowed, so instead they have to visualize their opponents in practice. The business owners said members haven’t flooded into their fitness centers yet, but they expect more people to start trickling in over the next few weeks.

What is the future of cities?

Greg Rosalsky, NPR Over the last couple of weeks, some major companies have signaled that remote work is here to stay. The heads of three of New York City's largest commercial tenants — JPMorgan Chase, Barclays and Morgan Stanley — have  each said it's highly unlikely that all their employees will return to their Manhattan skyscrapers. It's not just banks. Google has  axed deals to buy up 2 million square feet of urban office space. Jack Dorsey, Twitter's CEO,  told his employees they will be allowed to work remotely forever. With so many high-paid jobs untethered from their urban offices, we've been wondering what this all means for the future of cities. So we called up Harvard University professor Ed Glaeser, the leading scholar of urban economics. In 2011, he published a great book with a title that pretty much sums up decades of research:  Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Some of his subtitle's adjectives feel very untrue at the moment, and we wanted to know if he still thinks cities will triumph. Glaeser remains a champion of cities, but he says it's possible they're in for a long period of trouble. He remembers the New York City he grew up in during the 1970s. Back then, manufacturers left, poverty got worse, crime and drugs pushed families into the suburbs, property values plummeted and the city almost declared bankruptcy. That dark period for New York and other cities, he says, "should remind us that urban success is not foreordained." Some cities, such as Detroit, never fully recovered from that era. But in the 1990s, New York and a handful of other "superstar cities" such as Seattle and San Francisco made a roaring comeback. In the decade after the 2008 financial crisis, America's big cities accounted for  over 70% of the nation's job growth.

Superstar cities had two strong magnets, both of which are currently in danger. The first was jobs for young professionals who wear hoodies, hip dresses and Patagonia vests, doing the type of work with their brains that has thrived in the era of globalized markets and information technology. Even as laptops, high-speed Internet and video calls enabled a new world of remote work, big companies doubled down on having offices in big cities. Glaeser believes it's because cities are "machines for creativity, places that connect people and enable them to work together and to learn from one another." And in the information age, the power of human collaboration in generating new ideas became more important, and more profitable, than ever. The second magnet was the entertainment. You know, all those ramen shops, hidden speak-easies, comedy clubs, art installations and cat cafes, crammed full of fun people in unique sneakers. The rise of an urban class of young professionals with time and cash to burn nurtured a growing ecosystem of cool stuff to do. Glaeser calls it "the consumer city." But crowded cafes and open-plan offices are wastelands now. Restaurants are dead, and offices have given way to Zoom calls and Slack chats. In New York City,  around 5% of residents left between March 1 and May 1, but in the richest neighborhoods, at least 40% of people left. If the pandemic lasts for a while, what does it mean for our economic geography? Major shocks to urban centers can change their destiny. Berlin used to be the undisputed economic center of Germany, but then came the Cold War and its division into East and West. The dangers and difficulties of the situation led to an exodus of people and industries westward. And, as research by economists  Daniel Sturm, Stephen Redding and Nikolaus Wolf finds, even after the Berlin Wall fell, these industries didn't come back. As a result,  Sturm believes, Germany remains more economically decentralized than it would have otherwise been. Glaeser guesses that, at least in the short run, companies that can survive without offices will continue allowing workers to work remotely. Freed from having to pay obscene rents in concrete jungles, many of these workers, Glaeser believes, will move to lower-density college towns like Boulder, Colorado, or gorgeous vacation destinations like Jackson, Wyoming. There was already an exodus from increasingly exorbitant big cities to more affordable midsize cities before the pandemic, and, Glaeser says, if enough remote workers vote with their feet, big companies may decide to open small offices in such locations once the pandemic is over. Such a shift would obviously be bad news for owners of big-city properties, especially commercial real estate. And it would be bad news for the millions of jobs in urban services. University of California, Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti has calculated that  every tech job supports five other service-sector jobs. But even in the face of a pandemic, Glaeser remains a believer in the magic of cities. After millennia of diseases ravaging through dense places, city dwellers figured out ways to limit the danger with science, technology and engineering. Take cholera, which killed Glaeser's great-great-grandfather in New York in 1849. Scientists discovered how the disease spread through dirty water; cities invested gazillions of dollars in clean water and sewage systems; and the threat was eliminated. The subways may be a scary place for a bit, but, Glaeser says, we'll eventually figure out how to deal with COVID-19. And the forces that gave rise to superstar cities aren't going to just go away. Zoom calls remain a lackluster substitute for face-to-face chats, and people will still want all the awesome stuff that density creates.

Pandemic affecting hurricane season prep

Bradley George, WUSF Changes Floridians have made as a result of coronavirus could help them during hurricane season. Ray Hawthorne is a meteorologist with the Florida Public Radio Emergency Network. He says stay-at-home orders made a lot of people stock up on food and supplies recommended to have during a storm. "I'd like to think that with the pandemic happening in the moment, that folks are at least thinking about a disaster situation a little bit more," Hawthorne said. But he says the pandemic also is affecting how emergency managers plan if people need to evacuate while maintaining social distance. "The coronavirus won't have a huge impact there from a science perspective, but it has a HUGE impact from a preparedness perspective. And I know a lot of local and state emergency management officials are taking a look at this," Hawthorne said. Hurricane season officially starts June 1, but a named storm - Arthur - developed last week in the Atlantic.

For cancer patients, anguish grows over deferred surgery as risk rises

Yuki Noguchi, NPR Last June, days after her 40th birthday, Silver felt a lump in her left breast that turned out to be a tumor that had spread to her lung and liver. For eight months, she underwent chemotherapy that reduced the masses to operable size. But last month, Silver's oncologist explained a mastectomy would also require an additional procedure to take skin off her back, known as a "flap" to cover the wound. That secondary surgery was considered cosmetic and therefore nonessential, according to the standards put in place this spring because of the coronavirus pandemic. Silver's surgery, like many others, was put on hold. "It's not necessarily considered a medical emergency by them, even though it's, like, the entire world to me," Silver says. NPR is using only her first name, at her request, to preserve her medical privacy. She felt shattered, she says, especially because she was unable to see her parents or get hugs from her friends. "My one hope to be a long-term survivor was kind of fading, and now I'm going to have to pioneer a new hope," she says. "That was tough. It was awful." COVID-19 has taken the medical focus away from  many other serious diseases, including cancer. According to the American Cancer Society,  more than a quarter of patients with active cancer are reporting delays in treatment. Also, cancer screenings are down, meaning many conditions will worsen while the health system diverts to fight the virus. At the same time, the pandemic is creating bottlenecks in care. "We are paying a price with lives lost — not only from COVID-19 — but from people who need medical care and are afraid to get it or reluctant to go," says Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society in Atlanta. He says his organization's  study on disruptions to cancer care from hurricanes shows that sort of missed care has an impact on survival rates, for example — and the pandemic is stretching out over a much longer period of time than a hurricane. "We've always said we have to do everything immediately in cancer care," but oncologists and patients are having to wait or start other treatments instead as they wait for surgery.

For Silver, such delays are excruciating. Her oncologist suggested a new chemo until surgery is possible. But to change the chemo, she needed to get another biopsy, the doctor told her. And then there was a delay in getting that second biopsy because there were few members of the staff available during the pandemic to do it. And that's not all: Insurance approvals take longer now that many agents are  working from home, she says. And the chemo center takes fewer patients throughout the day  to space the treatment chairs farther apart. The time each delay steals is precious. "In the five-week delay, I had gone from three small tumors to a massive, 7- by 3-[centimeter] tumor that was pushing against the skin," Silver says, fighting emotion. This heartbreaking scenario could play out for many people. "We're only going to realize over the next few months and years about what the consequences of that deferred therapy are," says Ravi Parikh, an oncologist at the University of Pennsylvania. He says recent months forced him to embrace the previously unthinkable — including in-home chemotherapy and patient visits conducted over the phone.  Such workarounds, he says, will need to continue. "The No. 1 thing that I'm concerned about is the backlog of cases," Parikh says. "When there's this onslaught of appointments, surgeries, colonoscopies, chemotherapy appointments, it's not going to be at a slow pace." Nor will it be able to happen quickly. Cancer patients with weakened immune systems are at greater risk of infection — and that risk continues, even as states start to reopen. Their risk varies by community even within a region, so doctors will have to weigh when it's safe to operate in their local area. And as they resume widespread treatment, each doctor, medical practice or treatment center will face the challenge of determining who receives care first. The University of Michigan's hospital system is already using a new formula as those decisions arise about who should get priority in treatment — to include factors such as the nature of the disease and its progression, says  Michael Sabel, a surgical oncologist and professor. Patients are assigned what the hospital calls an "urgency score," Sabel says. "In many cases, that can include patients being able to get back to work, and the financial strain that's on patients — in addition to just things like, is it cancer and what is the biology of that cancer," he says. Still, the frustrating reality is that COVID-19 will continue delaying care for some time. Silver has set her sights on new goals: to shrink the tumors with the new chemo and to reschedule surgery for the fall. "I hope it works," she says. "It's what I have right now — and I just hope it works." Like what you just read? Check out our other coronavirus coverage.

Danielle Prieur covers education in Central Florida.