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Your Friday Update: Coronavirus Hasn't Mutated Quickly, For Now; Indy 500 is On This Year; More than 9,000 New Cases in Florida

Photo: CDC @cdc
Photo: CDC @cdc

Federal agency tells employees 'no reference to anything COVID related'

Nat Herz, NPR

A federal fisheries management agency has barred some of its employees from making formal references to the COVID-19 pandemic without preapproval from leadership, according to an internal agency document.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the Commerce Department, manages federal fish stocks in partnership with appointed regional councils. Fishermen and seafood businesses have been asking the agency to relax regulationsas the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated their operations. There have also been outbreaks among industry workers.

The NMFS guidance document, dated June 22, says it applies to the agency's formal rules and management announcements.

The four-page memo says the agency's "preferred approach" is making "no reference to anything COVID-related," and it offers preapproved replacement phrases like "in these extraordinary times."

"This option assumes that the action can be supported by using facts, impacts, etc., that we would also use under normal circumstances," the memo says. "No reference to any stay-at-home orders, travel restrictions, or anything COVID-related is needed."

The memo outlines a second option to be used on a "limited basis" when requests or comments require "some reference to the current situation." It offers preapproved phrases such as "due to existing health mandates and travel restrictions," though says even minor changes require agency review.

A final option allows direct mention of COVID-19 or the pandemic on an "extremely limited basis," with leadership approval.

NMFS spokesman John Ewald did not explain why the agency wants to avoid mentioning the pandemic. In a statement, he said the memo is meant to "ensure timely and consistent rulemakings during COVID-19," and he noted the agency has been posting pandemic related information on its website.

The internal memo is "mystifying," says Linda Behnken, who heads the Alaska Longline Fisherman's Association. She finds the rationale hard to explain, "other than, possibly, this administration is ready to move on and doesn't really want to be focused on the pandemic any more."

It's not clear whether other agencies are also banning pandemic related language. But President Trump has consistently played down the threat from the coronavirus, and suggested early on that it will "disappear." He recently said he wants less testing for COVID-19 and has urged cities and states to open up despite a dramatic rise in the number of cases.

In Alaska, anannouncement that NMFS is waiving requirements that federal monitors be on board some vessels to collect data and ensure compliance did mention the COVID-19 pandemic. But those words are not used in a different, temporary rule that was formally announced in the Federal Register this week. It aims to reduce the risk of fishermen and crew spreading COVID-19, but it only refers generally to "government mandates and travel restrictions."

Take a break from coronavirus news...with "How I Built This"

How I Built This, NPR

Sharon Chuter had worked at some of the world's largest beauty and consumer brands when she decided to found Uoma Beauty.

Now, as the Founder, CEO and Creative Directive of her own brand, Chuter hopes to redefine what it means to be inclusive, and she's not stopping there.

Chuter's latest project, Pull Up For Change, is asking companies who have expressed support for the Black community to share their numbers of Black employees and executives.

The goal of the initiative is to force companies to think about themselves in a new way, and create the start of meaningful change.

This coronavirus doesn't change quickly, and that's good news for vaccine makers

Jon Hamilton, NPR

Scientists are monitoring the virus that causes COVID-19 for genetic changes that could make a vaccine ineffective. But so far, they're not seeing any.

"There's nothing alarming about the way the coronavirus is mutating or the speed at which it's mutating," says Emma Hodcroft, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of Basel in Switzerland. "We don't think this will be a problem [for vaccines] in the short term."

"To date, there have been very few mutations observed," says Peter Thielen, a senior scientist at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. "And any mutations that we do see are likely not having an effect on the function of the virus itself."

That's good news for scientists working to produce an effective vaccine by the end of the year. And it reflects the enormous quantity of genetic information on SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, that researchers have amassed since the virus appeared in China late last year.

Read the full article here.

Indy 500 will run in August with its massive grandstands at 50% capacity

Bill Chappell, NPR

Spectators are welcome to attend the Indianapolis 500 in August, track officials said Friday, but the enormous venue will be limited to 50% of its normal capacity because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway usually accommodates hundreds of thousands of people for the landmark race.

"We're committed to running the Indy 500 on Sunday, Aug. 23, and will welcome fans to the world's greatest racing venue," said President J. Douglas Boles, president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

In addition to reducing capacity at the venue, Boles said, track officials are also finalizing "additional carefully considered health and safety measures," adding that specific details will emerge in the near future.

Reporting on the venue's normal capacity, The Indianapolis Star newspaper cited a 2016 estimate that the raceway has 235,000 seats in its grandstand. The 2.5-mile oval also has numerous suites and a large infield.

The race originally had been scheduled for late May; it was postponed due to the coronavirus.

Track officials encouraged spectators to buy or reserve tickets online for the Indy 500 in August. They also said people age 65 or older, or anyone with underlying health conditions, should stay home, citing health experts' safety recommendations.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway is set to host racing on the Fourth of July weekend, but that event will not include spectators. Track officials note that Marion County, which includes Indianapolis, is currently in the third stage of the reopening process — one step behind most other counties in the state.

Most of Indiana is poised to enter stage fiveon July 4th, which would allow sports venues to hold events while observing social distancing.

Indiana reported 510 new confirmed coronavirus cases on Friday, bringing its total to 44,140, according to NPR member station WFYI.

Roughly a quarter of Indiana's overall cases have been reported in Marion County — but so far in June, the county has seen less than 100 cases each day, according to the state health department.

Regarding the state's level of testing, WFYI reported, "As of Friday, the results of 453,890 COVID-19 tests had been reported to the ISDH, with just under 10 percent positive for the disease."

Danish prime minister postpones wedding for EU coronavirus meeting

Austin Horn, NPR

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has postponed her wedding due to a European Council meeting to discuss coronavirus recovery efforts and budget issues.

The meeting was scheduled for July 17, which, according to Frederiksen, was the day she and her fiance Bo Tengberg were supposed to get married. It will be the first time EU leaders convene in person since the start of the pandemic.

"I'm so looking forward to marrying this man," Frederiksen wrote in an Instagram post, according to a translation from CNN. "The Council meeting in Brussels has been convened exactly on the Saturday in July when we had planned our wedding. Damn. But, I have to do my job and protect Denmark's interests."

As of Friday, Denmark has seen 12,875 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 604 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Frederiksen is a member of the country's center-left Social Democratic party, and was the youngest-ever prime minister to be elected in Denmark. She led an effort to reopen Denmark's schools in April, which caused some controversy at the time.

It is unclear when exactly Frederiksen's marriage to Tengberg will take place. According to The Guardian, this is the third time the pair have postponed their nuptials.

"I look forward to saying yes to Bo (who fortunately is very patient)," she said in her post.

Gov. Ron DeSantis says there will be no statewide face mask mandate

Abe Aboraya, WMFE

Nearly 9,000 Florida residents tested positive for COVID-19 Thursday.

In total, 8,993 Floridians got positive test results - shattering the previous one-day total record set earlier this week. 

Orange County alone recorded more than 1,000 positive cases. 

Gov. Ron DeSantis has defended his decision to not require masks - even as individual counties and cities make the requirement, including Orange County. 

“You’ve also had some sheriffs come out and say they won’t enforce any time of those mandates. So I think at the end of the day, we advised it almost two months ago, we continue to do it, and I think that’s the better approach than to try to prosecute someone criminally for it.”

The percentage of positive tests has been over 10 percent for nine of the last 10 days. The median age of people testing positive is 34 - and many of the cases are being traced to outbreaks at bars and nightclubs.

Coronavirus overshadows Orange County Major Jerry Demings' State of the County address Friday

Matthew Peddie, WMFE

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings says the economy was firing on all cylinders- until coronavirus arrived. 

Still, Demings painted an optimistic picture of the county’s future at his annual state of the county address Friday. 

Demings began his televised speech with a video montage that included footage of a SpaceX rocket launch - and referenced the region’s 75 million visitors bringing 70 billion dollars of economic impact. 

He highlighted new construction, the establishment of an affordable housing trust fund and plans to expand the convention center. 

Orange County was booming - and then the pandemic hit.

“In the immortal words spoken during the Apollo 13 mission to the moon, Houston- we have a problem. Orange County encountered a global problem with the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Demings says the closure of theme parks and the dramatic dip in the tourist development tax had a big impact- but he believes sales tax and TDT revenues will recover in the coming months as the economy improves. 

Daytona Beach considers a face mask mandate

Abe Aboraya, WMFE

The Daytona Beach City Council is meeting Friday to vote on an emergency order requiring residents and visitors to wear face masks indoors. 

Daytona Beach Mayor Derrick Henry called the meeting. 

Volusia County was averaging 11 cases per day two weeks ago, and is now averaging 58 cases per day - an increase of 436 percent. 

That’s according to an analysis done by NPR using data compiled by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.  

And the percent of positive lab tests for COVID-19 in Volusia County has increased to 12.1 percent - an indication that the spread of the virus isn’t being contained. 

Daytona Beach would require everyone to wear masks indoors when people are not socially distanced. 

There are exceptions for children and health conditions. The requirement would start Sunday.

The ordinance has no enforcement mechanism. 

UK tour operator scraps Florida visits over Disney measures

The Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — Tour operator TUI is cancelling all holidays to Florida from the U.K. until December following the introduction of new hygiene rules at Walt Disney World Resort, including the mandatory use of face coverings.

The company said Friday it made the decision because the new regulations would “significantly impact the holiday experience” for its customers.

Walt Disney World Resort has four theme parks, and will require visitors aged two and above to wear face coverings except when eating or swimming. Temperature screenings may be required for entry to some locations, and the number of entry tickets will be limited.

NBA, players sign off on final terms for restarted season

The Associated Press

The NBA and the National Basketball Players Association have finalized terms of the deal that will allow the league to restart the season at the Disney World campus near Orlando, Florida next month.

The league and the union made the announcement Friday.

Many of the details were already known, such as how “stringent health and safety protocols” would be in place for the 22 teams that will be participating, that no fans will be present and that games will be held in three different arenas at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex.

Florida smashes coronavirus case record: nearly 9,000 positive cases on Thursday

Greg Allen, NPR

As it struggles to control a rising number of new cases of the coronavirus, Florida took a dramatic step, suspending the consumption of alcohol on the premises at bars statewide. Officials in Texas took a similar step Friday, requiring bars to close at noon and be available only for takeout and delivery. The order in Florida came as the state recorded another spike Friday. The state's Department of Health says 8,942 people tested positive for the coronavirus, the highest total yet, eclipsing the record of 5,508 cases two days ago.

Florida set another record with the number of people tested — 71,433, over 13,000 more than the previous high. The percentage of people testing positive was just over 13%.

It's another indication that measures to stop the spread of the virus have fallen short in Florida. After weeks of declining numbers, COVID-19 cases began steeply rising two weeks ago. Florida is one of the states that began allowing reopening early, in the beginning of May.

For days, as the number of cases rose, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis maintained it was largely because of the increase in testing. He also cited outbreaks among farmworkers and prison populations as factors behind the rising numbers.

But over the past week, as the percentage of people testing positive spiked, the governor has cited community spread as a serious problem, citing behavior by people in their 20s and 30s. Over the past week, a number of bars in Florida shut down voluntarily after the coronavirus spread among staff and customers.

This week, DeSantis held a news conference with Florida's secretary of business and professional regulation to announce a crackdown on bars and restaurants that aren't following the guidelines. "If you go in and it's just like mayhem, like Dance Party USA and it's packed to the rafters', DeSantis said, "that's not just an innocent mistake."
Read the full article here.

Leesburg cancels its Fourth of July fireworks

Joe Byrnes, WMFE

Leesburg's Fourth of July fireworks have been canceled due to rising concerns over COVID-19.

Organizers pulled the plug Wednesday afternoon, two days after the City Commission approved the event.

City leaders and Leesburg Partnership CEO Joe Shipes had just had a telephone conference with the chief medical officer at UF Health Leesburg Hospital.

Shipes says he realized that - even with precautions - it wouldn't be safe to crowd more than 20,000 people along the shore of Lake Griffin.

"To be honest with you, after this and what we had to go through, I don’t think you’re going to see any events until 2021, late 2021. I just don’t see any, I just don’t see any, us doing anything," Shipes said.

He says the decision has drawn an angry response on Facebook. But what if someone, he says, were to contract the virus there and die? He doesn't want that.

Orlando theme parks are reopening, but not everyone is going back to work

Matthew Peddie, WMFE 

Universal announced layoffs this week - two weeks after reopening. 

Disney is moving ahead with plans to reopen next month. 

Danielle Raniere, a server at a restaurant on Disney property, has been working in hospitality for 17 years. 

She doesn’t know when she’ll go back to work because she’s part time and she hasn’t been able to find another job. 

“There are so many people that got laid off in all different kinds of venues and industries. And on top of that, people know we work for Disney. So you go and try and apply and they say ‘we don’t want to take you on, because you’re furloughed, you’re going to go back to your job as soon as you get it back.’ So it’s been really hard for all of us," Raniere said.

Raniere says she hasn’t received any unemployment assistance either from the state or federal government. 

Liar loans

The Indicator, NPR

This is going to be a record-breaking year for corporate debt.

Big companies have already borrowed more than a trillion dollars this year, almost as much as was borrowed in all of 2019.

COVID-19 is a big part of this: The cumulative effect of the pandemic has devastated the world economy, and it's left many companies with a huge budget shortfall and lots of bills to pay. A lot of companies are making up that shortfall by borrowing.

The question is, when the pandemic ends, and the dust settles, will companies be able to pay back these big piles of debt?

Some companies are already showing red flags. They're already having problems sticking to the terms of their lending agreements. That's put both borrowers and lenders into a bind, so they've come together to develop an innovative strategy: the temporary suspension of reality.

Dutch minks contract COVID-19 — and appear to infect humans

Pien Huang, NPR Minks on two fur farms in the Netherlands began getting sick in late April. Some were coughing, with runny noses; others had signs of severe respiratory disease. Soon, they started dying. Researchers took swabs from the animals and dissected the ones that had died. The culprit: SARS-COV-2, the novel coronavirus causing a global pandemic. It's part of an emerging pattern of animals getting infected with the novel coronavirus with a new concern: The minks are thought to have passed the disease back to humans. Since the discovery, more than 500,000 minks have been culled on fur farms in the Netherlands over worries that their mink populations could spread the virus among humans. The minks were first exposed to the coronavirus by infected farm workers, according to  Wim van der Poel, a veterinarian who studies viruses at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands. Then the virus spread among the animals in the farms like wildfire. "The animals are in cages with wire tops and closed walls between them," says Van der Poel, who co-authored a  Eurosurveillance paper investigating the mink farm infections that was published this month. "So it probably spread through droplet or aerosol transmission, from the top of one cage to another, when an animal is coughing or heavily breathing."

Education Dept. rule limits how schools can spend vital aid money

Cory Turner, NPR In a new rule announced Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos signaled she is standing firm on her intention to reroute millions of dollars in coronavirus aid money to K-12 private school students. The CARES Act rescue package included  more than $13 billion to help public schools cover pandemic-related costs. The move comes nearly two months after the Education Department issued  controversial guidance, suggesting that private schools should benefit from a representative share of the emergency aid. Lawmakers from both parties countered that the aid was intended to be distributed based on how many vulnerable, low-income students a district serves. While that guidance was nonbinding, Thursday's  rule is enforceable by law. "The CARES Act is a special, pandemic-related appropriation to benefit all American students, teachers, and families impacted by coronavirus," DeVos said in a statement. "There is nothing in the law Congress passed that would allow districts to discriminate against children and teachers based on private school attendance and employment." The new rule gives school districts two choices about how to spend their aid money. Read about those choices here.

DeSantis says social distancing, not closing the state, is key to stopping coronavirus spread

Alysia Cruz, WUSF Gov. Ron DeSantis is encouraging people to follow social distancing guidelines to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. He wants to see a decline in cases before Florida moves to the next phase of reopening. Speaking at a bill signing in Tampa Thursday, DeSantis talked about the state’s response to the latest surge in COVID-19 cases. He urged Floridians to avoid big crowds and indoor locations, where poor ventilation can increase the chance of getting the disease. DeSantis also said the state will move forward carefully. "I didn't say we're going to go on to the next phase. You know, we've done a step-by-step approach. And it was an approach that's been reflective of the unique situation of each area," DeSantis said. Citing the high mortality rate and large amount of at-risk people, DeSantis also said nursing homes and long-term care facilities will not reopen to the public until the positive test rate decreases.

Virus-skirting U.S. warships set Navy record: 23 port call-free weeks at sea

David Welna, NPR Thanks to their efforts to steer clear of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, the  U.S. Navy says two American warships that set sail in mid-January broke the modern record on Thursday for consecutive days at sea for U.S. naval surface vessels. This was hardly in their original mission plan. When the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier  USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and the guided-missile cruiser  USS San Jacintoleft their home port in Norfolk, Va., 161 days earlier, the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus had  not yet even been named. As they steamed toward the waters off the Middle East, far weightier on the minds of the battleships' sailors than a deadly virus was  a strike by Iran on an Iraqi military base a week earlier and the prospect of further conflict in the Persian Gulf region. The previous at-sea  record of 160 days had been set by the USS Theodore Roosevelt, another U.S. aircraft carrier, in the months following the Sept. 11 attacks. That vessel was forced to dock in Guam in late March by a COVID-19 on-board outbreak that led to the  removal of its skipperand the infection of more than 1,000 crew members after a port call in Vietnam. Read the full article here.

Mask debate heats up; creating a vaccine for a mutating virus

Coronavirus Daily, NPR Just two months ago, the Northeast was the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S. On Wednesday, there were just 581 new reported cases of the coronavirus in New York and now visitors from other states are expected to quarantine after they arrive. More governors across the country are touting the benefits of masks but not all are willing to make wearing them a state policy. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports that scientists are closely tracking mutations in the coronavirus to ensure the changes don't complicate a future vaccine. Plus, COVID-19 has presented particular challenges for women and reproductive health. Many say that the pandemic is causing them to rethink their plans to have children.

Southern Shakespeare Company takes its SNL spinoff to TV airwaves

Tom Flanigan, WFSU
Its spring festival frustrated by the coronavirus, Tallahassee's Southern Shakespeare Company is taking to the TV airwaves Saturday night. The company's "Shakespeare Night Live" event will be shown on WCTV. If you can imagine Shakespeare's characters and story lines re-written into SNL-type comedy sketches, Southern Shakes Executive Director Laura Johnson says you've got the gist of the company's upcoming production. "So just like in the spirit of Saturday Night Live, we'll have some live and pre-recorded. And then we have the pleasure of having Longineau Parsons and his Tribal Disorder Band along with Stephen Hodges as a guest musician as our house band," Johnson said. The sketches were written by Bert Mitchell and Phil Croton and directed by Toby Holcomb. The show airs at seven Saturday night on WCTV.

Affordable housing assistance coming to Florida from Washington

Danny Rivero, WLRN
Millions of Floridians are feeling the financial burden of the COVID-19 crisis, and are finding it hard to pay rent. In order to offset that, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced on Thursday that help will soon be coming from the federal government.

A total of 250 million dollars from the federal CARES Act is on its way to Florida to help people keep a roof over their heads. 120 million dollars will help subsidize housing costs for families already in affordable housing developments across the state. Some of these communities are the hardest hit by the economic impact of COVID-19. On top of that, counties will get 120 million dollars for rent and mortgage assistance to distribute. The money will be spread across the state, based on what percentage of a county’s residents have applied for unemployment benefits. The programs will run between July and December of this year.

Concern over educating workers on COVID-19 measures

Caitie Switalski, WLRN
The CEO of Jackson Health System is concerned people are not complying with measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Carlos Migoya told CNN earlier Thursday a challenge is enforcement and educating people who can’t afford to miss work. “A lot of these people are just looking for ways to make some money to be able to feed their families and those are the ones we need to educate and make sure they’re complying with the social distancing and masks, which they’re not doing today," Migoya said. Jackson Health announced on Twitter Thursday there are currently 211 people hospitalized who have tested positive for COVID-19 in its hospitals

Poll finds climate change still an important issue for Floridians amid coronavirus pandemic

Brendan Rivers, WJCT
The coronavirus pandemic has not significantly changed the way Floridians feel about climate change. That’s according to a new poll from Florida Atlantic University, which found that 89 percent of respondents agree that the Earth’s climate is changing. While Florida Democrats are still more likely to accept the science of climate change than Republicans, the study’s lead author, Colin Polksy, says acceptance is growing within the GOP. “And so that's remarkable because at the national level, that's not exactly the same picture one gets looking at the climate change question from a political party angle. In Florida, to make a long story short, the partisanship seems to be melting away," Polksy said. The 86 percent acknowledgement rate among Florida Republicans is up 5 points from the last survey. But at the same time, acceptance among Florida Democrats has fallen from 95 to 89 percent.

How to exercise safely during the coronavirus pandemic

Marc Silver, NPR [embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFlW1RcKbtA[/embed] NPR science editor Marc Silver shares tips about how to safely exercise outdoors during the coronavirus pandemic.

Thomas County historians are documenting the coronavirus pandemic

Robbie Gaffney, WFSU
Historians in Thomas County are documenting the coronavirus pandemic. Thomasville History Museum’s Amelia Gallo says they’re asking people to donate items that reflect what life is like during this time so it can be preserved for future generations. “We don’t know when these items are going to be shared or you know, publicized but we’ll have them. Much in the way we wish that a lot of the items would have been documented for the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918 and other important national and international events," Gallo said. People can donate items for the project at the Thomasville History Center, Jack Hadley Black History Museum, Pebble Hill Plantation, Thomasville Center for the Arts, and Thomas County Public Libraries.

Florida governor expands school voucher program during coronavirus pandemic

The Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — More lower-income Floridians will be eligible for vouchers to send their children to private schools under a bill signed by Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The program gives corporations a tax credit if they provide money for students to switch from public to private schools.

DeSantis said the new law will allow more families to choose the schools where they want to send their children even during a coronavirus pandemic that has seen most learning moved online.

Like what you just read? Check out our other  coronavirus coverage.

Danielle Prieur covers education in Central Florida.