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DeSantis touts reopening push, defends unemployment system

Staff Writer
Walton Sun
Walton Sun

Florida’s reopening push picked up speed Monday as gyms, libraries and museums began welcoming people again and state university officials signaled they will reopen campuses in the fall.

Florida university system Chancellor Marshall Criser III will present a reopening plan to the Board of Governors on May 28, the BOG announced Monday, and individual universities will detail their plans on June 23.

“Our measured and thoughtful approach will be informed by the science and medical professionals, and we are working hard to develop sound guidelines that enhance campus safety, as well as continue to meet the Board’s rigorous academic standards and student success goals,” BOG Chair Syd Kitson said in a press release with the headline “State University System Preparing to Re-Open Campuses in the Fall”

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California’s state university system announced last week that campuses largely will remain closed through the fall because of concerns about the coronavirus spreading.

Criser said Monday that Florida’s university reopening guidelines will emphasize a “healthy campus environment.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis has been pushing to reopen Florida and university officials appear to be following his lead.

“I’m just looking forward to helping bring us back,” DeSantis said Monday of his reopening plan during a press conference in Orlando. “Obviously we still have issues with public health; that’s not going to go away, but I think we have a pathway to get Florida moving again.”

As he works to reignite the economy and get people back to work, DeSantis also offered a forceful defense of the state’s efforts to improve the unemployment compensation system for those who remain sidelined by coronavirus-induced layoffs.

The governor said the vast majority of eligible applicants have now been paid and suggested that many who aren’t receiving unemployment checks did not properly fill out the application or are ineligible.

“Here’s what I can tell you,” DeSantis said when asked about unpaid applicants. “More than $2 billion has now been paid out and of all the unique, complete and eligible applicants, 97% have now been paid.”

The first phase of the governor’s reopening plan is now in full swing. In addition to allowing gyms, museums and libraries to open Monday at 50% capacity, the governor bumped up occupancy at restaurants and retail establishments from 25% to 50%.

DeSantis even has established a path to reopen Florida’s iconic theme parks, which must submit plans to the state detailing how they can operate safely.

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“I’m not saying this is going to happen tomorrow but I think it is prudent to solicit these plans,” DeSantis said of reopening theme parks, which historically have drawn huge crowds and could be a key test of whether large gatherings can be done safely.

The governor also again emphasized that he is eager to see professional sports return, saying they are important for the nation’s “mojo.”

Professional sporting events are allowed in Florida’s first phase of reopening, which was highlighted over the weekend when Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff played a live tournament at Seminole in Juno Beach.

“It was an awesome day,” McIlroy said, according to the Associated Press. “It was nice to get back on the golf course and get back to some sort of normalcy.”

Theme parks and major sporting events are big economic drivers in Florida. So is the vacation rental industry, which also is set to begin welcoming guests again.

Vacation rentals can operate if counties submit a safety plan and get approval from the state.

Barbershops and hair salons were allowed to reopen last week under certain safety protocols, and health care providers have begun performing elective procedures again under Phase 1 of the reopening.

While beaches, public recreation facilities and many businesses have begun to reopen across the state, bars and movie theaters still must remain closed during Phase 1 and schools are still doing distance learning. Nursing homes also are still closed to visitors.

DeSantis was in Orlando Monday to highlight the Florida Department of Transportation’s expedited work on an Interstate 4 improvement project. The governor has fast-tracked dozens of transportation projects to get them done while traffic volumes are lighter and they will cause less of a disruption for commuters.

“I view that as an opportunity for the state of Florida to get ahead on some of our transportation and infrastructure projects,” DeSantis said.

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But while the governor wanted to focus on infrastructure, he continued to field questions about the much-maligned unemployment compensation system.

The coronavirus pandemic has put a huge strain on Florida’s unemployment system.

A flood of new applications overwhelmed the online application system, making it difficult to file a claim initially. State officials also have struggled at times to process a backlog of unpaid claims.

DeSantis has acknowledged the unemployment website’s failures — calling it a “jalopy” — and has brought in more people and computing power to improve the claims processing system

But after weeks of taking criticism, DeSantis was more aggressive Monday in defending his administration’s efforts to get the unemployment system functioning properly.

After a reporter with the Spectrum News 13 television station in Orlando pressed DeSantis about a list he had compiled with nearly 5,000 applicants who have not received unemployment checks, DeSantis pushed back, asking: “Did you vet them? Did they submit a valid social security number?”

DeSantis said he plans to release more information Tuesday detailing “who’s all been paid.”

“And then we’re going to go over the common pitfalls for people that have not been paid,” the governor added.

The governor’s response drew criticism from some state lawmakers.

“Is this deliberate obfuscation or is he really this OUT OF TOUCH?” tweeted state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, tweeted: “So it’s a reporter’s job to vet claimants for @FLDEO? I thought that was DEO’s job.”

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) handles unemployment claims. Last month DeSantis put the head of another state agency in charge of the unemployment system, a move that was widely seen as acknowledging that DEO director Ken Lawson had failed to make improvements fast enough.

As reopening accelerates, Florida has continued to see hundreds of new coronavirus cases every day. But DeSantis said the number of people testing positive is low compared with the number of people being tested.

The Florida Department of Health announced 854 new coronavirus cases Monday, bringing the statewide total to 46,442. Another 24 COVID-19 deaths also were announced, for a total of 1,997.