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Capital Report: Re-Open Florida Task Force Meetings Conclude, Governor Seeks Public Input

Wilfredo Lee
AP Photo

The task force Governor Ron DeSantis hand-picked to deliver recommendations for re-opening the state economy has concluded its meetings, which ran every day this week.

Desantis’ Re-Open Florida Task Force held meetings in two groups – work groups made up of a list of representatives from a wide-ranging list of industries met in the morning. An executive committee met in the afternoon, including state leadership and heads of these Florida businesses:

“We’ve got Josh D’Amaro from Disney, we’ve got John Sprouls from Universal Resort, Joe York (of) AT&T, Eric Silagy Florida (of) Power & Light, John Couris (of) Tampa General (Hospital), Alex Sanchez Florida Bankers (Assn.), Paul Riley of Raymond James, Patrick Sunderland (of) Lockheed Martin, Todd Jones (of) Publix, and Syd Kitson from the Board of Governors of the state university system,” DeSantis said, reading the roll call.

The task force got underway Monday with a largely-introductory meeting of its executive committee.

The executive committee set a goal for itself to provide universal rules for Florida businesses.

Republican House Speaker Jose Oliva said those will be prerequisites for being able to re-open, and will apply to everyone.

“Here’s what we have to understand: We don’t have a collective society. We don’t have a central-planned society. And so what we have to do, both in education and in business, is set forth a set of parameters,” Oliva said. “When those parameters are in place, people will be able to adjust to them. And if their business model works, it will work – and if it doesn’t work it will not work., But the parameters are the most important.”

Those guidelines will have to be developed with input from the group’s medical professionals, Oliva said.

The executive committee included legislative and local leaders, largely Republican, and all Republican members of the Florida cabinet.

Absent from that group is Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the lone statewide elected Democrat. Left off of the task force, Fried still wrote up and published a 10-page document outlining her input to the task force.

It asks the Governor to replenish the state’s Emergency Bridge Loan program, fix its overburdened unemployment system and ensure farm workers have access to personal protective equipment, or PPE.

To inform the executive committee, the work groups laid out the challenges each industry or is faced with.

Florida Forestry Association’s Alan Shelby told the group COVID-19's disruption sent two types of timber processing plants in different directions.

While pulp mills have been going full speed to keep up with demand for toilet paper and tissue products, Shelby says: “Our sawmill sector is really flat on its back at this time primarily due to housing and market uncertainty.”

The work groups also shed light on challenges to the public sector, including higher education.

Florida’s universities are already projecting loss of revenue from COVID-19 closures, and that may be compounded by enrollment declines going forward. Syd Kitson chairs the state university system’s Board of Governors.

“Fall semester enrollment may be reduced, as returning students, particularly from at-risk populations, decide to stop or postpone work on their degree and not enroll, due to personal financial hardships or other concerns,” Kitson told his work group.

Florida’s healthcare industry was represented in the work groups by a handful of doctors. Dentists have been restricted in what they can do under the Governor’s executive order prohibiting elective surgeries.

Dr. Rudy Liddell with Brandon Dental Care, spoke about what people can expect next time they go to the dentist, when restrictions ease up:

“Expect that you’re going to get a call before you go into the office asking you such questions as, do you feel feverish? Are you running a temperature? Have you been exposed to anybody that was diagnosed with COVID-19?”

At times, the groups were simply a venue to present requests to the governor. This one came from Dr. Liddell:

“Another part of screening, and it’s not available yet, but we’re also requesting that once the reliable, fast-test COVID-19 test kits become available, we would love to be included in that, because that’s really important for us, keeping COVID-positive patients out of our treatment areas.”

Various industries also outlined what they’re already doing as mitigation measures for COVID-19 spread.

Some made pointed suggestions to the governor.

John Kouris, president and CEO of Tampa General Hospital, says nursing homes need a reliable way to order personal protective equipment, or PPE, as it becomes available.

“Nursing homes should be talking with their local hospitals, and try to tap into the supply chain of a local facility,” Kouris said. “Now, I am not suggesting that a hospital that has a limited amount of PPE give that over to the nursing home, because they can’t afford to do that. I’m suggesting that when we submit an order, and we buy masks or gown or goggles or face shield, that we include what a skilled nursing facility might need.”

The task force’s executive committee wrapped up the week by having a meeting of its own. DeSantis said this week he and his team would be “working through the weekend” and will begin considering guidelines based on the task force’s suggestions.

On Saturday, the task force launched an online public comment submission portal allowing any Floridians to give their input on reopening. It allows users to write a comment up to 4,000 characters.

"Floridians may submit feedback on any topic related to the re-opening of Florida’s economy, including the impacts to small business, healthcare, education, tourism, agriculture, retail, recreation and sports and construction," a release from the Governor's office says, adding: "public feedback will be a critical component of the Task Force’s final report."