SICK LEAVE AND FREE TESTING

Senate passes bill as Americans deal with infection concerns and daily life interruptions caused by the coronavirus.

A Miami Beach biker wears a mask on Wednesday. Although the general face mask use is not recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), people are wearing them any way due to fear of the coronavirus.
PEDRO PORTAL/MIAMI HERALD/TNS

COMPILED FROM WIRE REPORTS

Here’s an update of the latest COVID-19 state and national news that directly impacts Floridians as of the Florida Courier’s Wednesday night deadline.

The United States Senate passed a measure on Wednesday to provide sick leave and free COVID-19 (coronavirus) disease testing to Americans as infection cases nationwide keep rising by the hundreds every day.

On Wednesday evening, there were nearly 9,000 recorded coronavirus cases in the U.S. and about 150 deaths.

Congress was already working on an emergency package, expected to top $1 trillion, including aid to some industries and checks to most taxpayers.

The legislation enacts paid sick leave for more American workers, helping people stay home rather than risk spreading the virus.

The measure also boosts funding for food programs and unemployment benefits.

No evictions or foreclosures

President Trump ordered federal housing officials to suspend evictions and foreclosures until the end of April as the coronavirus crisis forced Americans out of work or wages were reduced.

The president also said he would invoke the Defense Production Act, which gives the federal government more authority to force private companies to produce needed goods.

That could help address shortages in medical equipment such as masks, gloves and ventilators, or supply goods needed to combat the spreading virus.

State prisons won’t take new inmates

Florida prisons temporarily stopped accepting new inmates, a move aimed at preventing the spread of coronavirus in state correctional facilities but that shifts the burden of housing offenders to local officials.

Florida Department of Corrections officials said they will restrict the intake of inmates and “new commitments from counties” until March 30. But they said the timeline could change following further consultation with public health officials, amid heightened fears about the coronavirus.

The decision to curtail the flow of inmates into the state prison system, which houses roughly 96,000 offenders, comes a week after Department of Corrections officials canceled visitation until April 5. Prisoners’ lawyers are still allowed to have face-to-face visits.

This was the scene at a Fort Lauderdale beach on March 4. This week, spring break was essentially shut down by city and state leaders. Restrictions were implemented to curb the spread of coronavirus.
MIKE STOCKER/SOUTHER FLORIDA SUN SENTINEL/TNS

Florida bars, nightclubs closed

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday ordered bars and nightclubs to close for the next month. DeSantis, who has allowed local officials to take the lead on many restrictions stemming from the deadly virus, did not order restaurants to shut down and did not close the state’s beaches.

Instead, DeSantis said he was going to issue executive orders outlining minimum requirements for restaurants and beaches, based on recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Restaurants are allowed to offer dining options so long as they operate at 50 percent capacity where tables can be spread at least six feet apart.

DCF halts in-person applications

Low-income Floridians seeking benefits such as food stamps, temporary assistance or Medicaid coverage will no longer be able to apply for them in person because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Department of Children and Families (DCF) Secretary Chad Poppell said Wednesday the state was temporarily shutting down offices where people could apply or reapply in person for safety-net benefits.

The state will direct people to either use an online portal or apply by phone. DCF will also allow people to drop off documents at a “secure drop box.”

Poppell did not say how long the offices would be closed.

State changes school testing

Florida officials announced Tuesday they will eliminate testing requirements for public-school students and extend the time in which kids will learn from home.

DeSantis said testing requirements for school-readiness, voluntary pre-kindergarten and public-school programs will be canceled for the 2019-2020 school year.

“Requirements for graduation and promotion and final course grades will be evaluated as though those assessments did not exist,” the governor said.

Online learning also was extended until April 15. The state will re-evaluate after mid-April to see if kids should be allowed to go back on campuses.

DeSantis also called for Florida universities to do online classes for the rest of the spring semester.

Malls close nationwide

The nation’s largest mall operator, Simon Property Group, announced Wednesday that it would temporarily close its mall and outlet locations.

“The health and safety of our shoppers, retailers and employees is of paramount importance and we are taking this step to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our communities,” CEO and president of Simon Property Group David Simon said in a statement.

Locations closed on Wednesday and are to remain closed through March 29. Earlier, some major retailers like Macy’s and Nordstrom had announced that they would close.

Reports compiled by Ana Ceballos, Christine Sexton and Tom Urban of the News Service of Florida were used in this article, as well as reports by Noah Bierman and Chris Megerian of the Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service.

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