Walton County School Superintendent reading to students at the Wise Pre-K Center. Credit: Walton County School District.
Gov. Ron DeSantis launched a task force to look at “reopening” Florida, and politicians and business leaders have been discussing ideas and concerns this week. More than 100 people have provided feedback.
Here are some of the topics that have been discussed Friday and throughout the week:
Pre-K and early learning
Many early learning programs throughout the state have seen a dramatic drop in enrollment, with some childcare centers closed because of the heavy impact of COVID-19.
Evelio Torres, president and CEO of the Early Learning Coalition of Miami-Dade and Monroe, told task force members that some early learning programs “had very few children attending and with significantly reduced revenue had no choice but to close.”
Florida’s Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Program, or VPK, is a free prekindergarten program for children to learn age-appropriate skills, operated by a network of private and public providers.
During the task force conference call, Torres said that it was a tough decision for childcare providers to close “because they are concerned about their staff’s paychecks and the essential service they provide to their community.”
“Those that remain open face a similar situation and are wondering how much longer they can survive. Many remain open because early on (Education) Commissioner Richard Corcoran authorized some flexibility and approved financial assistance for parents and programs, particularly those that are serving first responders and health care workers,” Torres said.
Early learning programs in Miami-Dade have been hit hard, with 85 percent of them closed.
Another major issue is that Pre-K students transitioning to kindergarten could lose key learning and developmental skills.
Halsey Beshears, secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, joined the task force discussions Friday to talk about recommendations to reopen various licensed occupations covered under the DBPR.
“From my conversations with many of these business owners over the past several weeks, they are ready and eager to find a path to reopening and are committed to taking the steps necessary to support a reasonable, responsible, and safe reopening plan,” he said.
Beshears specified that the new sanitation recommendations are up to business owners to implement.
“We recognize that small businesses make their own decisions on top of already mandated sanitary and regulatory processes,” he said.
For barbers and salons, Beshears recommends that professionals wash their hands after every client, provide and change towels on headrests, and suggest that the shops be “well ventilated.”
He also recommends that employees wear masks and “consider offering masks to clients.”
When it comes to restaurants and bars, Beshears said that sick employees should stay home.
“Taking employee’s temperatures should be at the operator’s discretion,” he said. “The CDC has not mandated taking an employee’s temperature.”
He also noted that many businesses will struggle to reopen due to the financial losses over the weeks of social distancing. He did not offer suggestions on how businesses could overcome this difficulty.
Health care, businesses and agriculture
Health care professionals want to resume a full suite of medical procedures, but they disagree on exactly when and they lack confidence that there will be a steady supply of personal protective equipment (PPE).
“The competition for this equipment has been fierce and global,” said Steve Bahmer, CEO of Leading Age, representing seniors most at risk of infection in nursing homes and other congregate living centers.
Mary Mayhew, secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration, confirmed that while the supply chain is improving for hospitals, “That is not the case for our skilled nursing facilities and assisted living facilities.”
Business people are worried about being held liable if employees or customers get infected while conducting business with them. And business owners want guidance on how to safely conduct business, including screening of customers and frequent, rapid-result testing of employees.
Amy Mercer, executive director of the Florida Police Chiefs Association, said police chiefs don’t want to be “the distancing police.”
Like the health-care professionals, she said law-enforcement officers and other first responders will be increasingly infected if they do not have ample supplies of protective equipment and test kits.
“Their exposure will only increase as the state reopens and public activity resumes,” Mercer said.
Agriculture representatives called for funding to help offset losses of crops they couldn’t sell to closed schools and restaurants.
Gov. DeSantis excluded Nikki Fried, Florida’s elected Commissioner of Agriculture, from the task force, so she provided her recommendations separately.
Among them: protect vulnerable farm workers by providing protective equipment, hygiene supplies and roomier housing, and make every effort to find uses for crops that otherwise are going to waste because they cannot be delivered to their intended markets.
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