Florida leads in COVID deaths among seniors, gender reassignment care banned for minors, Republicans lead in early voting, and more…
November 3, 2022 — This Week’s Top Stories in Florida
Welcome to this week’s edition of Floridian Today, a newsletter about all things Florida — from politics, business, real estate, and climate. Reporting from the Sunshine State, these are the most important stories you need to know. To never miss an update, subscribe to Floridian Today here.
Here’s the latest from Florida…
Florida leads U.S. in most COVID deaths among seniors
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in the early months of 2020, more than 82,000 Floridians have died, but oddly, since April 2021, when a vaccine was publicly available, the population of those aged 65 and older have been hit hard. In fact, from April 2021 to September 2022, the coronavirus killed more seniors in Florida than in any other state, with a death rate that leads the nation and has tallied more than 30,060 fatalities among those 65 years and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As the COVID-19 vaccine was rolled out in the beginning of 2021, Gov. Ron DeSantis launched a “Seniors First” initiative that aimed to prioritize the vaccination of people 65 and older. By the end of January, Florida led the nation in vaccines for seniors, with 70% of all vaccinations going to seniors and becoming the first state in the nation to inoculate more than 500,000 individuals over 65. The death rate in Florida among seniors is higher than in 30 other states in the U.S. with 691 COVID-related deaths for every 100,000 elderly residents since April 2021. The state’s COVID death rate among seniors is about 60% higher than California and 28% higher than New York. Health experts attribute the excessive death toll to Gov. DeSantis’ handling of the pandemic, notably his rush to open the state and return to a sense of normalcy. However, according to COVID-19 data compiled by the Florida Department of Health, 94% of the state’s seniors over the age of 65 have received the vaccine.
Medical board votes to ban gender reassignment care for minors
The Florida Board of Medicine and Board of Osteopathic Medicine has voted to impose rules on doctors and healthcare providers that would ban gender-affirming care for transgender minors — becoming the first state in the U.S. to take such action. Following a contentious meeting filled with several hours of testimony and protests, the joint committee of the two medical boards agreed to draft rules that would prohibit puberty blockers, hormone therapy, or reassignment surgeries as treatments for patients under the age of 18. However, the committee agreed to allow minors who are participating in a clinical trial affiliated with a university to receive such treatment. The move follows Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials who have vowed or attempted to take action to restrict the ability of transgender minors to receive gender-affirming medical care. Gov. DeSantis has largely led the fight after he and Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo released non-binding guidance in April that disapproved gender transition surgery, cross-sex hormones, or puberty blockers for use in children and teenagers. In August, Florida also barred all transgender residents and those diagnosed with gender dysphoria from using Medicaid to cover the cost of gender-affirming therapies amid fierce opposition. Additionally, Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration issued a report in June that referred to gender dysphoria treatment as “not consistent with widely accepted professional medical standards and are experimental and investigational with the potential for harmful long-term effects.” The proposed changes will be discussed and considered by the full medical boards on November 4 and if approved as anticipated, the rules will enter into a 28-day approval process.
Early voting in full swing as Republicans overtake Democrats’ lead in returned ballots
More than one week into early voting, Republicans have eclipsed Democrats in early voting and are gaining on their lead with mail-in ballots. Last week, before early voting, Democrats held a slight 45,000 advantage for returned mail-in ballots ahead of the November 8 midterm election. However, as more Floridians are completing their mail ballots and showing up to the polls, Republicans have overtaken the lead by about 26,000 ballots following the first week of early voting. Data shows Democrats have traditionally led in the early vote while the GOP posts bigger turnout numbers on Election Day. Democrats are concerned that the gap could widen in the final week of voting, along with expressing concerns about the broader Election Day outcomes. Additionally, for the first time ever, the Republican Party enters the midterm election leading the state with the most registered voters at 5.26 million, compared to 4.97 million registrants for Democrats. Republicans are returning their ballots at a quicker rate than others and are expected to post larger in-person voting numbers, largely due to claims of fraud made by former President Trump and others critical of vote by mail. For Democrats to be successful in this election, they will have to energize their base and rebuild momentum that was experienced leading into early voting, but they are up against a competing party that is better funded and better organized.
Officials change probation system to make it easier to make arrests for voter fraud
State officials quietly made a change to the criminal probation process that would make it easier to arrest and charge people for voter fraud if individuals register to vote and are found to be ineligible to do so. As reported by the Miami Herald, on the updated Florida Department of Corrections Supervision Report, individuals on probation will now be required to sign the form under warnings that include a new message: “By signing this letter, you agree that you are solely responsible for determining if you are legally able to register to vote and that you must solely determine if you are lawfully qualified to vote.” The Department of Corrections said the updated warning was to inform those on supervision about their voting rights and eligibility or ineligibility to vote. There are about 150,000 people on probation in the state this could affect. This comes after Gov. Ron DeSantis’ announcement in August that praised the work of the newly-created Florida Office of Election Crimes and Security to arrest 20 people for voter fraud. It was later found that while all 20 were ineligible to vote due to past convictions of murder or sexual offenses, they were mistakenly told or advised to register to vote and were sent voter ID cards by election officials. Under Amendment 4, which was passed by Florida voters in 2018, voting rights were automatically restored for those with certain felony convictions, excluding murder or sexual crimes, who completed the terms of their sentence, including legal financial obligations, such as outstanding fines. Florida’s approach to voting enforcement has been met with sharp criticism since DeSantis’ announcement, and legal experts believe the state will have difficulty proving criminal intent as these cases go to court. It’s apparent that local election officials improperly registered ineligible voters and reforms that need to be made to verification processes, including databases and records of eligible Florida voters.
Republicans for statewide offices carry large advantage, per latest poll
Republican incumbent candidates running for statewide offices in Florida maintain a strong lead going into Election Day, according to the latest poll by the University of North Florida Public Opinion Research Lab. Incumbent Gov. Ron DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody, and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio hold double-digit leads over their Democratic opponents. DeSantis carries a 14-point advantage over Democrat gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, with 55% of respondents saying they would vote for DeSantis, compared to just 41% for Crist. Similarly, incumbent Attorney General Ashley Moody leads Democratic contender Aramis Ayala at 50% to 36%, another 14-point margin. Meanwhile, support for Sen. Marco Rubio was slightly less strong as he captured an 11-point advantage over the senatorial candidate and Congresswoman Val Demings. In this race, 54% of sampled voters said they would vote for Rubio. compared to 43% for Demings. The poll was conducted among 622 registered voters sampled from October 17 to 24. Another poll by Data for Progress, a left-leaning polling group, records similar results for governor and U.S. Senate, showing DeSantis with a 12-point lead and Rubio with a 7-point advantage.
Florida Power & Light seeks to recover $1 billion from customer post-hurricane
The state’s largest power utility, Florida Power & Light (FPL), is expected to file a proposal with the Florida Public Service Commission to seek approval to recover $1.1 billion from customers following Hurricane Ian’s devastation. In the aftermath of the storm, FPL invested in equipment to restore and rebuild damaged electrical infrastructure and bore significant labor costs by mobilizing 20,000 workers to assist in restoration efforts. The company intends to recoup $1.1 billion by asking the state for permission to add a surcharge to current customers’ bills, with $220 million being used to stabilize FPL’s storm reserve. Utility companies are allowed to recover costs from customers in the wake of natural disasters, and a rate agreement approved by the state’s Public Service Commission last year makes approval of such requests likely. Despite the anticipated filing by Florida Power & Light, the company saw a sales increase of 1.3% in the third quarter of 2022, reporting net income growth in Q3 that was $147 million more than the same period of 2021. Meanwhile, the added restoration costs to customers’ electric bills will precede increased utility costs that are expected to hit Floridians in 2023. The rising costs are attributed to next year’s increase to the base electric rates and the price of natural gas, which has soared in the past year and remains particularly volatile.
Cruising comeback: Port Canaveral reports record profits
The COVID-19 pandemic took a particular toll on the cruise line industry and disrupted Florida’s tourism sector, drawing dismal predictions on what the future would look like for vacations by sea. The nearly year-and-a-half global pause in cruise operations that spanned from 2020 to 2021 put the then-$45 billion industry in peril, but clear signs point to a cruising bounce back. Port Canaveral, the second-busiest cruise port in the world, recently posted numbers for the 2021–2022 financial year that show a strong recovery for the cruise industry. The Port reported revenue of $128 million, beating estimates of $109 million by 17.3%, and income related to cruising accounted for 75% of that revenue. The numbers reflect record profits for the cruise ship-dependent port, largely due to higher passenger occupancy sailings since the CDC relinquished COVID-19 safety measures in July 2022. More than 300,000 passengers sailed out of Port Canaveral each month, ending the fiscal year with a total of 4.1 million passengers and 729 cruise ships. Port officials anticipate the 2022–2023 fiscal year to be the busiest ever with a record 5.8 million passengers traveling through Port Canaveral.
Miami Beach condo tower ordered to evacuate
Residents of a 164-unit condo tower in Miami Beach were ordered to evacuate the building by city officials last week over concerns of its structural integrity. During the condo property’s 50-year building inspection and recertification process, engineers found significant damage to a structural concrete beam in the parking garage, according to the engineering report. It is believed that the critical beam could be supporting the entire structure. Other damage reported shows damage to the walls as well as chipping and spalling on columns at the base of the structure. A mandatory notice was issued by the City of Miami Beach for hundreds of residents at the Porte Royal Condominium to vacate the 14-story building immediately on Thursday evening. Recommended shoring and reinforcements to repair the damaged beam at the ground level are estimated to take about 10 days, after which engineers will inspect the building and determine whether residents can safely return to their apartments.
The University of Florida board approves Sen. Ben Sasse as their next president
Amid opposition by students and other groups, the University of Florida’s board of trustees moved forward to unanimously vote for U.S. Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska as the next president of the state’s flagship university. When news surfaced last month that Sen. Sasse emerged as the sole finalist for the top job at UF, both the university and Sen. Sasse faced criticism for weeks over the selection process that lacked transparency and input. Additionally, opposition to Sasse’s selection grew over his lack of experience leading a major research institution as well as his record and previous comments on LGBTQ issues, including his stance on same-sex marriage. Additional concerns of political influence on the selection process did little to sway the board of trustees as they unanimously gave their stamp of approval to select Sasse as the university’s 13th president. Just days prior to the trustees’ vote, both the UF faculty senate and student senate took a vote of no confidence in both the search committee’s selection process and on the named finalist. Sasse’s selection must be confirmed by the state Board of Governors, which is scheduled to meet next week, and if confirmed, he is expected to resign his seat from the U.S. Senate before year-end.
Environmental agency shows Florida emissions are the lowest on record
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has released air quality data that shows above-average air quality this year and reports the lowest emissions on record. DEP monitors air quality throughout the state based on the Air Quality Index, with levels 0–50 considered “good” and values between 101–150 as “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” Throughout 2022, DEP has reported air quality meeting daily standards, and any recorded spikes that exceeded standards occurred for only a short period of time. Wildfires, motor vehicle traffic, and Saharan dust that was experienced this past summer are the drivers leading to poor air quality across the state.
Florida ranks among states with the fastest wage growth
As the inflation rate continues to remain steady at multi-year highs, most Americans’ paychecks have failed to keep up and offset the increased cost of goods and services. Polling by the New York Times suggests that only 17% of Americans saw their wages keep up with the inflation rate as inflation rose to a peak of 9.1% in June 2022, up from 2.6% in March 2021. Data news organization Stacker analyzed the percent change in average weekly wages by each state from the first quarter of 2021 to the first quarter of 2022, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Based on this analysis, Florida ranked №3 on the list, seeing a 10.8% one-year increase in weekly wages from March 2021 to March 2022 with an average paycheck of $1,222. The Sunshine State trails only Wyoming and Arkansas for the №1 and №2 spot, respectively.
All eyes on fuel prices as Florida’s Gas Tax Holiday ends
Florida’s Gas Tax Holiday, enacted by the Florida legislature and signed by Gov. DeSantis, ended on Monday that provided relief of 25.3 cents per gallon on sales of regular gasoline during the entire month of October 2022. However, experts say that consumers never saw the full benefit of the 25-cent gas savings as they predicted oil suppliers reaped the profit from the month-long tax holiday. Petroleum suppliers pay gasoline taxes to the state and then receive payment from gas stations, receiving the most benefit from the fuel tax suspension, analysts say. Although motorists saw some benefits as the price of gas did see a slight decline, the oil industry is believed to be the biggest beneficiary. Past studies of gas tax holidays in other states support this finding. With the current average price of regular gas at $3.29 per gallon, the price sits just 10 cents less than before the tax holiday was in effect. The cost of providing the tax relief to the state of Florida was projected at $214 million and was paid for by federal dollars provided in the American Rescue Plan. Consumers will likely not see an immediate fuel price jump in November as the cost per gallon will not reflect the post-holiday price until gas stations receive new fuel tankers that reflect the taxed price.
Voters decide the future of the Supreme Court
Five justices on the Florida Supreme Court face merit-retention elections on November 8, giving voters an opportunity to determine who sits on the state’s highest court. The governor has the sole authority to appoint justices to the Supreme Court, but Floridians get to weigh in on whether those nonpartisan appointees should remain on the Court every six years. Five of the Court’s seven justices facing retention election are Charles Canady, John Couriel, Jamie Grosshans, Jorge Labarga, and Ricky Polston. Canady, Labarga, and Polston are former Gov. Charlie Crist’s appointees while Couriel and Grosshans were handpicked by Gov. Ron DeSantis. As justices, Canady, Polston, Couriel, and Grosshans, have represented an activist conservative supermajority on the state’s highest court and have become target among some left-leaning groups and voters of possible ouster. Labarga is considered to be the only moderate member of the conservative court. The Florida Supreme Court has moved further to the right in recent years, in part due to the retirement of three liberal justices that allowed DeSantis to intall a supermajority of conservative-leaning judges. But the stakes remain high as controversial matters are likely to be heard before the seven justices in upcoming terms, including abortion protections, congressional redistricting that some argue discriminates against minorities, and changes to the state’s death penalty law that removes the unanimous jury requirement for capital punishment to be imposed. However, rejecting a justice on the state’s highest appellate court is a tall order. Since the mid-1970s, when merit-retention voting was adopted, never has a sitting justice been removed from the bench by voters. But that hasn’t stopped Democratic Party groups from asking Floridians to vote against retention for all justices, except Labarga. Opinion pieces in Fort Lauderdale’s Sun Sentinel and the Orlando Sentinel newspapers have done the same. Others say a vote against retention of any sitting justice would be futile as Gov. DeSantis would assuredly appoint another judge of the same ideological bent, or even further to the right.
MLB commissioner confident that the Rays will stay in Tampa Bay
In a recent SiriusXM radio interview, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred was optimistic about the Tampa Bay Rays’ efforts to find a new stadium and stay put in the Tampa Bay area. MLB Commissioner Manfred implied that Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, the current home of the Rays is not ideal, but sees the market as friendly toward the team. “I think [with] a properly located facility in Tampa [Bay], that Tampa’s a viable major league market,” Manfred said. “I’ve got a lot of faith in [Rays owner] Stu Sternberg. I think they will find a place to get a ballpark built and I think baseball can thrive in Tampa.” Discussions of a new location and baseball stadium for the Rays have circulated for more than a decade, with those conversations much more serious and frequent in recent years. Team owners are discussing and evaluating possible sites in both St. Petersburg and Tampa, but it’s an ongoing effort with no specifics available. Previously, Manfred stated that he would prefer the Rays to settle on a new site in Tampa, but acknowledged other details such as available financing and possible construction timeline would have to be considered.
Tampa rises on Top 10 list of best places to retire, Sarasota drops off
U.S. News & World Report has released its annual Best Places to Retire in the United States list for 2022–2023, examining 150 metropolitan areas across several areas that rank how well cities meet the needs of retirees. Ranking criteria included “happiness of local residents, housing affordability, tax rates, and health care quality.” In Florida, 12 cities appeared in the top 40 on this year’s list, including four cities making it in the top ten. Pensacola led cities from the Sunshine State, ranking at №3, with an overall score of 7.2 out of a possible ten, receiving high marks for housing affordability, but lagging in quality health care. Tampa was just behind at №4, moving up from its №6 ranking in 2021 as the city has grown in popularity with a surge of new residents from across the country. Tampa achieved a similar overall score of 7.2 with lower marks for housing affordability and a higher grade for health care quality. Naples and Daytona Beach rounded out the top ten at number six and seven, respectively. By far, Pennsylvania had the strongest showing on the list with five cities in the top ten, including Lancaster, PA, at №1 and Harrisburg, PA, at №2. Last year, ten Florida cities placed in the top 40, with eight ranked in the top ten. Notably absent is Sarasota, which fell to №11, but appeared on the same U.S. News & World Report rankings last year as the №1 overall place to retire in the nation. The cost of living and housing affordability is likely to blame for Florida’s rankings’ regression as the state has seen record real estate demand that has driven prices to all-time highs. U.S. News & World Report weighted housing affordability more heavily this year than other criteria evaluated in the rankings as retirees place less importance on factors like happiness or health care quality, and more value on finding an inexpensive place to settle down.