Florida’s state of COVID, Artiles case snags GOP operative, unemployment site gets hacked, FPL draws new adversary

·8 min read

It’s Monday, July 26. And the virus is making a comeback in the state that had declared victory over it.

Let this number sink in: 624%. That’s the increase in COVID-19 cases in Florida over the past five weeks. On Friday, the Florida Department of Health announced 73,166 new resident cases, 61 percent higher than the already high rates from the previous week’s report and more than seven times where they were in mid-June. The numbers are the worst they have been since January, when the vaccine was still not widely available.

One in five of all COVID cases in the U.S. occurred In Florida — for the second week in a row. Hospitals are filling up again, even exceeding their pandemic high in Jacksonville and Daytona Beach. The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office said six employees were diagnosed with COVID-19 in one week, and the outbreak is causing a new sense of dread in the courthouse.

But the surge isn’t happening everywhere in the state. According to federal officials, “within communities, these cases are primarily among unvaccinated people.” After ranking in the top 10 among states in the early days of COVID vaccinations, Florida’s vaccination rates have lagged and the state ranks just 22nd now as COVID surges.

As of Friday, 67.1 percent of Floridians 18 and over have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 57.9 percent of those 18 and over in the state have been fully vaccinated, according to The New York Times vaccination tracker.

WHAT WE’RE WATCHING

At Tropical Park, which serves as a drive-thru COVID testing and vaccine site, the line of cars went up to the park’s entrance at Southwest 79 Avenue and Bird Road Thursday morning, July 22, 2021.
At Tropical Park, which serves as a drive-thru COVID testing and vaccine site, the line of cars went up to the park’s entrance at Southwest 79 Avenue and Bird Road Thursday morning, July 22, 2021.

Miami-Dade steps up prevention: What’s been the reaction from government officials? In Miami-Dade County, which represents about 10 percent of the state’s population and accounts for about 15 percent of the state’s new cases, county officials are escalating coronavirus prevention and opening five new mobile vaccine and testing sites as COVID-19.

DeSantis downplays case counts: In Tallahassee, the governor started the week calling the COVID surge “a seasonal virus and this is the seasonal pattern it follows in the Sun Belt states.”

By Tuesday, he offered a slight shift in approach and used a word rarely found in his pandemic lexicon: prevention. “To me it’s about preventing the illness,” he said.

But the comment was in the context of downplaying the surge in positive cases. “I’ve never been driven by the case counts,’’ he said, suggesting that asymptomatic people could test positive but not have the illness — and ignoring the fact that scientists do not know whether people who test positive but have no symptoms could spread the virus.

...And masks: As cases rose, the governor continued to resist any talk of preventing the spread of the virus through mask wearing or social distancing. By Wednesday, he declared that masks don’t work in schools, and vowed to oppose any mandate on school kids by the federal government. If school boards defy him, he promised to call a special session of the Legislature to outlaw them.

What happened to PPE? Remember all the money the state spent on buying personal protective equipment and N95 masks to protect healthcare workers? The former executive director of the Division of Emergency Management, Jared Moskowitz, thought masks were so important to preventing the spread of the virus that he pinned a Tweet to his profile that simple read: MASKS - 46 times. The governor has decided he’s going with another conclusion when it comes to kids wearing masks in school: “There’s not very much science behind it,” he said.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody speaks during a press conference at the Broward County Courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale, Florida on Wednesday, February 13, 2019. Governor Ron DeSantis announced he filed a petition with the Florida Supreme Court to form a statewide grand jury to examine and review school safety across the state.
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody speaks during a press conference at the Broward County Courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale, Florida on Wednesday, February 13, 2019. Governor Ron DeSantis announced he filed a petition with the Florida Supreme Court to form a statewide grand jury to examine and review school safety across the state.

Moody tests positive: Four days after she flew on the state plane with Gov. Ron DeSantis and Senate President Wilton Simpson to the U.S.-Mexico border in Del Rio, Texas, Attorney General Ashley Moody announced she had tested positive for COVID-19. Moody, who said she had been vaccinated, reported having mild symptoms.

Choppy waters for cruise rules: The seesaw battle between Florida’s governor and the federal government over cruise safety landed on the side of DeSantis again last week. The three judges on the U.S. Appeals Court for the 11th Circuit on Friday reversed their week-old decision and blocked the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from enforcing its COVID-19 safety rules on cruise ships sailing from Florida.

WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT

Frank Artiles leaves the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center in Miami, Florida, on Thursday, March 18, 2021. Artiles posted $5,000 bail after facing charges relating to a 2020 Senate District 37 campaign.
Frank Artiles leaves the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center in Miami, Florida, on Thursday, March 18, 2021. Artiles posted $5,000 bail after facing charges relating to a 2020 Senate District 37 campaign.

Artiles’ web snags Bainter: There’s always a good political story breaking somewhere in Florida, but as we await new developments in the apparently stalled case against Matt Gaetz, we’re watching the fascinating drip of details coming from prosecutors in the public corruption case against former Republican state Sen. Frank Artiles.

Artiles is accused of recruiting and financing a shadow candidate that cost Democratic Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez his re-election bid in 2020. Documents released late Friday show that Artiles’ associate recruited a young woman to put her name on a political committee that was used to promote the ghost candidate. He used his brother-in-law and a family car dealership to make payments to the sham candidate and, in what for insiders is most intriguing of all, he appeared to be taking direction from Pat Bainter.

Bainter, the elusive GOP political operative, was working for Senate President Wilton Simpson in the 2020 Senate election effort. Until now, it wasn’t evident that Artiles was working for him. The email leaves that impression. Artiles tells Bainter: “I’m standing by for orders.” And there’s much more here.

Increased fines: Alexis Pedro Rodriguez, the sham candidate recruited by Artiles to change his party affiliation and run in the race, is not only facing criminal charges in the state case but the Florida Elections Commission on Friday rejected a $6,500 fine against him and suggested stiffer penalties should be approved.

Biden considering Cuba: After more than six months reviewing what policy to take on Cuba, President Joe Biden took steps last week to respond to the historic wave of protests in Cuba, ordering the State Department to review an increase in staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana and forming a working group that will consider remittances for Cuban families.

As a signal his party is attuned to the importance of this messaging, the Democratic Party this week will launch an online ad campaign next week in Florida that will highlight the president’s words and actions on Cuba.

Thousands of protesters gather outside the White House to mark the 26th of July national holiday in Cuba. The protesters were calling on President Joe Biden to increase pressure on Cuba after historic pro-democracy protests on the island.
Thousands of protesters gather outside the White House to mark the 26th of July national holiday in Cuba. The protesters were calling on President Joe Biden to increase pressure on Cuba after historic pro-democracy protests on the island.

Demonstrators want more: Demonstrators arrived in Washington on Sunday to mark the 26th of July, the date that Fidel Castro led his first attack against the Batista government and a national holiday in Cuba. The protesters held a candlelight vigil outside the White House to urge President Biden to take a more aggressive role against the communist regime on the island nation.

Bad luck for bad luck: Nearly 58,000 people who were already snagged in the unfortunate tangle that is Florida’s unemployment website learned last week they may be the potential victims of hackers, who targeted the site between April 27 and July 16.

The hackers potentially stole the personal data, including Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, claim information and other personal details, such as addresses, phone numbers and dates of birth and PIN numbers to access the site, known as CONNECT. The attack was discovered last week.

New adversary for FPL: As Florida Power & Light prepares to ask state regulators for the largest rate increase in state history — expecting its customers to pay at least $6.2 billion more over four years — a mysterious adversary has emerged. Floridians Against Increased Rates was organized in March and, while its funding is shielded by IRS tax law, its roster includes veterans Mike Hightower, Tom Herndon, Tim Devlin, and Nancy H. Watkins, and its lead lawyer is Scheff Wright. Read more.

New domestic violence responder: After more than a year of transition, Florida officials are about to choose a private vendor to replace the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which was shut down in disgrace after it was discovered that its board of directors was complicit in a scheme to compensate former executive Tiffany Carr $7.5 million over three years. The selection committee of the Florida Department of Children and Families will rank two candidates next week.

Jimmy Patronis, who as chief financial officer oversees the Neurological Injury Compensation Association (NICA), announced an audit of the program after a series of investigative articles by the Miami Herald and the journalism nonprofit ProPublica.
Jimmy Patronis, who as chief financial officer oversees the Neurological Injury Compensation Association (NICA), announced an audit of the program after a series of investigative articles by the Miami Herald and the journalism nonprofit ProPublica.

Patronis can shape board’s future: After the Florida Legislature and governor launched the overhaul of the Florida program that serves families with brain-damaged children, its future now depends on Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, whose office oversees the Birth-Related Neurological Injury Compensation Association. He promised to make the program answer to the parents of disabled children after the Miami Herald and the journalism nonprofit ProPublica published a series of stories this year showing how NICA had amassed nearly $1.5 billion in assets while frequently denying care to children it serves.

No more anonymous rants against noisy neighbors: A new law barring the investigation of potential code compliance violations based on anonymous complaints is raising concerns in Florida’s large cities. Officials worry that the state preemption will have a chlling effect on the ability of people to notify local officials about dangerous or noisy situations.

Stay well and we’d love to hear from you. Miami Herald Capitol Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas curates the Politics and Policy in the Sunshine State newsletter. If you have any ideas or suggestions, please drop me a note at meklas@miamiherald.com.

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