Editorial Roundup: Florida

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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Aug. 5

The Palm Beach post on the pandemic:

This week has opened to some unexpected good news. Tropical Storm Isaias, which looked like a hurricane aimed at Palm Beach County, turned out to be a big nothing. And the Florida Department of Health (DOH) issued three successive days of hopeful reports about the coronavirus outbreak in our state.

On Sunday, the number of new reported diagnoses across the state dipped to a one-month low (7,104). On Monday, that stat fell dramatically, to 4,752 — the lowest since June 23. On Tuesday, DOH reported 5,446 positive test results: the 10th straight day with fewer than 10,000 new cases.

So...hooray?

Let’s hold the cheering for now. First, it was not immediately clear if the reported numbers were lower merely because some testing sites had shut amid preparations for the expected hurricane. Second, you can never discern a trend from a one- or two-day event.

But it is undeniable that, according to state DOH figures, Florida is seeing a slower spread of the virus than we were a couple of weeks ago. On July 19, DOH posted a seven-day total of over 78,000 cases. That turned out to be a peak. On July 26, DOH counted 72,500 new cases for the week. Last week’s total, posted Sunday, was down to 59,600.

At the same time, though, the death count in Florida has leaped, from a weekly death count of 819 reported on July 19, to a staggering 1,200 last week.

On Tuesday, DOH reported 247 more deaths since Monday, pushing the grim total of people lost past 7,500.

With this virus, the death count always lags behind the infection count. It takes some days for the disease to claim its victims. And it takes days after that for a fatality to make its way into the statistics. So, it is possible that the death toll, too, is at or near a peak and will soon decline.

We’re thankful, therefore, that the coronavirus’ wild ride through Florida, which began its roar in early June, looks to be slowing down. But keep in mind what that spree has done. A tremendous amount of virus is now spread around America’s third-most populous state. Many people carrying it don’t even know it.

This means that none of us can let our guard down. We have to keep on wearing masks when in public, no matter how bothersome. We have to keep that six-foot distance from others. We have to keep washing our hands.

Remember, too, that the nation is now in a new phase with the coronavirus, different from March and April when much of the country was shut down. As Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator, said Sunday on CNN, the virus “is extraordinarily widespread.”

“It’s into the rural as equal urban areas,” Birx said, earning her an unwarranted but regrettably predictable Twitter rebuke from President Donald Trump, who called her “pathetic” for speaking the simple truth and not parroting his disinformation that he has done a “very good job.” Never mind that the U.S.’s more than 156,000 dead and 4.7 million infected are both the most in the world.

The fact is, while Florida as a whole is seeing a decline in new infections, rural counties from Marion (county seat: Ocala) on north through the Panhandle are now hot spots for coronavirus increases. Never has Gov. Ron DeSantis’ objection to a statewide mask-wearing order looked so short-sighted and dangerously wrong-headed.

DeSantis has repeatedly held that rural counties are so different from urban centers like Miami that a “one-size-fits-all” policy would badly suit Florida. He has also contended that Floridians are smart enough to figure out the wisdom of mask-wearing for themselves. Neither proposition has proven correct.

We must wait for public health officials to tell us for sure, but it stands to reason that the turnabout in new Florida infections owes quite a bit to the mask-wearing mandates set down by governments like Palm Beach County and businesses like Publix, Walmart and Lowe’s.

Now, we’d be smart to learn a hard lesson from Israel, which opened all its schools in late May and within days had a major outbreak on its hands, the first of many. Hundreds of schools are again closed, tens of thousands of teachers and students quarantined.

“If there is a low number of cases, there is an illusion that the disease is over,” said Dr. Hagai Levine, epidemiologist chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians, according to the New York Times. “But it’s a complete illusion.”

We shouldn’t be fooled by that illusion. Florida’s case numbers are currently receding, but the disease is far from over. It’s still not safe to hold big block parties, or cram pleasure boats full of people, or crowd together for a late-night rave.

Until the still-distant day when most of us have been vaccinated against this virus, there can be no letting up.

Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Keep your distance.

Online: https://www.palmbeachpost.com/

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Aug. 5

The Sun Sentinel on allowing ex-felons to vote:

American courts have no armies to enforce their decisions. The rule of law rests wholly on the public’s faith that judges will rule fairly despite their own inevitable political and personal leanings. Perception is critical. That is why the code of conduct for federal judges obliges them to disqualify themselves whenever their impartiality “might reasonably be questioned.”

Nevertheless, the impartiality of two federal judges from Florida is in reasonable question in a case on appeal that will decide whether nearly a million Floridians will regain their voting rights now —or ever. The judges have refused appropriate requests to disqualify themselves.

The case is before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where President Trump last year appointed Florida Supreme Court justices Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck. They were confirmed and took their seats within a month after they had heard arguments in a closely related case at Tallahassee. In refusing to step aside from this case, they rationalized that it is a separate “proceeding” rather than the one they already heard.

That’s quibbling. Although it may satisfy the letter of the law, it violates the spirit. To non-lawyers, it will be a distinction without a difference.

The outcome last year was an advisory opinion to Gov. Ron DeSantis. It said what he and the Legislature’s Republican leaders wanted to hear about Amendment 4, the 2018 voter initiative restoring voting rights to most ex-felons upon completion of “all terms of their sentence, including parole and probation.” The Florida court said that includes not only fines and restitution ordered by judges, but also automatic court costs and fees.

Florida disenfranchises felons for life. Before Amendment 4, their only appeal was restoration of rights on an individual basis by the governor and Cabinet, but that has become as relatively rare as Halley’s Comet.

The issue now before Lagoa and Luck is the state’s appeal of a May 24 decision by U.S. District Judge Robert F. Hinkle, at Tallahassee, that the implementing law is unconstitutional in part because “otherwise-eligible citizens will be allowed to vote only if they pay an amount of money.” Most of what people owe, he said, consists of “charges the state imposed to fund government operations — taxes in substance though not in name.” Moreover, the state couldn’t even tell people what they owed.

He ruled that Florida could extract fines and restitution — but not other costs — only from those ex-felons who are able to pay, and ordered it to set up a system to enable all of them to vote.

It is disgraceful for DeSantis and his allies to be appealing that, but it fits into their party’s current practice of suppressing the votes of people they fear will vote for Democrats. For the 11th Circuit to overturn Hinkle’s reasonable decision would serve that partisan purpose and damage the court’s reputation indelibly.

Former President Barack Obama alluded to Florida’s harshness in his eulogy for Rep. John Lewis, the voting rights pioneer. He urged automatic voter registration of all Americans, “including former inmates who’ve earned their second chance.”

The arguments before the Florida Supreme Court concentrated on semantics and on whether Florida voters, who favored Amendment 4 nearly two to one, understood that “terms” meant more than time spent in jail or on probation. The court’s conclusion appeared to validate the controversial Florida law implementing the amendment. That’s the law in question at the 11th Circuit.

Lagoa and Luck, who had been appointed to the Supreme Court, left before it issued the advisory opinion. Of note, though, is that they had asked most of the questions — at least 25 between them — during oral argument. Luck did not signal how he might vote, but Lagoa was plainly unsympathetic to the civil rights lawyers who were arguing for a strict interpretation limited to time served.

She even suggested that the entire amendment might have to be invalidated, which happens to be one of the state’s points on appeal to her present court.

That would be an unconscionable disaster, overruling the votes of 5.1 million Floridians and condemning nearly a million others to a lifetime second-class citizenship.

The Florida Supreme Court holds its decision conferences immediately after oral argument, so it is highly likely that Lagoa and Luck contributed to the consensus even though they weren’t able to sign the opinion.

It is also likely that both contributed to the 11th Circuit’s unusual decision to stay Hinkle’s decision pending the outcome of the appeal. That procedural question normally would have been left to the same three-judge panel that had already upheld a preliminary Hinkle decision allowing a handful of named plaintiffs to vote this year.

The 12- judge 11th Circuit, once known as a bastion of civil rights, now has a majority of judges appointed by Republican presidents — three of them by Trump, who is unsympathetic to voting rights.

Oral arguments in Florida’s appeal are set for Aug. 18, the same day as the state’s primary. Simply by delaying its decision, the court could also keep nearly a million Floridians from voting in the November general election, which will be one of the most consequential in our history.

Appearances matter. This situation doesn’t simply look bad. It smells.

To win confirmation of their appointments, Lagoa and Luck assured the Senate Judiciary Committee they would recuse themselves from any case in which they had played a role. All 10 of the committee’s Democrats called for their recusal in the voting case, as did some of the plaintiffs.

In their response, Lagoa and Luck rationalized that the judicial code and related cases “are clear” that recusal is not required because of a “separate, even if related, proceeding or case.” They said they have disqualified themselves in appeals of six Florida criminal cases that they had helped to decide back in Tallahassee.

Lagoa and Luck might still vote for the right to vote, as Hinkle intended. We would be pleased for our skepticism to prove unfounded.

They should take to heart what attorneys for some of the plaintiffs appropriately warned in their unsuccessful motion:

“This case, determining whether approximately 750,000 individuals have a right to vote, will be subject to close public scrutiny whatever the result.”

Online: https://www.sun-sentinel.com/

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Aug. 3

The Daytona Beach News Journal on preparing for hurricane season:

Tropical Storm Isaias brushed by Northeast Florida late Sunday and early Monday, leaving little behind but pounding surf and a scattering of brief power outages. By mid-day Sunday, officials in Volusia, Flagler and St. Johns counties were pretty sure they would be spared any significant impact, and they were right — this time. But as the storm heads north, it’s expected to pick up power; by the time you read this, it could be lashing Georgia and the Carolinas after regaining hurricane status.

In other words, Floridians got lucky. This time.

But there’s always a next time — and it’s still 2020, one of the strangest years on record. Don’t count on a quiet storm season.

Local residents, especially those who have never really experienced the true fury of a hurricane, shouldn’t become complacent. If nothing else, Isaias serves as a warning shot, reminding local officials and residents of a big storm’s sheer unpredictability. Readiness is the key to surviving any storm, and those people who worried that their preparations fell short now have an opportunity to get caught up.

That could mean several things.

The most obvious: Supplies. The state’s tax-free holiday for emergency supplies has come and gone, but there’s still time to stock up on necessary items such as food for people and pets, water, flashlights, batteries, cell-phone power banks, a weather radio and other essentials. In the era of coronavirus, emergency management officials recommend adding face masks, hand sanitizers and disinfecting wipes (if you can find them) to your storm kit. Having a supply of medications is a must. So is a waterproof container for important papers including birth certificates, deeds, car titles and insurance documents.

But before you put that last item away, take the time to go over your coverage, including deductibles and coverage limits. Many Floridians are surprised, post-storm, to learn that their insurance policies aren’t as comprehensive as they thought. And some don’t realize that they need a separate windstorm policy to cover their property from storm damage, and, for many, flood insurance as well.

It’s also incumbent on property owners to ensure that obvious hazards — such as dead limbs on trees, or heavy outdoor furniture — are taken care of before a storm starts to blow. Installing storm shutters or plywood window coverings takes planning, as well.

The last critical element of a good storm plan is to be ready to evacuate when told to do so, particularly those on the barrier islands. This year, emergency operations officials have made modifications to allow for safe distancing in hurricane shelters, but it may be more comfortable to find a hotel, or stay with friends and family inland. Make those plans now.

It’s never easy to face the idea of a storm so ferocious that it can rip off roofs, shred power lines or submerge roads in floodwaters two feet deep. It’s particularly difficult in a year when Floridians can credibly argue that they’ve suffered enough. But none of that will matter if another big storm puts Florida in its sights. The only responsible thing to do is prepare.

Online: https://www.news-journalonline.com/