Government Affairs & Lobbying Update: COVID-19

Our state and federal lobbying teams continue to closely monitor developments associated with the COVID-19 outbreak. Please reach out to us with any questions regarding the information presented below. 

STATE UPDATES

Reopening

The state entered “full Phase One” of reopening this week, which allowed gyms, museums, and libraries to join the ranks of facilities allowed to resume operations.

The current phase, which began Monday also saw capacity restrictions at restaurant and retail stores increase from 25% to 50%. Social distancing rules mandating six feet of separation between tables remain in place. Also, bars and movie theatres remain closed.

The phase also does not provide for tattoo parlors to reopen despite them being classified as “personal services” business alongside barbershops and beauty salons, which have been allowed to reopen.

The biggest movement this week was in vacation rentals, which have been are now permitted in about a quarter of Florida counties, mostly on the Panhandle. The full list: Bay, Charlotte, Duval, Escambia, Franklin, Gulf, Lee, Levy, Nassau, Okaloosa, Osceola, Pinellas, Santa Rosa, St. Johns, Wakulla and Walton.

Gov. Ron DeSantis had banned short-term rentals and short-term rental advertising via executive order in late March. He opened a pathway for them to resume operations on a county-by-county basis last week. To have the restrictions lifted, counties must submit a plan to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

During a Friday news conference in Jacksonville, DeSantis announced the state would not impose any restrictions on youth activities, including summer camps, effective immediately. Instead, his administration will allow organizations to set rules in accordance with healthcare recommendations and local government ordinances. 

Finance

Attorney General Ashley Moody was among a coalition of attorneys general to secure a settlement agreement with this week with subprime auto lender Santander Consumer USA Inc. The agreement will provide about $550 million in relief for borrowers nationwide, with more expected by way of deficiency waivers. Moody’s office said Floridians are eligible for $7.7 million in restitution and about $35 million in waivers for balances owed on Santander loans.

Healthcare

The Department of Children and Families was approved for a $2 million U.S. Department of Health and Human Services grant through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The money will be spent over the next 16 months, with $1.8 million allocated for direct service provision including $600,000 for telehealth services for Floridians experiencing mental health and/or substance abuse issues brought on by COVID-19.

Unemployment

The Department of Economic Opportunity released jobs numbers for April on Friday, showing an unemployment rate of 12.9% and a labor force reduction of 893,000, or 8.6%, for the month. The dire numbers come only a few months after the state achieved a record-low 3% unemployment rate to close out 2019. As of Thursday, DEO had received unemployment claims from 1.55 million Floridians, 1.05 million of whom have been deemed eligible for benefits. Since the pandemic began, the state has paid out $2.75 billion in unemployment benefits — $1.84 billion in federal money an $905 million in state money.

Agriculture

The Florida Department of Agriculture said it has provided 3.5 million meals to Florida schoolchildren through its Summer BreakSpot Program. The program is typically reserved for summer months, though it was rolled out earlier this year due to the coronavirus-related school closures.

The department and Commissioner Nikki Fried also issued a reminder to farmers this week encouraging them to apply for funding through the USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. CFAP will provide up to $16 billion in direct payments to agricultural producers who have suffered a five percent or greater price decline due to COVID-19 and face additional significant marketing costs. The application window runs from May 26 through Aug. 28.

Courts & Justice

Florida Supreme Court Justice Charles Canady issued an order Thursday creating a new pilot program for civil jury trials to be held using remote technology. All jury trials have been on hold since March 13, resulting in a backlog within the justice system. The pilot program will begin with a statewide COVID-19 Workgroup developing rules and selecting up to five trial circuits to participate. At the start, the program will only apply to civil trials.

Also this week, the Florida Department of Corrections this week extended the visitation ban at state jails and prisons. It is now effective through July 7. DOC said inmates will continue to have access to their loved ones through mail, phone calls, and video visitation. Legal visits are still permitted, though attorneys are encouraged to consult with their clients via phone, email or mail during the ban.

FEDERAL UPDATES

Reopening
On Wednesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released two new resources to aide states in reopening. The first summarizes CDC’s initiatives, activities, and tools in support of the whole-of-government response to COVID-19. The second resource is a set of health considerations to be used by summer campsschoolsyouth sports organizationsinstitutes of higher education, and restaurants and bars, that are open.

Finance
The Internal Revenue Service and the Treasury Department updated its state-by-state list of stimulus payments. As of Friday, 10.6 million Floridians had received their economic impact payments, for a total of $17.5 billion in disbursements statewide.

Treasury is working with lawmakers to make changes to the Paycheck Protection Program that would include extending the deadline to apply for a PPP loan to December 30; allowing borrowers 16 weeks, instead of eight, to use their loan funds; and allowing borrowers to use these funds for personal protective equipment (PPE) for employees and other adaptive measures to make the workplace safer (drive-through windows, sneeze guards, ventilation upgrades, etc.). Borrowers who had maintained their payrolls for eight weeks would not need to extend that to 16 weeks in order to get loan forgiveness, and lenders would be held harmless for any misrepresentations borrowers make. Business owners who are on probation or have a felony record would no longer be blocked from qualifying for funds. Florida Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) is cosponsoring this legislation with Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD), Susan Collins (R-ME) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), but the Senate left for a week’s recess without taking action. The House will likely take up its own version of PPP amendments next week.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau published two templates for no-action letters (NAL) to make it easier for financial institutions and mortgage services to offer customers small-dollar loans and mortgage forbearance or mitigation during the pandemic.

Healthcare

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved abbreviated new drug applications. Both drugs, dexmedetomidine hydrochloride and succinylcholine chloride, are used to sedate intubated and mechanically ventilated patients during treatment for COVID-19.

Agriculture

The USDA and the FDA signed a Memorandum of Understanding to support the U.S. food and agriculture sector. The memorandum sets up a process to help prevent interruptions at FDA-regulated food facilities, including fruit and vegetable processing, in which the two agencies can make determinations about circumstances in which the USDA could exercise its authority under the Defense Production Act.

Housing

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced $77 million in a fourth wave of CARES Act funding, supporting up to 8,300 additional vouchers to provide affordable housing to non-elderly people living with disabilities. HUD’s allocation list shows $6.2 million of the total will head to Florida.

Emergency Response

The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) published operational guidance for state, local, tribal and territorial officials to prepare for hurricane response and recovering amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Transportation Security

The Transportation Security Administration announced changes to security checkpoint procedures to reduce the potential for cross-contamination among travelers and security personnel. 

WE ARE GRATEFUL FOR YOU

This week we are grateful to work with Planet Fitness, which is working tirelessly to safely reopen to its members during this time. Check out their #UnitedWeMove home work-ins to keep moving at home!

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

COVID-19 Task Force

GrayRobinson's COVID-19 Task Force is aimed at helping businesses and local governments address evolving legal and regulatory challenges and emerge stronger from the pandemic. Keep up with our Task Force updates here.