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.
On Thursday, Senate President Bill Galvano sent a memo to fellow senators updating them on the economic and other public policy impacts of coronavirus. Galvano did not broach the subject of a special Legislative Session in the memo, though he did say he is “confident in the fiscal decisions we have made, and will make, as a state,” and urged senators to “remain committed to making fact-based decisions as we enter this period of transition.” Galvano cautioned that current data equip policymakers with “the specific information necessary for precise decision making.”
Also this week, Gov. Ron DeSantis said he was waiting to take action on the $93.2 billion budget passed by lawmakers in March. The Governor did not lay out a timeline for when he may sign the budget, saying that “it’s more prudent to wait and see how things develop over the next several weeks.” DeSantis said he currently doesn’t think a special Legislative Session is necessary, but that he could veto significant portions of the budget. DeSantis didn’t indicate what line items were at risk.
On April 16, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order suspending a requirement for unemployment benefits recipients be “actively seeking work.” State law requires those receiving unemployment benefits to confirm they are still unemployed every two weeks in order to keep receiving benefits. Executive Order 20-104 eliminates the requirement until DeSantis’ March 9 order declaring COVID-19 a public health emergency expires. The emergency declaration will be in effect through May 8, though it may be extended.
DeSantis also announced he was taking the unemployment program’s oversight from Department of Economic Opportunity director Ken Lawson, whose department houses the program, and putting Department of Management Services Secretary Jonathan Satter in charge. Lawson will remain DEO director. The leadership change comes as applications continue to overwhelm the DEO’s online application portal. As of Thursday, the state had processed 4% of the more than 850,000 applications it had received.
The Governor announced on Wednesday the formation of a task force to oversee the "resurgence and reopening of Florida." The task force will be made up of elected officials, as well as leaders in the fields of business, education, and more. The members of the task force, to be announced Monday, will meet by telephone for the first time this week.
During a press conference on Saturday, the Governor announced K-12 schools will remain closed for the remainder of this academic year. DeSantis said he realizes online schooling is not ideal, but given where students and educators are in the school year and the obstacles presented by the ongoing pandemic, he believes continuing distance learning is the best option right now.
On April 14, Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Mary Mayhew issued an emergency order giving nursing homes an extra month to pay their March bed tax bill. Nursing homes must pay a monthly quality assessment fee, or bed tax, on services provided based on the number of patient days in each facility. Total collections for the tax due April 20, calculated based on March data, would have been $36 million. The tax is now due May 20.
On April 17, Florida Office of Financial Regulation Commissioner Russell Weigel signed an emergency order on Friday allowing lenders to give car buyers up to 90 days to make their first payment on an auto loan. Current law allows lenders to schedule the first loan payment up to 45 days out from the start of the loan.
White House Coronavirus Task Force
President Donald Trump announced the Task Force’s “Guidelines for Opening Up America Again,” which sets criteria for individual states and localities to make decisions about whether and how to reopen businesses and allow public activities. The White House’s “30 Days to Slow the Spread” initiative ended this week.
President Trump said it would be up to governors and local authorities to determine whether they meet the criteria for beginning the three-phase process to returning to normal activity levels. Those criteria call for:
- downward trajectories of influenza-like illnesses and COVID-like syndromic cases reported within a 14-day period;
- downward trajectories of documented cases over a 14-day period, or downward trajectories of positive tests as a percentage of overall testing over 14 days; and
- the ability of hospitals to treat all patients without crisis care and a “robust testing program” in place for healthcare workers, including antibody testing.
The guidelines set no nationwide minimum standards for acceptable infection rates or testing levels, and President Trump emphasized that states will be responsible for developing and conducting testing programs.
Once a state meets these criteria, it may begin Phase One, in which:
- Vulnerable individuals continue to shelter in place
- Healthy people continue to maximize social distance in public, with no social gatherings of more than 10 people
- Non-essential travel remains minimal
- Employers continue to encourage telework, and bring employees back to work in phases
- Workplaces close common areas and enforce social distancing protocols
- Workplaces “strongly consider” special accommodation for employees who are part of vulnerable populations
- Schools and daycare centers that have closed remain closed
- Senior living facilities and hospitals are closed to visitors
- Large venues, such as movie theaters and sports arenas, can operate under strict distancing protocols
- Elective surgeries can resume
- Gyms can reopen if they comply with strict distancing and sanitation protocols
- Bars remain closed
After 14 days in Phase One, if the state or area continues to meet the criteria for reopening, it may continue to Phase Two, in which:
- Vulnerable individuals continue to shelter in place
- Healthy people continue to maximize social distance in public, but social gatherings of up to 50 people will be allowed
- Non-essential travel resumes
- Employers continue to encourage telework
- Workplaces keep common areas closed
- Workplaces continue to “strongly consider” special accommodation for employees who are part of vulnerable populations
- Schools, daycare centers, and camps may reopen
- Senior living facilities and hospitals remain closed to visitors
- Large venues, such as movie theaters and sports arenas, can operate under moderate distancing protocols
- Elective surgeries may resume on an outpatient and inpatient basis
- Bars may reopen with diminished standing-room occupancy
If the state or area continues to meet the criteria after 14 days in Phase Two, it may move to Phase Three, in which:
- Vulnerable people can resume social activities, practicing physical distancing
- Low-risk populations should consider avoiding crowds
- Workplaces can reopen without restriction
- Visits to senior living facilities and hospitals can resume, with diligent hygiene practices
- Large venues can operate under limited distancing protocols
- Bars may operate with increased standing-room occupancy
President Trump said yesterday that as many as 29 states may be eligible or close to eligible to start Phase One, but did not specify which states. The Centers for Disease Control report a sharp drop-off in reported new cases nationwide over the past two weeks, while cautioning that this may not capture illnesses that have begun during that period.
The independent Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) projects that the nation’s COVID-19 outbreak reached peak healthcare resource demand on April 10, although several individual states’ outbreaks have yet to peak.
The U.S. Treasury Department announced this week that Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program funds had been exhausted. The loans were available to businesses with fewer than 500 employees. The principal is forgivable if a business uses the money to retain employees and cover certain allowable expenses, such as rent and utilities. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza have asked Congress to provide the program with more funding. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi agrees that more funds are needed, but is asking for more data about how funds have been disbursed, as well as additional funding for hospitals and first providers.
The Internal Revenue Service started sending out stimulus payments to Americans this week. Most Americans will receive $1,200. The payments, included in the CARES Act, are being issued via direct deposit to taxpayers who provided bank account information to the IRS in their 2018 or 2019 tax returns. Those who did give the IRS bank account information, as well as those who do not typically file a tax return, can register to receive their stimulus payment electronically with the IRS “Get My Payment” tool, otherwise a check will be delivered by mail.
Federal banking regulators took several actions to facilitate access to credit and offer relief to borrowers. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) created a Borrower Protection Program that will allow the agencies to share consumer complaint information, analytical tools, and information about forbearances, modifications, and other loss mitigation options offered by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), Federal Reserve Board, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) and CFPB announced that they will temporarily defer real estate appraisal and evaluation requirements for up to 120 days so that institutions can continue to lend to creditworthy borrowers. The banking agencies also issued guidance that provides greater flexibility for physical property inspections and for appraisals on properties underwritten to meet Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac standards. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued an interpretative rule to clarify that the federal government’s direct pandemic relief payments to consumers through prepaid accounts are not “government payments” for purposes of Regulation E and the Electronic Fund Transfer Act.
The Department of Health and Human Services announced it has awarded contracts to General Electric and Ford Motor Co. to manufacture 50,000 ventilators by July 13. The contracts are worth $336 million. Combined with other ventilator manufacturing contracts, the Department expects to produce or acquire more than 41,000 ventilators by the end of May, and over 187,000 ventilators by the end of the year.
HHS also announced that it was increasing the Medicare payout for certain coronavirus testing from $51 to $100. The new rate, effective April 14, applies to testing labs using “high-throughput machines.” To qualify for the higher payment, a lab must have equipment capable of processing 200 tests per day.
Over the weekend, the USDA approved a waiver adding Florida and Idaho to a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program pilot program allowing those receiving SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps, to order groceries online. The USDA has experimented with online SNAP shopping in several states, including California and New York. The program went into effect in Florida on April 16 and will be usable statewide on April 21. Participating retailers include Walmart and Amazon.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued CARES Act guidance directing lenders to grant multifamily housing mortgagees 90 days of forbearance if they request assistance. Servicers can grant this forbearance without direct HUD approval if they follow the protocol in HUD’s guidance. HUD also announced all properties in participating in HUD Multifamily assisted housing programs must cease evictions for non-payment of rent for 120 days.
WE ARE GRATEFUL FOR YOU
This week, we are GRateful for our client Uber. Uber Eats announced Thursday that they are teaming up with Feeding Tampa Bay to provide meals and groceries to the more vulnerable populations. The partnership is part of Uber’s pledge to provide 10 million free rides and food deliveries to health care workers, seniors, and others in need.
COVID-19 Task Force
GrayRobinson launched a COVID-19 Task Force aimed at helping businesses and local governments address evolving legal and regulatory challenges and emerge stronger from the pandemic.