As Florida weighs reopening, public invited to chime in

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida officials opened an online portal Saturday for the public to weigh in on reopening the state amid the coronavirus outbreak that has now shuttered schools and businesses for more than a month.

Glenn Barca poses for a photo outside his house Friday, April 24, 2020, in Wesley Chapel, Fla. Barca, a self-employed driver for a luxury car service in the Tampa area, says there was no way to keep a six-foot distance from his passengers and he feared what they had been exposed to on an airplane and at the airport. He stopped picking up passengers at the airport on March 20. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

In making the announcement, the governor’s office said “public feedback will be a critical component” in the work of the Re-Open Florida Task Force, a panel charged by Gov. Ron DeSantis to help guide him in deciding whether to lift an array of restrictions put in place to limit the spread of the virus.

As of Saturday morning, the state reported more than 30,500 known infections and said nearly 1,050 Floridians have died from COVID-19.

DeSantis was scheduled to visit a clinic in Weston, Florida, on Saturday, where he was to hold another news briefing.

The governor and his task force are attempting to strike a balance between public health and the reviving the state’s damaged economy. The public portal is sure to draw opinions that will further stoke the debate about when might be the right time to reopen the state.

DeSantis hoped to have the task force’s recommendations Friday, but some of subcommittees indicated they will need to submit theirs over the weekend.

School and business closures, as well as the governor’s “safer-at-home” edicts, have strained the economy and left hundreds of thousands of people without paychecks.

It has also led to countless frustrations among the newly jobless, who continued to have difficulty getting unemployment benefits — with much of the difficulty tied to the state’s glitch-prone unemployment system. That frustration mounted when state officials said its site would not be available for the weekend to people checking on the status of their claims.

As of Saturday, the state’s online unemployment dashboard reported that more than 785,000 Floridians had submitted claims since mid-March for unemployment benefits, with less than half processed. Of those, about 166,000 have gotten paid.

Florida has struggled more than other states to clear its backlog of claims.

The economy is the central focus of the governor’s task force.

During a Friday afternoon news conference, DeSantis said he had not yet decided when to reopen the state. He said his decision would be contingent on the availability of testing.

Small business owners, especially those in smaller counties that have not seen the surge of coronavirus cases experienced in hard-hit South Florida, have been antsy to reopen for business. But some cautioned that lifting restrictions too early could be dangerous to public health and prolong the crisis.