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School Mask Mandates, FPL Rate Hike And Tourism Returns Amid COVID Spike

People gathered outside the Miami-Dade School Board building Wednesday to argue for and against a mask mandate in the school district's upcoming academic year.
Luis Hernandez
People gathered outside the Miami-Dade School Board building Wednesday to argue for and against a mask mandate in the school district's upcoming academic year

South Florida school districts mandate masks in the classroom. A planned rate hike for FPL customers beginning next year. And tourism is surging in Florida along with the coronavirus.

On this Thursday, Aug. 19, episode of Sundial. 

School Mask Mandates

Students in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach County Schools will be required to wear masks in the classroom, unless they have a medical exemption from their doctor.

The Miami-Dade School Board met yesterday and on a 7-1 vote moved forward with the mandate. It’s Florida's largest public school district and one of the largest in the country. Palm Beach County Schools also moved from a mask opt-out ordinance to a mask mandate.

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Danny Rivero
Protesters outside Wednesday's Miami Dade School board meeting. The School Board voted 7-1 to require masks in the classroom for the upcoming school year.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has threatened to withhold the salaries of school administrators, after signing an executive order that would ban mask mandates. But the threats from the governor have not deterred school board members or superintendents according to WLRN education reporter Jessica Bakeman.

“They basically thought it was worth it to go in that direction because that’s what they were being told by their team of medical advisors. And, given the rising number of cases, they believe a strict mask policy is the safest thing,” Bakeman said.

Florida's Board of Education held a teleconference call Tuesday where they discussed possible actions to reprimand Broward and Alachua counties for their mask mandate policies. They called upon state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to examine what possible penalties could be implemented on the districts, including the withholding of school board member salaries as well as the salaries of superintendents.

08-19-2021 SUNDIAL SEG A School Mask Mandates.mp3

FPL Rate Hike

Florida Power and Light has unveiled a plan to raise customer bills by an average of $9 a month beginning in 2022. The rate increase will be used to pay for the expansion of solar power, the under-grounding of power lines and the expected increase of more than 500,000 new customers by the year 2025.

Consumer justice advocacy organization Catalyst Miami has been speaking out against the rate hike because of its impact on the energy insecure.

“The changes that they are proposing exponentially increase the cost burden on customers that are purchasing energy for their residence versus customers that are purchasing it for commercial use. It’s a stark example of the inequities in our energy system,” said Natalia Brown, the climate justice program manager for Catalyst Miami.

We spoke with FPL spokesperson Chris McGrath who argued commercial users would be paying more for their energy usage — but was unclear how high the rate hike would be for commercial users.

He also pointed to FPL’s assistance program, that was started in response to the coronavirus pandemic, for those struggling to pay the electric bills.

But even with assistance in place, electric bills can still be too high for some. Brown pointed to FPL customers like Rochelle Jackson, who lives in Miami-Dade County.

“If you’re like me, one of those people who dreads seeing their light bill every month, I don’t like forcing my kids to play outside so they don’t use the microwave or the TV,” Jackson said.

The Florida Public Service Commission is hosting public meetings beginning Sept. 20 to discuss the company’s proposed rate hikes.

08-19-2021 SUNDIAL SEG B FPL Rate Hike.mp3

Tourism Returns Amid COVID Spike

Florida’s tourism industry was devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic last year — visitors were at a 10-year low. But a year later the industry is booming, with hotel occupancy rates reaching pre-pandemic levels and visitors paying significantly more than what trips cost in 2019. The boost in tourism comes as the state is seeing its highest coronavirus cases yet. The Florida Department of Health reported 151,000 new cases last week alone.

Jorge Pesquera is the president and CEO of Discover the Palm Beaches. He explained some of the lessons learned over the course of the pandemic and how they’ll be used in the industry moving forward.

“We need to be more mindful of crisis management and resiliency issues. We need to be prepared for more downturns. We had to cut 75% of our budget for the second [half] of the 2020 fiscal year,” Pesquera said.

Pesquera joined Bill Talbert, president and CEO of the Greater Miami’s Visitors and Convention Bureau, to discuss why tourism is booming in Florida and what safety measures are in place to keep both tourists and residents safe.

08-19-2021 SUNDIAL SEG C S FL Tourism.mp3

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Chris knew he wanted to work in public radio beginning in middle school, as WHYY played in his car rides to and from school in New Jersey. He’s freelanced for All Things Considered and was a desk associate for CBS Radio News in New York City. Most recently, he was producing for Capital Public Radio’s Insight booking guests, conducting research and leading special projects at Sacramento’s NPR affiliate.