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Florida special session recap, holiday travel, a Florida panther lights up Miami, and goodbye jai-alai

A traveler speaks to an American Airlines employee while checking in at Miami International Airport in Miami, Florida, on Monday, June 7, 2021.
Miami Herald
A traveler speaks to an American Airlines employee while checking in at Miami International Airport in Miami, Florida, on Monday, June 7, 2021.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida Republicans passed four COVID-related bills. What will these laws mean for you? Plus, airlines are preparing for one of the busiest holiday seasons ever. A local artist brings a giant lit-up Florida Panther to Miami. And, jai-alai is now a dying relic.

On this Monday, Nov. 22, edition of Sundial:

Gov. DeSantis gets his bills, as some Democrats skip special session

A handful of bills restricting vaccine and mask mandates are now law in Florida.

The three-day special legislative session from last week turned out to be a success for Governor Ron DeSantis and his efforts to fight federal COVID-19 mandates.

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One of the bills signed into law includes a controversial public records exemption. It keeps all employee complaints and state investigations on mandate restrictions a secret. That law has received criticism from First Amendment advocacy groups.

“News media in Florida is not interested in irresponsibly publishing personal health information of private citizens. What the news media is interested in doing is in holding businesses and governments accountable for their policies and job restrictions that relate to COVID-19,” said Steve Bousquet, a member of the South Florida Sun Sentinel's editorial board and the paper’s opinion editor.

Where were Florida Democrats while Republican leaders were scoring these wins? Some Democrats were literally absent.

The four senators who missed the vote are Lauren Book of Plantation, Lorrane Ausley from Tallahassee, Randolph Bracy from Orlando and Bobby Powell of Palm Beach County.

“The people who voted no on this bill were 10 Democrats, and they needed 14 to defeat this bill. Those four would have provided exactly that number, just enough votes to kill this bill,” said Bousquet. “Every time a Democrat doesn't show up, it makes the Republicans' job a lot easier.”

That showing, Bousquet said, doesn’t bode well for Democrats in the upcoming legislative session next year.

MIA holiday travel

Miami International Airport holiday travel

Air travel after COVID comes with new challenges for everyone: masks, social distancing at airports and more. And it will likely make lines longer when you take your flight home for Thanksgiving.

This year Miami International Airport is counting on a busier holiday travel season than before the pandemic:

"Yesterday, [Sunday, Nov. 21] we had our busiest day since the pandemic started and close to our busiest day ever," said Ralph Cutié, director and CEO of the Miami-Dade Aviation Department. "We had 159,000 passengers come through the airport yesterday and we anticipate having an extremely busy Thanksgiving holiday season. We're projecting 11 or 12 percent over our numbers from 2019, which were record numbers, to begin with."

Earlier this month, hundreds of flights were canceled due to a lack of airline employees.

Cutié said there are things out of a person's control when they fly, but at MIA they will try to mitigate the effects if any flights get canceled.

"So far, so good as far as the airlines not canceling flights, but obviously if something happens, we'll work together with them as we have in the past," he said. "I have my son flying in this Wednesday and his flight is OK. I mean, I will tell you, I'm pretty confident from my dealings with the airlines that I would be able to catch a flight if I had to leave here."

Holiday travel this year isn't just complicated with fears about flight reliability or cancellations. There's also been a national increase in dangerous and unruly passengers.

"The national average pre-pandemic nationwide was anywhere from 150 to 200 unruly passenger incidents a year... the latest numbers that I heard as of last week: we're nearing 5,300 unruly passenger incidents nationwide. So that's a more than 3,000 percent increase in those incidents," Cutié said.

Cutié said the Federal Aviation Administration has relayed to him that more than 80% of those incidents are related to mask-wearing during travel. For now, the mask-wearing rules are still in effect on planes and in airports.

"When people have been cooped up for so long and not been able to travel or get out of their house, I think that produces a certain amount of stress in people," he said, sharing advice for anyone traveling this week or the rest of the holiday season. "If you're going to fly domestic, try to get here more than two hours in advance of your flight. If you're going to fly international, try to be here three hours in advance of your flight."

MIA holiday travel
In 2021, U.S. travelers heading to European Union countries will have to apply for authorization online, as part of a security procedure for visa-free travelers.

Florida panther lights up Miami

Right by Bayfront Park in Miami, the InterContinental Hotel has a familiar display, the dancing lady in lights.

She's been dancing since December 2012.

If you’ve driven by or looked up recently, you may have noticed something different, The lady is gone and instead, you see Florida panthers.

“I always relate to the Everglades at night. There's a scene of millions of fireflies, which I also remember from the Everglades, and we're going to have flora and fauna little by little and we go into birds. We go into alligators,” said Carlos Betancourt. He is the Miami-based artist behind the work.

The display is called "Into The Everglades" and it will be viewable at the hotel through Monday, Nov. 29.

It's to raise awareness of the need to protect Florida's endangered species.

“These wildlands, this green infrastructure that sustains our life here in Miami is hidden in plain sight. But we don't often connect the dots with how exactly it is that they sustain our urban core," said Tori Linder, who is the director for Path of the Panther, an initiative that's supported by National Geographic.

She worked with Betancourt to bring this project to the Miami skyline.


Finally, we heard the story of a man whose life has revolved around the sport of jai-alai in Dania Beach. He would not have been born without it. Find the full story here.

Florida panther lights up Miami, goodbye jai-alai
Katie Bryden, Path of the Panther

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Leslie Ovalle Atkinson is the lead producer behind WLRN's daily magazine program, Sundial. As a multimedia producer, she also works on visual and digital storytelling.
Caitie Muñoz, formerly Switalski, leads the WLRN Newsroom as Director of Daily News & Original Live Programming. Previously she reported on news and stories concerning quality of life in Broward County and its municipalities for WLRN News.