Orange County mayor postpones transportation sales tax effort amid pandemic, readies for ‘worst’ yet to come

Mayor Jerry Demings says he will renew efforts after coronavirus pandemic is over

ORLANDO, Fla. – Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said Friday he will stop his efforts to pass a 1 cent sales tax increase to cover area public transportation improvements to focus all efforts on preventing the coronavirus from spreading further.

Demings has been hosting forums for months, including conducting a county-wide online survey, to determine how to improve the county’s transportation systems. On Friday, he said he is suspending those pursuits. The tax measure was slated to make the ballot in November but Demings said due to pandemic they won’t make that deadline.

“We will take up the transportation after the pandemic,” Demings said.

With nearly 600 cases of COVID-19 in Orange County, health officials warn things will get worse if people do not follow the stay-at-home order now in effect across the state as part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order, which began Friday morning.

Demings said the county is preparing for the worst to come, including the increasing financial fallout.

“With the spread of the disease still on the rise, it is apparent that COVID-19 has affected everyone in our community,” Demings said, calling this the “uncomfortable new normal.”

On Thursday, Walt Disney Co. announced it would furlough employees later this month, further proof, Demings said, that no one or company will go untouched by this disease.

“Even Central Florida’s largest employer is not immune and will furlough employees,” Demings said, referring to Disney.

Orange County Florida Department of Health officer Dr. Raul Pino said the current goal is to increase the time between cases doubling in the area. Currently, about every three days cases are doubling. Pino said that needs to be closer to four to six days to begin to slow the spread.

“It’s important that people understand our curve,” Pino said. “Basically two weeks ago we had two cases," adding that now the curve is only going up and is almost vertical.

If the virus doesn’t slow the effect that it will have on our healthcare system will be huge, Pino warned. On Friday, the Agency for Health Care Administration released data showing the available hospital and ICU beds around the state indicating about 60% of the state’s hospital beds are occupied, including in Orange County hospitals.

Demings spoke with area hospital executives Friday and said they hope to have more precise models by next week to use to make some decisions and better prepare for what is to come.

The mayor said, in terms of in terms of capacity, hospital officials told him they have the capacity but they are concerned for what the demand will be several weeks from now.

Demings said there will be needs across the region and he is working with other county leaders to pull resources, including hospital capacity, and putting plans in place to have enough ventilators and alternative locations where patients can be housed.

“We are trying to understand the peak period and match that with resources, fill the gap before we need it,” Demings said.

About 6,000 people have been tested in Orange County for the respiratory illness, Pino said. Of the 589 people who tested positive, 81 are currently hospitalized, health department numbers show.

On Friday, two additional deaths were reported in Orange County, bringing the county total to six. The latest victims were two women over 80 years old. One of those women was at an assisted living facility. Pino declined to release the name of the facility.

Pino also explained what it means to be in recovery or when someone is considered recovered and can leave isolation.

For anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19, they must be seven days from when they first development symptoms, Pino said. Most people develop symptoms within seven days after being exposed to the virus but they can also appear up to 14 days from exposure. Next, the patient needs to have gone 72 hours without a fever and is showing fewer symptoms.

Pino said, finally, a COVID-19 patient will need to take a coronavirus test twice and test negative both times within 24 hours. At that point, he said, they should be safe to leave isolation.

Orange County Sheriff Mina said his deputies had not made any arrests yet for people breaking the curfew from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. or the stay-at-home order.

Deputies are still responding to businesses that are not essential and large gatherings, Mina said. Two Orange County Sheriff’s Office deputies are in isolation after testing positive for the virus.

“If you do not comply with this stay-at-home order, more lives will be lost,” the sheriff said, adding he does not want to make arrests, but “we will to save lives.”

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