- Associated Press - Saturday, July 4, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) - The Fourth of July holiday weekend began Saturday with some sobering numbers in the Sunshine State: Florida logged a record number of people testing positive for the coronavirus.

State health officials reported 11,445 new cases, a single-day record. The latest count brings the total number of cases in the state to 190,052. A website maintained by the Department of Health shows an additional 245 hospitalizations from the outbreak. More than 3,700 people in Florida have died.

Local officials and health experts are worried that people will gather over this July 4 holiday weekend and spread the virus through close contact. They’ve tried to mitigate spread by shutting bars statewide. Some regional attractions, such as Zoo Miami and Jungle Island, have closed. Universal Studios in Orlando is open.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez closed Miami-Dade County beaches through the July 4 holiday weekend. Municipalities elsewhere in South Florida, from Vero Beach to Broward County, did the same. Beaches in the Florida Keys are also closed. Public beaches along Pinellas County’s 35 miles of sand are open.

The number of patients requiring ventilators in Miami-Dade County has increased from 61 two weeks ago to 158 on Saturday, according to Miami-Dade figures posted by the county online. The highest number of patients on ventilators was 198, on April 9.

On St. Pete Beach on Saturday afternoon, parking spaces were scarce as people flocked to the wide strip of sand on the Gulf of Mexico.

On the beach, hundreds of people clustered in groups under umbrellas and in cabanas. Deputies from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office patrolled the sand on ATVs, telling people to stay with their own families or groups and away from others.

“We’re going to social distance,” said Keisha Pereira, who came to the beach from Osceola County, closer to Orlando. She was with her daughter and two other children and said they were armed with hand sanitizer and masks in case they decide to go anywhere other than the beach. “We’re going to stay with each other. I feel pretty safe outside.”

In Jupiter, along Florida’s east coast, people boarded their boats to enjoy the Fourth of July on the water.

Kim Stone, a Jupiter resident, said she was happy to be outdoors.

“I think it’s great. Family, friends get some fresh air with everything that’s going on in our country,” she said. “We are doing our social distancing like we’re supposed to be. … It’s nice after quarantining for so long and afraid to go anywhere. You can’t get better than fresh air and out on the water.”

In Orlando, a week before the first of Walt Disney World’s theme parks are set to reopen for the first time since March, three firefighters for the theme park resort’s private government have tested positive for COVID-19, union officials said Saturday.

As many as 10 other firefighters for the Reedy Creek Improvement District are in quarantine, said Tim Stromsnes, an official with the Reedy Creek Fire Rescue IAFF Local 211.

Firefighters are upset since they are expected to use up sick or vacation days while in quarantine, instead of getting paid time off. They also said Disney’s private government has done a poor job of communicating their coronavirus-related policies and informing other firefighters about their sick colleagues.

“They can’t manage COVID in the fire department. How is Reedy Creek going to protect visitors?” Stromsnes said.

The Reedy Creek Fire Department has under 140 firefighters.

The Reedy Creek firefighters have some of the most generous benefits in Florida, with 20 days of sick leave which translates into 10 weeks since firefighters work two days a week, said Eryka Washington, a spokeswoman for the Reedy Creek Improvement District.

The district has had an infectious disease protocol in place predating the pandemic and firefighters and paramedics have been trained in it, she said.

Two theme parks, Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom, are set to reopen next Saturday for the first time since coronavirus-related closures in March. The resort’s two other theme parks, Epcot and Hollywood Studios, are opening four days later.

Jackson reported from Jupiter, Fla. AP reporter Mike Schneider contributed from Orlando, Fla.

Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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