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BOCC discussion yesterday included concerns about lines at grocery stores and their desire to close gun shops

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

The Alachua County Commission had a meeting yesterday to talk about ambiguities and problems in the emergency stay-at-home order that was issued Monday.

Opening statements

Commissioner Charles Chestnut said he’d gotten calls from pastors because they were originally told they could have services if there were less than 50 people, but now they have to have less than 10 people. He was also concerned about funeral services. He also said the lines at Publix are very long and have been that way all day, so the limit of one person per 1,000 square feet is an issue. He was also concerned about even longer lines on the first of the month, when many people cash Social Security and other checks at grocery stores.

Commissioner Ken Cornell said he’d spoken to about 25 business owners who said they’d implemented guidelines to protect their own employees before the county’s order.

Commission Chair Robert Hutchinson said that after consulting with Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe, they “cobbled together” the “front half” of the Illinois order with the “back half” of the Broward County order. Some of the essential businesses in the Broward order did not make it into his list of essentials. “In some cases I may have changed my mind, having heard from folks.”

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Occupancy restrictions/grocery stores

Commissioner Mike Byerly was also concerned about the occupancy restriction (“I’m afraid that we are creating a handful of new issues in attempting to deal with the original issue”) and supported allowing construction sites to continue working and making pawn shops essential businesses because they provide a source of funds to certain people.

Commissioner Ken Cornell wasn’t a fan of the occupancy approach taken in the emergency order. He said the county should just require businesses to follow CDC guidelines. Cornell wanted to require all “essential” businesses to post signs about social distancing guidelines. He agreed with adding pawn shops and open construction sites to the list of essential businesses. He also supported adding car dealerships and used car lots. He thought that outdoor graveside services would be preferable to indoor services.

Commissioner Robert Hutchinson said moving to delivery services for groceries is “part of the change we need to force…that’s the model that grocery stores need to go to in this time, not just gonna turn folks loose.” He said the only way to keep people 6 feet apart in grocery stores is to have them go one way through the store, with no ability to backtrack. But he said a Publix manager told him they thought they could safely take about twice as many people as they are allowed under the one-per-thousand-square-feet rule. But Hutchinson said he wasn’t interested in changing the rule because people “were already sorting it out by the afternoon… and when you drive around and see a little line, you’re going to make a decision about whether to wait or not.”

Hutchinson said that for every call he’s received from a business asking him to not shut them down, he’s received three or four calls from people who said they’re being asked to work in unsafe conditions. “I expect we’ll be amending this order every couple days for quite a while because there’s plenty of ambiguities to fix… but the message we have to send… is you need to help us help you sort out these problems because business has to change, and it may have to change for months.”

County Manager Michele Lieberman said Publix managers told her that there is a shortage of Instacart shoppers, and Instacart is run by a third party. They were concerned about large numbers of seniors standing outside during the two days a week they provide a special hour of shopping for seniors.

Although the meeting notice said there would be no motions and no votes, the commissioners voted on several items to let Hutchinson know what they thought should be in a revised order.

Byerly asked where the one-per-thousand-square-feet rule came from, and Hutchinson said he put it in “because it’s easy math for everybody to do.” Byerly said he’d like to get some Publix managers in a room and ask them what they think is safe. 

Chestnut pointed out that some people on the east side of town don’t have internet service or the resources to pay for a delivery service. He was also very concerned about people coughing or sneezing on produce and suggested that they should require masks while shopping in grocery stores.

Hutchinson pushed back on allowing more people into stores: “Folks, we are trying to discourage people from going shopping, not make it easier to go shopping!”

Car lots

Chestnut said he wasn’t in favor of making car lots an essential business because he wouldn’t go out shopping for a car in a financial crisis. “It’s not essential. That’s why we have public transportation.” The commission, however, generally agreed that car lots could operate because most of what they do happens outdoors.

Church services

In a discussion of church services, Byerly said, “In my mind, a church service is like a football game. I mean, for purposes of what we’re talking about right now, it’s quintessentially the kind of social activity we’re trying to stop—large groups of people for a non-life-threatening situation , don’t need to be gathered. So I’m not interested in an exception for that.”

Hutchinson said, “I don’t know if we run into problems by saying we’re canceling church services, but people can go to Home Depot… that’s kind of nuts.”

Byerly asked what the difference is between church and a movie theater, and when he was told that movie theaters are closed by the order, he said, “That is the point I’m making. It seems like a social gathering is a social gathering. We’re concerned about the COVID virus, and that’s what we’re trying to stop, and the criteria should apply to that.” He said faith is important, but you can meet those needs in other ways besides going to traditional gatherings. 

Construction work

In a discussion about whether to allow construction work to continue, Hutchinson said, “I want to send everybody home, but that’s just me.”

Gun shops and target ranges

In a discussion about whether target ranges and gun shops are essential businesses, Hutchinson said, “I was the one who struck it out of the order, and I don’t believe it’s in our best interests to, because of the preemptions placed by the legislature, speak to it at all… In my opinion, it’s not an essential business, but there’s plenty of places where people can find their ammo.”

Lieberman pointed out that the way the order is written, everything is closed except what is specifically listed. County Attorney Sylvia Torres agreed and said it would be easier, legally speaking, if they called it an essential service for now. 

Byerly said it was hard to make an argument that a gun range is an essential service “and it’s a gathering place—when they’re shooting, they’re not that far apart, so I would distinguish between those two.”

Marihelen Wheeler said, “Most gun owners already have guns… if they want to get ammunition, they can get that from Walmart. If they’re folks who are really frightened and need to go get a gun, they can go to that pawn shop… I just feel like opening the guns to that just means we’re—in my case, that I would be supporting more gun sales.”

Chestnut said, “With the sale of guns and ammunition, I have no issue, but the shooting ranges, I do. I don’t see where that’s essential. That’s like practicing.”

They agreed to “stay silent” on gun shops and target ranges (in fact, the order ended up acknowledging that the state preempts local governments on firearms regulations).

The revised order was issued today

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