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Byerly pushes Hutchinson to relax occupancy limit

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

During today’s Alachua County Commission meeting, the commissioners discussed various topics related to the COVID-19 crisis.

Byerly’s “1 to 10” scale

Commissioner Mike Byerly gave a useful scale for where people fall in their policy preferences: “It’s not political, and it’s not ideological, not philosophical; it seems to be psychological. On a scale of 1 to 10, at #1 are people who think the whole thing is a hoax, and they’re not going to change anything in their lives, and at 10 are people who kind of want to live in a sanitized plastic bubble until we have a guaranteed antidote and they’ve received it… I was closer to an 8 or 9 at the beginning of this, and as I see the economic and psychological and social costs, which are much harder to quantify than people who are sick or who died, but are mounting, and they are real… As I see those things beginning to grow, I feel myself moving more towards the center.”

He said the big question for government is what steps to take, how fast to take them, and how much of it “should remain permanent.”

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“I think it’s never going to be a perfectly safe world where we can know that we can do these things without risk. Of course, as soon as we begin to release our controls, more than likely, there’s going to be a response in this virus, and ultimately the only way out of it at the end is when we’ve reached a point where our population’s sufficiently immunized against it and has been exposed to it, where we can begin to categorize it with some of our other health afflictions.”

He added that many children, especially those who don’t have siblings, haven’t seen any other children in a month. 

Hutchinson’s “two capacities”

Commission Chair Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson said he’s looking for triggers to consider loosening the restrictions, and he thinks two capacities need to be developed. One is to deliver food and basic services to people who are quarantined (either because they are at risk for complications or because they’ve been exposed to the virus), “and that’s going to be a reality for at least the next year, year and a half.” The second is a “robust, systematized way to do contact tracing” to quickly inform those who have been in contact with someone who has tested positive. 

He said the hospital capacity is looking good, “so we could turn everything back on, with the assumption that everybody on this call is going to get it, and we’re going to mostly be okay, but certain people will not.” He doesn’t see any way to have large public gatherings for the next year that are safe. “Until people learn that if they are coughing, they cough once, they need to go home and stay home, and just not be out there inflicting it on other folks… behaviorally, we have not gotten there yet.”

Hutchinson said they could possibly have specific times that people in grocery stores must wear masks “because I know people who are terrified of going into grocery stores right now because the help’s not wearing masks and most of the customers are not.” His said his phone is blowing up with people at 8 or 9 on Byerly’s scale who won’t go shopping. “I’m kind of right there on the 5; I’m willing to catch it, as long as I know that I can get in there to Shands.”

Byerly asked, “Then why won’t you extend the number of people that can go into a grocery store at the same time?”

Hutchinson said it’s their duty to “allow the greatest number of people to survive this until PPE becomes available… Now I’m more confident… that I don’t think it will go exponential around here… The longer we extend this, the longer I think we’re going to get through this without there being the dire circumstances that happened in other places. But there will be permanent changes until there’s a vaccine.”

Changes to occupancy restrictions

As the commission continued to discuss various topics around their COVID-19 response, Commissioner Ken Cornell asked whether they wanted to make any changes to their occupancy restrictions (currently 1 customer per 1000 square feet). He proposed changing the rule to 1 customer per 750 square feet and monitoring that for a week. 

Byerly immediately chimed in, “So moved.” He has consistently argued that it’s easier to maintain a distance from other customers inside the store than it is when you’re in line outside the store.

Hutchinson said he was willing to go to 1 per 750, but he wanted to wait until he issued the next Emergency Order on Monday instead of issuing an interim order tomorrow, “so we’ll let it run through this weekend, then on Monday it’ll be 750.” Hutchinson didn’t want anyone to make a motion because the new procedures for taking public comment require taking a break for 10 minutes or so to wait for people to phone in and make public comment recordings.

Byerly asked the County Attorney who has the authority to make the change: Does Hutchinson have the sole authority, or can the County Commission overrule him with a direct vote? County Attorney Sylvia Torres said that Hutchinson has the authority when the Commission isn’t available. But since “these are emergency times,” she said that Hutchinson wouldn’t necessarily be bound by a Commission vote.

Cornell said, “Hutch, you can just do it.” Byerly added, “You can do it, or I’m going to put a motion on the floor. Those are your options… I’ve been waiting 3 weeks to get this done, and every time I go shopping, I feel more strongly about it.”

Hutchinson said he would write the order to change it to 750 tonight and sign it tomorrow.

Should masks be required in stores?

Earlier in the meeting, Alachua County Administrator for the Department of Health, Paul Myers, gave an update on the current status of COVID-19 cases in Alachua County. The graphs in the presentation were essentially identical to the ones we provide in our daily updates, so we won’t go into the details. However, Hutchinson asked Myers whether the County’s Emergency Orders should include a provision requiring masks in grocery stores and pharmacies.

Myers said, “When I read the literature… one of the challenges of this event is trying to keep up with the changing science and the changing guidance that seems to come down from CDC… from what I’ve seen so far, while masks may not harm individuals, unless it gives you a false sense of security, I’m not so sure wearing a mask that’s not an N-95 really contributes to stopping the spread of this disease. Again, CDC has put out there that wearing masks in public is advisable, so I would defer to them, but I don’t want that to give people a false sense of security in terms of keeping their distance away from others, venturing out if they’re ill—we certainly don’t want them to do that—we certainly don’t want them to be adjusting this mask out in public and touching their face above their neck… it’s uncomfortable.”

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