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City commission approves mandatory vaccines for employees and signals upcoming mask/occupancy ordinance for the general public

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

“The sooner we get past this and get everybody jabbed, the better we’ll all be.” – Mayor Lauren Poe

At their August 5 meeting, the Gainesville City Commission discussed various measures they could take in response to the recent increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the community. Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said, “I do believe that we need to combat this, and the best way we can combat it is with vaccines… I think some of the things outlined by the charters of how we work on employee masking, I think we need to keep moving forward on that. I also believe that we should move towards drafting an ordinance that—while the state has said we can’t have emergency orders, I think there are ways that we can draft an ordinance that will allow us—if we set up certain parameters and hit certain conditions, the City Manager could put in place measures to require PPE, masks, other occupancy limits, things in that nature.

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“They may not need to be enacted, but I think we should be ready to enact those. And I believe if we draft an ordinance to that effect, I believe we could have those powers. I also believe that we should send a resolution to our businesses and to our community to get vaccinated. Lastly, I do think we should consider giving a PTO day to employees who are vaccinated, both those who were vaccinated and if you get vaccinated later. You do feel unwell sometimes after you get vaccinated, and they don’t want to use one of their PTO days for getting vaccinated and not feeling sick the next day. I think it’s another incentive for employees to get vaccinated.”

Commissioner David Arreola said he supported mandatory vaccinations for employees but thought the deadline didn’t give staff enough time to create and implement a plan. 

My daughter can’t get vaccinated until probably—I’m reading mid-winter is when they might offer it for under 12. I’m terrified, y’all. Absolutely terrified” – Commissioner Harvey Ward

Commissioner Harvey Ward said, “Tuesday I’m going to send my 10-year-old daughter to school for the first time in a long time. And thank God the Alachua County School Board, they have at least a couple of weeks’ mask mandate. My daughter can’t get vaccinated until probably—I’m reading mid-winter is when they might offer it for under 12. I’m terrified, y’all. Absolutely terrified. I got vaccinated as soon as it was possible. I’m so sick of wearing a mask, I don’t know what to do. But I keep wearing a mask. As much as we want to blame variants,… the fact is this spike is because we stopped wearing masks. We didn’t get as many people vaccinated as we thought we would, and people stopped wearing masks. I was in Publix, and I was the only one with a mask on.

“That’s why the hospitals are filling up with people who have COVID. And I know there are people watching at home, watching on the internet, hitting the laugh button about this. That stuff drives me insane.”

However, Ward said he didn’t support a vaccine mandate because a majority of City employees are in bargaining units (unions), “that we can’t force to do, frankly. And I don’t want to force people to do it. I want people to use good sense.” He was in favor of giving City workers a PTO day if they got vaccinated.

“I am with Commissioner Ward on this one. If this keeps spiraling, I might just get over any legal icky feelings I have and push towards that mandate.” – Commissioner Reina Saco

Commissioner Reina Saco said, “I learned a long time ago that people in this country take a lot of their privilege for granted. If your friends and family dying doesn’t matter to you, if your neighbor dying doesn’t matter to you, if other people’s family and friends in the hospital dying don’t matter to you, I will pray that you eventually get some empathy. That said, I don’t think it is my job to force you to get a vaccine.”

She said that only about 20% of City employees have provided proof of vaccination to the City. “I am with Commissioner Ward on this one. If this keeps spiraling, I might just get over any legal icky feelings I have and push towards that mandate.”

“You have a choice. If you don’t want to get vaccinated, then your choice is to seek employment elsewhere.” – City Attorney Nicolle Shalley

City Attorney Nicolle Shalley said the City is back to mandatory masks and temperature screening and that they are working on a vaccine attestation form that all employees will be required to complete. She said she thought a vaccine mandate would be upheld in court because “You have a choice. If you don’t want to get vaccinated, then your choice is to seek employment elsewhere.” She said some charter officers were in favor of waiting until the vaccines are fully FDA-approved before mandating them, and there is some concern that if a lot of employees quit or are terminated, that could create an operational problem for the City.

Shalley said that beginning August 5, anybody who enters any City building or facility will be temperature screened and must wear facial coverings at all times while indoors. She said that because this is not a state of emergency—“this is here to stay”—the City Commission can pass a regular ordinance requiring people to wear facial coverings when indoors. They could also establish indoor occupancy limits or capacity limits on businesses. She said the ordinance could contain a provision that when the City Manager determines that such measures are no longer needed, he would direct staff to stop enforcing them, and then, “when we get to a point where the coast is clear,” they could repeal the ordinance. 

“At this point, I mean, the Governor of Florida is no longer entered in my mind as a person of sound mind,  so whatever orders he’s putting out, I’m just not interested.” – Commissioner David Arreola

Arreola said, “If I could be convinced that unvaccinated persons in the workplace did not pose a health issue to other employees and their families, then I could go along with having it be optional for employment,” but children can’t be vaccinated yet. “I’m not going to ask anyone to come to work and to work with people who could infect them and then that infection comes back to their child. I will not do that”

He continued, “At this point, I mean, the Governor of Florida is no longer entered in my mind as a person of sound mind,  so whatever orders he’s putting out, I’m just not interested.” He said that whatever the commission decided on, he’s interested in expanding it to the public, “in terms of masking and things of that nature. Because the situation is dire.”

Hayes-Santos made a motion with seven parts, including the pieces he mentioned in his introduction to the agenda item.

“I don’t believe that it is, at this point, my job to force someone or mandate them to be vaccinated.” – Commissioner Gail Johnson

Johnson said she hoped the motion would be split because “I don’t believe that it is, at this point, my job to force someone or mandate them to be vaccinated. So I would like for us to split out those pieces of it. And everything else, I can support.”

Ward said he supported making a plan to mandate vaccines for City workers, but “I don’t want to move forward with any of this stuff that we don’t have to. I would love to see the spike decline rapidly. I want everybody to get scared and start wearing masks and stay home when they don’t have to go somewhere. That’s my hope, that this works, that people go get vaccinated because they are scared.“

“So I can’t tell anyone what you ought to do in this regard. This is a very personal decision.” – Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker

Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker said her father became critically ill with COVID-19 and was intubated and hospitalized for 60 days in the early days of the pandemic. But when he got the first dose of the vaccine, he also became critically ill and had to be re-intubated for a month and a half. “So I can’t tell anyone what you ought to do in this regard. This is a very personal decision.”

During public comment on the agenda item, a union representative who didn’t give his name said his members are “completely opposed” to a mandatory COVID vaccination, whether or not they themselves have been vaccinated. He said his members have been going to work every day and haven’t had the luxury of working remotely. 

The president of the Fraternal Order of Police said most of their members are also against a mandate, whether or not they are vaccinated. “They’re against anyone telling them what they have to put in their body.” He said their position is that it would create a change in work status for union members that would be “open to bargaining.” He said he knew several people who had “a terrible reaction to the vaccine, that put them back into the hospital.” 

Nathan Skop said that getting a COVID-19 vaccine “should be a personal health choice.” He said he’d had a bad reaction to the second dose of the vaccine and that it was inappropriate to “substitute your judgment for their personal health choices… I think you should respect your City employees.”

Tana Silva pointed out that the vaccines don’t prevent transmission of the virus: “Their purpose is to lessen the impact of the virus on the individuals, not the virus.” She quoted a recent CDC report that in Provincetown, MA, “more than 70% of hundreds of positive tests were among vaccinated individuals who associated with other vaccinated people. Repeating ‘a pandemic of the unvaccinated’ is unhelpful. No one is to blame.” She also said people who have had the virus should be exempt from any mandate because they have “superior natural immunity, and they risk severe reactions to the shot for no benefit… No one knows the long-term effects.”

Several other City employees called in to say that they opposed the mandate, as essential workers who had gone to work every day during the pandemic, supporting the City of Gainesville and GRU and the citizens of this community. 

My empathy for anyone who is unwilling to work with us right now and do what they need to do to keep this job and this community safe, that empathy, that ability to care about your opinions and your worries is out the window. I’m completely for that mandate right now.” – Saco

When the discussion went back to the commission, Saco said that immigrants to this country are required to get vaccines, “And the amount of privilege and entitlement in this country and community and selfishness is frankly disgusting. I am disgusted to represent a lot of people right now that are that selfish, that are that entitled, that are that willfully misinformed… I was on the side of, ‘You know what, let’s give people a lot of latitude. I don’t want to force things on people.’ Do you know how you lose that vote? With a lot of really dumb comments. I am — you know what? My empathy for anyone who is unwilling to work with us right now and do what they need to do to keep this job and this community safe, that empathy, that ability to care about your opinions and your worries is out the window. I’m completely for that mandate right now.”

Hayes-Santos added an eighth piece to his motion, proposing that they work with the unions to implement a plan to encourage employees to get vaccinated, “and it would be rolled out as soon as a quality plan can be put together.”

“You look at the data of who’s 100% against a vaccine or vaccine hesitant, it falls straight down political lines. And, you know, that’s killing people… So if there’s a little something that we can do to prevent that next person from dying on our watch, I’m going to do it. And you can call me all the names you want.” – Mayor Lauren Poe

Mayor Lauren Poe said, “It’s just so discouraging to see how this has been politicized. Like if there was one thing in our country that we should just not have seen — and you look at the data of who’s 100% against a vaccine or vaccine hesitant, it falls straight down political lines. And, you know, that’s killing people…  One of the callers… said we’re using our own judgment to make these determinations. We’re not. We’re making them based on what the medical community is telling us…  So if there’s a little something that we can do to prevent that next person from dying on our watch, I’m going to do it. And you can call me all the names you want.”

All eight parts of the motion passed:

  • The motion to support masking requirements for employees and the public in City buildings was unanimous.
  • The motion to direct charter officers to create and implement a plan to require that all City employees receive the COVID vaccine, with an exemption for medical/ADA reasons, passed 4-3, with Johnson, Duncan-Walker, and Ward in dissent.
  • The motion to direct the City Attorney to draft an ordinance to allow the City Manager to require masks, social distancing, occupancy limits, and other measures for businesses and the general public at his discretion, passed unanimously.
  • The motion to give a PTO day to all vaccinated employees passed unanimously.
  • The motion to restrict travel for all unvaccinated employees passed 6-1, with Johnson in dissent.
  • The motion to ask the Clerk to draft a resolution asking all employers in the community to mandate vaccines for their employees, ask members of the public to get vaccinated, and ask the public to wear masks indoors passed 5-2, with Johnson and Duncan-Walker in dissent.
  • The motion to direct charter officers to bring back a plan for employees to work virtually passed 5-2, with Hayes-Santos and Poe in dissent.
  • The motion to ask Employee Health Services and Communications to create and implement a plan to encourage employees to get vaccinated and work with the unions on that passed unanimously. 

Poe said he would meet with the unions in the next few days “about why I decided this, and where we go from here. The sooner we get past this and get everybody jabbed, the better we’ll all be.”

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