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City commission decides against requiring businesses to enforce the mask order

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

At the May 7 Gainesville City Commission meeting, the commission viewed a presentation on the Fire Assessment Fee but didn’t make any decisions. Moving on to their COVID-19 response, Mayor Lauren Poe brought up enforcement of the County’s Emergency Order on facial coverings: “We have a real enforcement problem, in that the order is near impossible to enforce.” He pointed out that they have the authority to be more restrictive than the County but not less restrictive. 

Commissioner Harvey Ward said he supports the face mask order but doesn’t want to see anybody go to jail over that. He also said he would like to have Dr. Lisa Chacko available at their meetings for medical advice. 

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“The onus should be on the business”

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said he also supported the face mask order but that “the onus should be on the business—I think that’s how it’s actually enforceable. How it currently is enforceable is we have to have a codes person or police officer go in there and find someone without a mask and go ask them. That’s not gonna be enforceable. I think we should… have the City Manager draft the order that has the onus on the business that they have to be that gatekeeper.”

Commission Gigi Simmons said they need to do “aggressive testing and tracking” and agreed they need medical professionals at their meetings, specifically Paul Myers from the Department of Health. 

City Manager Lee Feldman gave some history on the City’s enforcement of the Order, saying they had immediately started sending out code enforcement officers to educate the entities that were covered by the Order. However, they found that while businesses were fine with requiring face masks for their employees, they didn’t want to confront customers who were coming into stores. For most of Tuesday, the City took the position that they could compel businesses to ask customers to wear masks or bar their entry, then they got advice from counsel that they were not interpreting the Order correctly, so they backed off.

Feldman says the County’s Order provides for a civil citation if a citizen doesn’t wear a mask, but the City’s Municipal Code does not have a civil citation provision, so their only option is to prosecute refusal to wear a mask as a second-degree misdemeanor. 

“The orders need to be matching”

Commissioner David Arreola said he didn’t want separate orders in the City and County because it would only contribute to the current confusion “and people may begin to listen less… if we get to a place when the County wants to go in a direction that we cannot follow simply because we cannot enforce what they’re writing, they need to turn back. Because if they go in their own direction without us, both governments are going to lose a lot of people’s very valuable ears and very valuable eyes in terms of what they’re taking in, who they’re watching, and who they’re listening to. So, you know, if there are county commissioners watching, please encourage your staff to do the same. The orders need to be matching.”

Commissioner Helen Warren said the County should organize meetings with representatives from all the municipalities in the county, along with large retailers and the public health professionals, so everyone is on the same page.

Poe said, “It’s not a lack of communication. They understand what the order is. They do not wish to comply with it. The ones that are not complying—some are—some are being excellent stewards of public health. Others don’t believe that it’s their job to do it. It’s not that they don’t know. And it’s not that they don’t know the arguments for why it’s important. It’s that they choose not to.”

“They do not want to confront their customers”

Feldman reiterated that he had talked to two “big national retailers,” and they had no problems making their employees wear masks, but “they do not want to confront their customers walking through the door and have the customers not choose to shop in their establishments any longer.”

Simmons asked whether the City or County were providing masks for those who can’t afford a mask—“And if not, why not?” Feldman responded that masks aren’t required; old clothing can be repurposed to make facial coverings that satisfy the Order. He said the City has been supplying masks to riders on RTS buses. He suggested that businesses could provide facial coverings to their customers. Simmons said that, with 80% of the county’s retail in the City, it wasn’t fair that the City has to enforce it when the County isn’t marketing the requirement and why they think it’s important. 

“Getting… orders by email”

Feldman asked for “30 seconds to vent,” saying that the City doesn’t “like hearing orders through press conferences, because that gives us the minimal time to respond. But when it comes down to the municipalities here, we’re getting pretty much orders by email, sometimes after the fact. Most of the times, after the fact. And that doesn’t give our communications and engagement staff an opportunity to gear up and to respond. So instead of being proactive in terms of our messaging, we become very reactive and have to engage in a manner that we don’t necessarily prefer to engage in because we don’t have any time to gear up for it.”

Poe said there is not likely to be a unified message because some of the other municipalities in the county are “pushing back hard against the facial covering element.”

“Not everybody is going to be happy with it”

Ward said, “I recognize that a lot of people don’t want to wear masks. Plenty of people have reached out to me, just like they have everybody else. I want people to be alive. And this is a public health issue… it’s nothing more than that. It’s the most basic kind of thing we’re supposed to do is try to keep our residents and our city safe, and this is what that is. So I’m comfortable with the county’s order and—I mean we asked them for that last time we had a meeting, so I support it and not everybody is going to be happy with it. I’m very sorry about that.”

Ward said people should go get tested through the Department of Health, which is free and no longer requires a doctor’s order.

Hayes-Santos made a motion to draft a City Emergency Order that places enforcement of the facial covering order on businesses for people entering their businesses. 

Warren said she was concerned about the effects of such an order on small businesses that may have to turn away some of their few customers or provide them with masks, and she was also concerned about the safety of employees who have to confront someone coming in without a mask. She favored encouraging more cooperation with education.

“I’m not sure the order being proposed would solve the issue”

City Attorney Nicolle Shalley warned the commissioners that ultimately, if the customer is uncooperative, they can’t make the businesses the enforcer. “I’m not sure the order being proposed would solve the issue.”

Arreola said he wished the face mask order had been put into place back when they gave the stay-at-home order, but he doesn’t want separate orders for the City and County. 

Poe preferred giving the charter officers some time to work out enforcement issues and revisiting the issue in a future meeting. 

During public comment, Nathan Skop said the commission should invite Paul Myers to their meetings. He pointed out that Myers does not support mandatory wearing of masks or facial coverings and that Myers had not been invited to discuss gating criteria with them. He reminded the commission that the County’s Order has a medical exemption and that people are not required to disclose their medical history to a business. He also pointed out that the city commission has passed laws against plastic straws, but the City printed a thousand Captain Quarantine signs on corrugated plastic to place around the city.

Daniel Murawsky said the commissioners should pay attention to evidence that masks don’t block COVID-19

A caller named Paula suggested asking businesses to display signs that encourage customers to wear masks. 

Commissioners Ward and Arreola referred to the CDC guidance on cloth face coverings. Ward said, “I won’t read it, but I will point out that it is footnoted from the New England Journal of Medicine articles and from articles from the Lancet—the best possible medical advice. Masks. Do. Help.” However, all of those articles are about the asymptomatic spread of COVID-19, not about the efficacy of cloth facial coverings in reducing the spread of COVID-19. 

“Threatened multiple times a day because of the mask issue”

Commissioner Gail Johnson said she’d just received a text from a woman who works for the City: “She says, ‘My son works at Walgreens, and he says that he is threatened multiple times a day because of the mask issue. They ask customers to put on a mask, but they become almost violent.’ So this is why it’s going to be important, once again, to take this process, to take this decision through the Racial Equity Toolkit process… because we need to talk about bias; we need to talk about the potential violence of people in our community when they’re asked to do something that they don’t want to do; we have to talk about sensory issues that some people might be experiencing; we have to talk about what Commissioner Simmons mentioned, with economically-disadvantaged people and how they’re going to be affected by this in terms of getting a mask. So all of these questions really need to be thought through before we decide that this is what we’re going to do in the city… I think we need to stick with the County on this one to avoid confusion.”

The commission voted on whether to run the decision through the COVID-19 Equity Toolkit, and that vote passed, with Simmons, Ward, Warren, Johnson, Hayes-Santos, and Poe voting in favor and Arreola in dissent.

Then they voted on whether to ask the City Manager and City Attorney to work together on a more-enforceable facial covering order and bring it back to the commission. That vote failed, with Hayes-Santos and Poe in favor and Ward, Warren, Arreola, Johnson, and Simmons voting no.

Virtual meeting rules

The commission also discussing extend their virtual meeting rules and changing the deadline for agenda changes from seven calendar days to five calendar days before the meetings. Interestingly, an item to schedule a Special City Commission Meeting for May 11 was part of the Consent Agenda in the May 7 meeting, and the agenda for that meeting was posted at 5:18 p.m. on May 7, just 4 days before the meeting. The motion to extend the virtual meeting rules passed unanimously. 

2021 City election dates

Another item was pulled from the Consent Agenda by Hayes-Santos. The item was just a matter of approving City election dates for next March, but Hayes-Santos had noticed that the election date was during UF’s and SFC’s spring break. He proposed moving the date a week earlier. Poe congratulated Hayes-Santos on the “good catch… We’d have to go back and amend it if we hadn’t caught it today; that’s something we always try to make sure we avoid.”

During public comment, Nathan Skop said he didn’t support the motion: “As we know, the students are here for a limited time. They have opportunities to vote in early voting, they have opportunities to vote in absentee ballots, and moving the elections solely for the benefit of the UF students and Santa Fe students is clearly an example of partisan gerrymandering.” He also said the Supervisor of Elections should require a signature across the seal of absentee ballots to ensure the integrity of those ballots. “You could collect the ballots in a signed envelope that’s not signed across the seal, and political operatives could commit voter fraud and basically fill out that ballot any way they want to.”

Ward pushed back: “I think it’s incumbent on us, when someone attacks the integrity of the voting system, to stand up for it. There is no voter fraud going on in Alachua County. That isn’t to say that it couldn’t one day happen, but there’s simply not a history of voter fraud in Alachua County. Our Supervisor of Elections does an amazing job… The elections process in Alachua County is a good process. We have not had trouble with it, and I think it’s important for us to stand up for the folks doing that work, and I will absolutely continue.”

Poe added, “Gerrymandering is when districts are drawn unfairly to benefit one group of people over another. We’re not redrawing any districts here. What we are doing is moving elections to facilitate the most number of people possible being able to vote in the election, and it’s not just students, most of whom don’t vote, unfortunately, but it’s all of the employees of the university, of the college, and of the school board, who would be disenfranchised if we were to hold elections during a spring break. I am disturbed, but not shocked, that we have people in 2020 arguing that we should try to keep people away from the ballot box, that because they spend a short amount of time here, they value less than other human beings, that their voice doesn’t matter and that we should set the rules to keep them from participating in the political process.”

The motion to move the election a week earlier passed unanimously. 

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