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City commission discusses further restrictions on restaurants and increased enforcement efforts on businesses

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

The early part of the Gainesville City Commission’s July 16 meeting covered the GNVCares program and issues related to COVID-19.

GNVCares Updates

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Assistant City Manager Deborah Bowie gave an update on the GNVCares for Neighbors program. 295 applications have been submitted for processing; more have been submitted by applicants, but there is a lag between approval and processing. The total assistance disbursed to date is $297,864.44. She said that as many as 321 applicants who applied didn’t submit any additional information, so the City couldn’t approve those applications. The City is now calling each of them.

70 people have responded since those calls were made, and they’re submitting additional information. Bowie said some of the applicants have “extenuating circumstances that would make it difficult for them to meet the federal threshold for the [Community Development Block Grant] (CDBG) funds—as you know, there is a quite extensive list of documents that they must turn in for approval.” She said staff felt that these individuals could meet internal control standards, so the City could fund them from the general fund instead of the CDBG funds that were originally proposed. “Ultimately, our goal really is to just help as many people as possible.”

City Manager Lee Feldman said the City has also entered into a contract with the Human Rights Coalition (HRC) and given them a first $15,000 allotment, which they have disbursed. The City is now getting ready to give HRC another $15,000 from GNVCares for Neighbors. “That’s really geared towards our neighbors who are undocumented and could not participate in either the federal or state money that came down. That’s funded from our general fund.”

In the GNVCares for Business program, they’ve received 266 applications, and they anticipate funding 120-140 of those. They eliminated 60-70 applicants because they didn’t have a current City of Gainesville business tax license. Over 70 applications have been approved and sent to finance for payment, and another 18 are waiting for the applicant’s signature. 

Commissioner Reina Saco said some landlords have refused to participate in the program (GNVCares for Neighbors payments go directly to landlords or utilities), and she wants people to understand “that if their landlord refuses to accept GNVCares funding for rent, they could be in violation of our housing discrimination protections at the City about income source protection… If we have other funds that come down to us to administer out to the public, I want that to be at the forefront of our minds, that it’s not a choice, most likely, for landlords, whether they want to participate in this program that, if an applicant qualifies and we have granted them the money to pay their rent, that it must be accepted.”

Mask enforcement

Feldman said the City has made 10,500 inspections to businesses since the pandemic was declared an emergency by the City on March 16, but since the most recent County emergency order, the City has started doing “special business outreaches,” where they station code compliance and Gainesville Fire Rescue staff in front of businesses to “encourage individuals to wear masks into those businesses.” They’ve made 6,177 contacts with individuals in front of businesses, and 654 masks were given out, “so neighbors came into compliance, and they did so willingly.” 15 people claimed medical exemptions and City representatives “left it at that,” and 11 people refused masks and were issued warnings. 

The City has distributed 80,000 masks on RTS buses. 

As a result of the clarification at the previous day’s City/County meeting, the City has started citing businesses for their employees not wearing masks. The City is developing an “enforcement dashboard” so people can look up businesses and see whether they’ve had any code enforcement violations. 

Restrictions on indoor food and alcohol sales

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos was in favor of banning alcohol sales (and possibly food) indoors.

Commissioner Harvey Ward moved that the mayor send a letter to the County, asking that their CARES Act funds be distributed without regard to the geographic location of the business (the intent behind this seemed to be that about 80% of businesses in the county are in Gainesville). He added that the mayor should send a letter to the governor and the Florida Department of Education, urging them to give school boards local autonomy on opening schools in the fall. 

“We’re going to try to avoid closing businesses, but if we have to, we will. It’s important that we get compliance.” 

Saco asked what the City will do about businesses that have repeat violations, and Feldman responded that most of the provisions in the County’s emergency order are enforced with citations, “but now that it’s been clarified that it’s the business that can get the citation, we’ll be starting to cite businesses… we’re going to try to avoid closing businesses, but if we have to, we will. It’s important that we get compliance.” 

Commissioner David Arreola added to the motion that the City should help UF with its contact tracing, although Mayor Lauren Poe said he didn’t think UF had a shortage of contact tracers. Poe said that if UF has a staffing issue, the City could temporarily reassign some personnel to help them. Arreola also asked to send a letter to the County about making payments from their CARES Act funds directly to utilities.

Commissioner Gigi Simmons asked whether Paul Myers (Administrator for the Alachua County Department of Health) could regularly attend future meetings of the city commission and give updates. Poe agreed to ask him. 

Arreola was concerned about “two upcoming crises”: he said that unemployment money is running out and that eviction moratoriums would be lifted soon. 

The eviction moratorium is currently set to expire on August 1, but the governor has already extended it multiple times. He has not signaled that he won’t extend it again. He has also not signaled that he won’t extend unemployment benefits; he has repeatedly waived requirements when the economy has not rebounded as he had hoped.

“I think the safest thing for our residents is no indoor service at bars or restaurants”

Poe said, “I’ve said this many times… I think the safest thing for our residents is no indoor service at bars or restaurants, but we need to provide an alternative, if that’s the case. I continue to strongly support outdoor service in non-traditional ways,” including closing streets or allowing restaurants to set up in parks.

Ward summarized the revised motion: Ask the County to close bars at midnight, send a letter to the county regarding business funding, send a letter to the governor about schools, extend an offer to provide personnel for contact tracing for UF, ask the County to add language to their Emergency Order to make it clear that businesses are responsible for their employees wearing masks, ask the County to direct payments to the utility, and send a letter to state representatives to ask them to help “grease the process” of closing state roads to create outdoor venues.

During public comment, Nathan Skop questioned the grant of $15,000 to HRC and what safeguards are in place to ensure that taxpayer money isn’t just handed to undocumented persons (especially since other GNVCares for Neighbors money was paid to landlords and utilities). He said Saco’s interpretation of the housing discrimination ordinance is “over-reaching… the City, in requiring landlords to accept this aid, subjects them to… administrative requirements. There’s no obligation to do that; they’re not discriminating against anyone… for whatever reason, they may not want to go through the City’s bureaucracy.” He said that Saco and Feldman had named several landlords in their emails, resulting in “public shaming” of landlords who have chosen not to receive the payments. Skop said that further restrictions on bars and restaurants would cause further damage to the local economy, especially in the Midtown area.

Debbie Martinez said that Alabama has made face masks mandatory, and Florida should follow suit. 

The motion passed unanimously.

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