City commission proposes closing restaurants during football games
August 21, 2020
BY JENNIFER CABRERA
The Gainesville City Commission’s first item of discussion in their August 20 meeting was COVID-19. Although Commissioner Gigi Simmons requested at their last regular meeting that they invite Paul Myers, Alachua County Administrator for the Florida Department of Health, to their meetings to present data, he did not appear. We reached out to him, and he said he had not received an invitation from them. Simmons was absent from the meeting.
The commissioners were very concerned about the return of students to Gainesville and particularly about football games. Mayor Lauren Poe said the City had been increasing the frequency of their meetings with the University of Florida and that they were getting “good cooperation” on off-campus activities, “especially things like house parties… That is the sort of major area of concern… The other big area of discussion right now is football… We do not know whether they’re going to try to have fans in the stadium or not… the concern that I and the City Manager have been sharing is whether or not there are people in the stands. There are likely going to be many visitors coming to town, and so how do we handle that?”
City Manager Lee Feldman said, “We have a lot of new neighbors coming to town in the next couple weeks… some are returning, and some are brand new.” He said the City is continuing to work with businesses to move activities outdoors, onto streets, parks, and parking lots. For example, they’re looking at closing one lane westbound on University Avenue in the 1700 block to “create some opportunities for the businesses along there to take over the on-street parking in that one lane, to have some more outdoor activity there.” An ordinance will be brought to the city commission for first reading on September 3 that will allow open containers (open alcoholic beverages) outdoors.
Poe said County Commission Chair Robert Hutchinson is talking to “anybody that has input” regarding what they would like to see in an updated Emergency Order. Poe said, “one of the big concerns is if bars were allowed to reopen, he was pretty clear that he wanted to issue a local order that would keep indoor service at bars shut down for now… I think the idea here is just, we’re in a critical couple-week period here, and we need to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to keep everyone safe and set the culture. If we do that right over the next couple weeks here, then I think we’re gonna be in good shape for the remainder of not just this semester, but next semester as well.”
Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos supported restricting bars to outdoor service and the measures proposed by the City Manager, including closing streets. “I did want to talk about game days, because I think that’s the biggest chance of transmission. I would like for us to consider taking a stance that we would not like to have fans in the stadiums or have a very, very tiny amount. I also think we should consider putting in an Emergency Order that, during games or during game day, that restaurants and bars, and all of that, aren’t allowed to be open, because people are just gonna go there and be in a tight place… And then, the same thing for tailgating: If we get people there, how do we deal with that?”
Commissioner David Arreola agreed with Hayes-Santos on “restricting any type of game day activity—in fact, I think it’s a completely ill-advised effort the university’s going on, and this is coming from a life-long Gator fan who fully expected this year to be our championship year… There shouldn’t be fans in the stadium, there shouldn’t be fans tailgating, there shouldn’t be fans congregating in bars to watch football. Students are already back, and the social distancing is already failing… I have had a number of students already reach out to me with deep concerns that the student body is not appropriately following… We need to take serious restrictions if the university is going to push forward with a football season—they are outliers, the SEC, and I’m not sure what the other conferences–but they’re outliers. I would propose that we enforce these ordinances in whatever ways that we can and impress upon the university that they need to take similar steps.”
Commissioner Harvey Ward agreed that they should do whatever they can “to keep our city safe, and I have had a lot of heartburn about the idea of standing-room-only, shoulder-to-shoulder folks cheering in neighborhood bars during football games—not only Gator games, but in general. But I’m not sure how much enforcement we can do.”
Feldman said they would need to go door-to-door to restaurants and bars to enforce the orders. He also said they’d have to decide where to enforce it, so people couldn’t just go across the street to Celebration Pointe and then go back to the university and spread the virus.
Poe said he has asked the City Manager to “get the Chiefs together to do a safety assessment: First and foremost, can we keep our first responders safe on a gameday situation? The last thing we need is 40 or 50 of our first responders to go down with COVID, and what would a plan look like to keep the community safe in those situations?… Hutch is concerned about being able to staff the ambulances and, of course, the coordination with [University of Florida Police Department] and [Alachua County Sheriff’s Office], as well… My impression from them is they’re not assuming they’re going to have people in the stands. They are looking at what other folks are doing… What happens inside the stadium is one thing, and I don’t think that’s any of our concern… It’s what happens everywhere else, most of which is outside the university’s jurisdiction… So those are the things we’re having some… conversations about… up until a decision is made and a football is potentially kicked off, which is another practice that’s archaic and should be done away with in this experimental time of COVID.”
Arreola added, “This is exactly the reason why we have to impress upon the university to cancel the football season even if we’re able to not have fans in the stands, even if we’re able to not have people in the bars. Is the student body just not going to congregate to watch the Gators? That is a folly expectation, and so I cannot stress this enough, I will impress this to the university: We have objective reasoning why this is not an intelligent decision because it is not just our first responders, but it is the first responders of other governments, and even the university itself, and employees that could be put in potentially harm’s way.”
After public comment, Harvey Ward said, “We are going to continue to take this seriously. It is awful that people are losing livelihoods over this. 31 residents of Alachua County have died from this. More than 170,000 Americans in less than 6 months have lost their lives. We’re gonna take this seriously. And I’m sorry that some people are uncomfortable with that… when the State of Florida doesn’t take it seriously, and some municipalities do, we look like the bad guys… But we have to take it seriously. People are dying. I, for one, will continue to have crazy ideas that keep us safe.”
New encampment at Grace Marketplace
A new encampment has sprung up on the north side of the fence line at GRACE Marketplace, near where Dignity Village used to be. Feldman went through the history of the process that was supposed to remove the encampment at Dignity Village in March.
Jon DeCarmine, the Executive Director of GRACE Marketplace, said there are currently 25 people camping outside GRACE, and they’ve been “working with the Dignity Village Outreach Team, using all of the protocols for the closure that the commission had agreed to, back in February, for the closure of Dignity Village, that resulted in zero arrests and more than 80 housing placements.” He said they’ve notified the people out there that it’s not going to be a camping area any more and that they will be offered a shelter bed starting today (including a COVID test and quarantine until the test result comes back) or transportation costs to travel to friends or family. One of the people in the camp has been trespassed from GRACE for violence, but the other 24 are invited to move into GRACE. 15 have said they’re definitely coming in.
Commissioner Reina Saco was concerned that the City is “in a sense, criminalizing a way of life… if we start penalizing camping in this lot, what’s to stop us from criminalizing and trespassing folks for camping somewhere else?”
The commission agreed to authorize Feldman to finalize the agreement to close the camp.
Land Development Code changes
During the evening session, the commission discussed an amendment to the Land Development Code to allow Accessory Dwelling Units in all single-family zoning districts. The biggest concern was whether they should require owners to live on the property and should do something to limit the ability to use these units as Airbnb rentals instead of affordable housing. They voted unanimously (with Simmons absent) to move forward with the proposed draft ordinance with a few changes. Then they voted separately to not require owner occupancy by a vote of 4-2, with Ward and Johnson opposed and Simmons absent. The second reading of this ordinance will be on September 3.
Then they discussed an ordinance to allow Single Room Occupancy residences in certain zoning districts. They also made a few changes to the proposed ordinance before voting unanimously (with Simmons absent) to approve it on first reading. That ordinance will also have its second reading on September 3.
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