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City commissioners urge County to “think creatively to get around the governor’s order”

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

In a joint meeting of the Gainesville City Commission and Alachua County Board of County Commissioners on September 30, the commissioners discussed the various ballot initiatives on the November ballot and then discussed the current COVID situation and proposed changes to the emergency orders.

Ballot initiatives

In a discussion about the County Charter Review Commission’s proposed charter amendment stating that the County’s Comprehensive Plan and land development regulations would exclusively govern land development, even if a parcel of land is later annexed into the boundaries of a city, City Commissioner Harvey Ward asked County Attorney Sylvia Torres to explain the suits being brought against the County by some of the municipalities. Torres responded that the only suit currently filed is from the City of Alachua and that it “goes to two basic points… the number of words, the statutory requirements, and it goes to whether it’s constitutional or not.”

City Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said he supports the amendment because it will “hopefully stop the sprawl that we’re seeing. It’s very important to our county and the county’s future that we do not promote sprawl. And I think this will help accomplish that.”

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Board Chair Robert Hutchinson added, “When people, particularly in these smaller towns that are hell-bent on accommodating sprawl, they talk about it in terms of freedom and this and that and the other, I say which part of the way south Florida developed do you like, because that’s exactly the policies that you’re trying to put in place here.”

COVID-19

Next up was the COVID-19 discussion with the University of Florida. Dr. Michael Lauzardo began by saying the hospital census [at Shands] is “down pretty low. I think the last numbers I saw were 41 patients with COVID, which is well below our maximum and well within our capability. Many of those patients, if not most, are transfers from out of county, largely related to a prison outbreak with COVID patients.”

He then discussed COVID cases on campus: “Cases increased very quickly, very predictably, about five to six days after students were back in town… in the second week of school we saw cases doubling about every three days. But again, the way contact tracing works and the isolation and quarantine that follows, we were able to get to those cases, isolate the cases, identify them, and then also quarantine the contacts. And as fast as the cases rose, they also decreased by half every three days shortly thereafter.

“So now, three weeks post Labor Day, four weeks now after the start of school, we are now seeing cases back down to our total number for UF affiliates that we were seeing over the course of the summer. We’re down to 20-something cases amongst UF affiliates… another bit of good news there as well, is that we’re now three weeks out from Labor Day weekend. The county is not seeing an increased surge. I’m looking at the board where I keep track of the daily county numbers, and today’s reported number was 63 cases, and we’ve been pretty steady there now for the last almost a full week now… This will be the first holiday weekend that two weeks later we don’t see a big surge.” Lauzardo said he was concerned about bars being fully open.

“It’s given me a lot of comfort in knowing that no matter what happens in Tallahassee, UF is going to continue to follow the science.”

County Commissioner Ken Cornell asked, “What you just said—it is UF’s intention to continue to take a follow-the-science approach?” 

Lauzardo replied, “That’s correct.”

Cornell followed up, “And so with regards to the governor’s opening up of Phase 3 throughout the state, do you anticipate anything changing specifically on campus with regards to continuing to follow the science and continuing to require masking as a preventive measure?”

Lauzardo answered, “Absolutely. Right now I think that there’s been no new evidence to show that masks are not effective. In fact, the consensus is, you know, it has grown to the point where it’s universal in terms of the scientific community, the benefit of masks. Again there are issues there in terms of no randomized controlled trials and things like that used for evidence in other circumstances. but there’s so much evidence to show that that is a benefit, so we’re not seeing anything new to change that. If we do see evidence of that, we’ll back off and then kind of obviously have us follow the science as we go along.”

Cornell replied, “It’s given me a lot of comfort in knowing that no matter what happens in Tallahassee, UF is going to continue to follow the science.”

“Making such an announcement the day before SEC football kicked off was really a kick in the gut for me.”

City Commissioner David Arreola asked, “With the governor’s latest order to essentially take away local ability to enforce occupancy limits, mask wearing, and social distancing at bars and restaurants, especially with the Gator football home game this weekend, are you all anticipating another rise in cases? Because based on what I have been witnessing in my city, I think that’s an expectation that we should have.” 

Lauzardo answered, “We’re in a good spot at the moment, but I think that some of these other activities will potentially put us at risk.”

Arreola said the City, County, and university should work together on “unified” messaging: “I’m glad to see the tapering off of cases in the last week. But, you know, making such an announcement the day before SEC football kicked off was really a kick in the gut for me. Because we’ve been trying so very hard… I made an appeal to the Board of Trustees to consider reversing their plan to go forward with inviting 17,000 people to Gainesville… I think the safety precautions at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium are appropriate, not just for general admission but also for the box seats. I’ve heard them, reviewed them, I think it’s appropriate. Of course the danger is before, during, and after, and all of the gathering that happens outside, not necessarily directly outside of the stadium, but off campus, since tailgating has been prohibited and the governor’s order doesn’t help us… we really have to continue to push against the disinformation and push against the noise that is really sort of drowning this out.”

“We can go in and close bars at 10:00.”

Mayor Lauren Poe said, “One last thing and I’m really speaking directly at you, Mr. Chair. We still have one major tool in our toolkit that the governor has not preempted us from using, and that is bar closing times. And I think that we need to be very serious about using that as a potential incentive and we need to watch very closely what happens this weekend and really put word out, especially to the bar owners, that if they don’t take the responsibilities very seriously in keeping people distanced… then, you know, we can go in and close bars at 10:00.”

Hayes-Santos pointed out that closing bars early could lead to more house parties. Hayes-Santos added, “There are things that south Florida cities are doing on masks. I believe we should do them, we can talk about it later, but I think we should put forward emergency orders that—we can still do things on masks, our cities and counties in south Florida are doing them. We should not give up locally.”

“This whole idea of a student bill of rights, I think, is dangerous”

Cornell addressed the UF representatives: “This whole idea of a student bill of rights, I think, is dangerous, and I think while we can’t do anything, I certainly know what you all can do on campus, and we will continue to support that. As long as you’re following the science, you’ve got support from this commissioner…  If that changes, I would ask that you bring us in the loop. Because this commissioner is following UF Health’s guidance. As long as you continue to do that, you’ve got my support.”

“We can fine businesses all we want for not enforcing mask wearing and such.”

Hayes-Santos wanted more discussion on the County’s emergency order: “We should take action to stop the virus from spreading. We don’t need to give up because the governor put out a new order. There are still things that we can do, and I believe we should do. We heard from Dr. Lauzardo that masks are the most effective thing that can be done to reduce the spread of COVID when social distancing isn’t happening. 

“Concerning the governor’s order, we can still give out citations for not wearing masks to individuals. We just can’t collect those fines during his emergency order. After the emergency order, my understanding is we can collect those fines all we want to, afterwards. So we can keep enforcing it, we just can’t have them pay during the emergency order. That’s what’s suspended, is the collection of those. We should also look at putting in place that businesses need to enforce mask wearing inside their private areas and where the public is at. Monroe County, the Keys, I think other places in south Florida are doing it. Places around the country are doing that as well. That can go into effect, and that’s not preempted under the governor’s order. We can fine businesses all we want for not enforcing mask wearing and such.”

“We just need to think creatively to get around the governor’s order”

Hayes-Santos continued, “We should also look at mandating that people wear masks in lines when they are queueing up outside bars and restaurants. We’ve seen a lot of that, and I think we’ll see more of that during game days. We should mandate that if you are there, you have to wear a mask while you are queueing up. Even though it’s outdoors, according to Dr. Lauzardo, even just being in close proximity. 

“Let’s reduce the number of COVID cases in our community. We can save lives. We’re acting like we can’t do anything, but we can. There are ways that we just need to think creatively to get around the governor’s order… We need to take action, and we can’t just give up ‘cause the governor is in some dream land of election time, thinking everything is over. We have a responsibility to protect the residents of our community.”

“I… saw the president’s command last night to the white supremacist militias”

Arreola brought up the upcoming elections: “I think, like many of you, saw the president’s command last night to the white supremacist militias. We need to be prepared for interlopers on election day, trying to interfere with people trying to vote, and so I think we need to have that conversation, at least, with the appropriate bodies. We have a fantastic Supervisor of Elections, and we all need to be supporting her and her office, not just with resources but, if need be, with law enforcement.”

“So presumably for this time, we can issue citations but they are not collectible.”

Cornell asked Torres to explain the current mandates: “Currently, what’s in place is the requirement for masks in certain locations and the requirement for businesses to post signage about social distancing and masking. And the requirement for businesses to be responsible for their employees wearing masks. So the way the governor’s order works, we can’t collect against individuals but that’s the verb that was used, collect. So presumably for this time, we can issue citations but they are not collectible.”

Hutchinson responded, “The way the county emergency orders work is I get to be dictator and sign them until the county commission next meets, and then they can overturn or confirm what I’ve done. So the next time we meet is October the 6th. I’ll be talking with the staff to draft something up.” 

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