HomeLocal governmentCity/county joint meeting leads to indoor gathering limit of 10 and outdoor limit of 50
City/county joint meeting leads to indoor gathering limit of 10 and outdoor limit of 50
August 29, 2020
BY JENNIFER CABRERA
The Gainesville City Commission and Alachua County Commission had a joint meeting on August 26 to discuss COVID-19 and the students’ return to the University of Florida.
University of Florida
Dr. Charlie Lane, Senior Vice President of UF, gave the first presentation. He said that about 55% of UF’s students have moved back into the dorms. 91% of their employees have been cleared to return to work, with 63% of the employees opting to be tested. Their Alternative Work Location Policy is still in place and is being used by about 2,000 employees.
UF’s enrollment is down about a thousand from last year. 99% of the students have been screened, and 36% have opted to be tested. Residents’ contracts are lower than usual; the current occupancy is 73% of the undergrad housing and 76% for the graduate and family housing. UF has set aside 400 beds for isolation and quarantine purposes.
UF’s maximum permitted event attendance is 50 people for indoor events and 250 people for outdoor events. They are requiring face masks and physical distancing, and they are asking event organizers to keep track of the attendees for contact tracing purposes.
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Most athletes are back on campus, and the first home football game is scheduled for October 3.
Regarding enforcement, Lane said, “Obviously, we are concerned about students gathering in various spaces and not having enough distancing, not wearing masks. So we are monitoring that. And so I suppose if there is an ask that I have today—and I’ve talked to a couple of the commissioners about it—is that we try to get our law enforcement officers, officials, together to talk about coordinating at an operational level what goes on between UFPD, GPD, the Alachua Sheriff’s Department in order to be able to really help control and manage what goes on off-campus, especially on private properties. I was in a meeting yesterday or the day before with Chair Hutchinson, and this was discussed a little bit. We need some clarity on the maximum number of individuals that can gather socially in any kind of updated Emergency Order, I think. And the Emergency Order needs to be set fairly clear, I think, in terms of what enforcement options we’ve got. Our UPD officers have begun to do some policing with GPD, but we are really limited in terms of what we can do. If there’s underage drinking, then obviously we can use that as a nexus to maybe take better control of some of these events. But we are really pretty limited other than that in terms of what we can do at this point in time. So I’m hoping we can address that challenge.”
Dr. Michael Lauzardo, an epidemiologist at UF, said, “We’re in a little bit better spot than we anticipated with the epidemic when we saw the numbers go up in the mid-summer… What’s been going on in the county and going on on campus is pretty much reflective of what’s going on throughout the state and in most of the sun belt states. Our cases peaked in about the second to third week of July, and that was reflected not only in the number of cases in the county, but also in the number of patients that we were seeing in the hospital. Our census in the hospital, if you may recall from previous presentations, peaked at about 90 inpatients with COVID, well within our capacity to withstand the surge that had occurred. Obviously, we don’t want to see anybody coming in the hospital. We want to see those numbers stay low and no one getting that sick they have to come in, but if they come in, we are able to handle that. In addition, we have seen the people modify their behavior. The use of masks, we believe, is what’s resulted in cases dropping inexplicably, and they have been able to go down.
“Again, there’s all the nuances about testing and different things, but we really feel that this drop that we’ve seen in the last three weeks is real. The census in the hospital now is hovering at about 70, actually low to mid 60s, kind of bounces around a little bit. And that’s been good. You expect to see hospitalizations drop after your peak in cases, and then the deaths will also drop as well. So these are all good markers.”
Lauzardo said the isolation and quarantine facilities are for students who live on campus; others are expected to isolate at their homes.
City Commissioner Gigi Simmons asked what the university will do if a student refuses to wear a mask. Lane answered, “If a student were to come to class without a mask, that faculty member has the prerogative to ask that student to leave. If that student doesn’t, we have instructed faculty members that they have the prerogative to dismiss the class. And that student’s name would be given to the Dean of Students office. They would consult with that student. If that student did it again, we’d take much more stringent actions after that, including possibly dismissal from school. If necessary, we might even ask our own police to escort the student from the classroom.”
City Commissioner Reina Saco said, “But I am honestly and sincerely worried about house parties. I’m worried that, you know, 50 people being allowed to gather is maybe 45 people too many… I think bars and a house party don’t have much of a difference. It’s going to be people in close quarters drinking without masks, not taking precautions, losing the majority of their faculties as they continue to party and drink. And that’s going to lead to 500 cases of it here. I’m dead certain of it.” She wanted to know if Codes Enforcement could be available in the evenings “so it’s not UPD or GPD showing up.”
City Commissioner Harvey Ward said, “50 is a lot. I’m wondering if — and I’m thinking specifically game-day sorts of gatherings, but not even that, I mean I know house parties can—when I say house parties, I’m talking about students. I know things can get out of hand pretty quickly. You know, it’s not uncommon for that gathering of five or six people to all of a sudden be 50 people or 100 people. You know, we’re texting and hey, there’s a—come on over. And before you know it, there’s a ton of people. So just for us all to think about, what’s the right number? Is 50 the right number, commissioners, or should we — ten? Yeah. I think the ten number was a better number for us right there. Because it’s more manageable.
“I mean if I’m Codes, if I’m a Codes Enforcement person and I drive by that party or 50 or 100, I know the right thing to do is to break it up, but that’s a challenge. I mean, that’s a difficult thing to do because let’s face it. That’s not what people signed up to work for Codes for. People signed up to work for Codes for different things than breaking up a party of 50 or 100 people. That takes an entirely different level of training and a different level of resources than we have in Codes Enforcement right now. So those are the things we need to think about… And I would really like us to rethink the 50 number back down to 10. I know that’s inconvenient for folks. But we’re trying to achieve an end here. And that end is to keep Gainesville and Alachua County, keep our community healthy. And we’ve been able to do that better than a lot of communities because we’ve been on top of this.”
Hutchinson said, “We could, in our next Emergency Order, have variable occupancy, like limit gatherings of 10 indoors or 50 outdoors.”
County commissioner Ken Cornell said he was in favor of limiting indoor gatherings to 10 and outdoor to 50.
City commissioner Gail Johnson was concerned about Gatornationals, but County Manager Sylvia Torres said the County may be preempted from regulating it because the governor’s order explicitly allows professional sporting events. She said they called some hotels and couldn’t find any that had booked rooms for teams, so they weren’t sure whether it would actually happen.
City commissioner David Arreola, who was serving as Mayor Pro Tem because Mayor Lauren Poe was absent, closed the UF portion of the meeting by saying, “I’m in full agreement that the restrictions for gatherings should be 10 indoors and 50 outdoors for the next couple of weeks. These were original recommendations from the CDC back in March and, as was stated earlier, we’ve had a greater outbreak in the last month or two than we did in March here in Alachua County. So it only makes more sense to follow those guidelines. I think that there is a need to bring up the fact that the Reitz Union is an early voting center, and I want to make sure that does not get interrupted, but that we can safely have voters coming to that site without potentially putting people at risk.”
Alachua County Public Schools
Alachua County Schools Superintendent Karen Clarke said school is starting Monday, with most schools at 50% or less of capacity. Newberry Elementary and Santa Fe High School are “edging close to 60%,” and some are as low as 1/3 of capacity. 99% of the buses are at 50% capacity. Schools have a mandatory mask policy, with a medical exemption requiring a doctor’s note. Employees will be screened every day, and students will have their temperature taken both in the morning and at the beginning of after-school care. Students are asked to stay home if they have any symptoms, and parents may get more calls than usual to pick up symptomatic children. Every school will have a nurse.
Seating charts will be used in classrooms and buses to identify contacts of people who test positive.
Clarke pointed out that “some of the districts in Georgia that had cases on day one, if they came to school with COVID on day one, they obviously had it before they came to school. If they’ve got any students or staff members pending a COVID test, we want to make sure those students are not coming to school on the first day. We don’t want a call at midday that all of a sudden we have to shut a classroom down because of a COVID case that happened previously.”
Cornell asked where the school system may not be following the County Emergency Orders, and Clarke said that if they set the limit of indoor gatherings to 10 people, the school system would not be able to follow that: “Based on current staffing levels…There’s no practical way to do that.” The school system, as a separate government body, is not required to follow the Emergency Orders, but Clarke said they like to be aligned with the County’s guidelines to avoid confusion.
Department of Health
During his presentation, Paul Myers, Alachua County Administrator for the Florida Department of Health, said there is cause for optimism because we are “over… the summer surge.” The positivity rate is below 5%. He said the hospitals have learned a lot and gotten a lot better at treating the virus.
About a month ago, about 140 patients were in our hospitals with a primary diagnosis of COVID. Myers said we were down to 109 when he gave the presentation, and we’re at 92 today.
Myers pointed out that only 13 people under the age of 15 have been hospitalized with COVID in the county and said, “The vast majority of individuals who contract this less than the age of 65 are going to do okay. Not to minimize the severity of this disease, but we do know who’s vulnerable. That has not changed since the beginning.”
Myers said it’s common for flu and other respiratory illnesses to circulate in schools, so it will be important to differentiate between COVID and other illnesses, but “we’re going to have cases… schools have opened up here in Alachua County, private and charter schools. We have one private school with over 500 kids in it. Over 80 staff. While we have had some cases, we have had absolutely no hospitalizations. We haven’t had any transmission between the students. So if the last two weeks is any indication, I think we have some guarded optimism going into the fall. We are going to have cases. Again, we have to remember that in this population, they’re going to fare very well, relatively speaking, as opposed to older adults.”
New restrictions effective Monday
A motion by Cornell to restrict indoor gatherings to 10 people and outdoor gatherings to 50 people was voted on by the county commission and passed unanimously, with Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler absent. The County Attorney’s office will draw up language, and it will go into Monday’s revision of the County’s Emergency Order. Hutchinson clarified that it wouldn’t apply to restaurants (except that he would consider 10 people at a table to be a violation) and only to places where social distancing isn’t possible. It’s intended to apply mainly to private gatherings, but it’s unclear what the final language will say. For example, the commissioners did not discuss churches or any businesses other than restaurants.
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