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County commission backs off of registration requirement for private gatherings – for now

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

The Alachua County Commission voted today to remove the requirement to register private gatherings from the proposed Emergency Ordinance–for now.

In a presentation about Alachua County COVID data, Paul Myers, Administrator for Alachua County for the Florida Department of Health, said that we are seeing an increase in positive tests among college students, but those age groups do very well with COVID. He said that Alachua County’s lower population death rate compared to the state as a whole is a result of having a lot of positive tests in young people and the Health Department’s focus on protecting the vulnerable in long-term care facilities. “Once again, when everything’s a priority, nothing is, and that has been one of our priorities from day one.”

Myers brought up the new CDC recommendations to only test those who are symptomatic or have been exposed to a positive case: “We continue to leave that open, but at some point we probably need to have the discussion about whether or not we want to continue to test the ‘worried well,’ but that’s not an issue that we need to go into today; I’m certainly not advocating for that right now, but I do think at some point, we need to have the conversation about testing those who have been exposed, testing those who are symptomatic, and not keeping testing open for everybody.”

In response to a question from Commissioner Ken Cornell, Myers said that when they do contact tracing and then test the individuals who were exposed to the positive case, a “big percentage” of the positive cases are asymptomatic, “much to their surprise, they’re testing positive.”

Cornell responded, “We need to keep testing as much as possible, despite what the CDC recommends, I think UF Health and your guidance and what we’ve found is kind of a bigger driver, for me at least.”

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The commission then discussed the draft Emergency Order, which would require registration for all private gatherings of 10 or more people, including allowing code enforcement to enter the premises and requiring the host to keep a list of all attendees for 30 days. 

County Communications Director Mark Sexton read statements that the University of Florida and Santa Fe College have authorized him to include in press releases

The University of Florida’s statement: “Enforcement of behavioral expectations to abide by university regulations and policy, state and local law, and the instructions of officials can be carried out by any designee of the Vice President of Student Affairs or other appropriate university officials. Enforcement of behavior found to be a violation of the Student Conduct Code may result in sanctions such as loss of privileges associated with being a University of Florida student or student organization, including suspension and expulsion. Students, it is critical you understand that on- and off-campus parties and disregard for face masks, physical distancing, and gathering sizes will not be tolerated. There are real and far-reaching ramifications for disregard of policies, and actions undoubtedly have consequences. If you choose to disregard the policies established to keep you, your peers, and all of us safe, please know that such decisions will result in sanctions such as a loss of privileges associated with being a University of Florida student or student organization, including suspension and expulsion. Additionally, we have worked together with City and County leadership and agencies to develop consistent expectations on-campus and in the Gainesville community. If violation occurs off-campus, you will be subject to fines, misdemeanors, or even arrests, that could have significant impacts on your future endeavors.”

Santa Fe College’s statement: “Violations of the County’s Emergency Order may result in disciplinary action.”

Cornell suggested just having the registration requirement in Gainesville to help the university with their enforcement issues, but Commission Chair Robert Hutchinson said they’ve been trying to have uniform requirements throughout the county, and to set specific requirements for Gainesville “wouldn’t be good and wouldn’t be cooperative. And yeah, we’ve gotten some push-back from a few folks who have nothing to worry about, and I can’t believe a tiny amount of heat from people calling us fascists is enough for us to say let’s go on and not do anything.”

Cornell said he didn’t think anyone would register, “literally zero people.”

Hutchinson said, “In other states and other countries, everybody essentially registers using technology. This thing will be tech-friendly and literally take a student about 1 minute to register.”

Cornell said they’d just heard Myers say that on contact tracing calls, he couldn’t get students to tell him who was with them. Hutchinson responded, “That’s because they didn’t write down the names of everyone in their party, as they’ll be required to do.” Cornell said, “They’re not gonna do it.”

Commissioner Mike Byerly said, “I do appreciate the seriousness of our public health situation, and I do understand the quandary that you’re outlining, Hutch, but I likewise do not support and will not support requiring our citizens to seek permission of local government to have a gathering in the privacy of their own homes. Every step we take down this path, in dealing with this crisis, is always just the next step, the next step, and we’re establishing new norms each step that we go. I’m not going to do that, and I feel like the burden is not on me to explain why I don’t think County government should do that. That is over-reach… it will be widely ignored, and it’s always bad for government to put itself in a position of passing and supporting and defending laws that are widely ridiculed and ignored… So this really is a step too far for me… I think the burden is on people who don’t seem to grasp how serious a thing it is that, if I want to gather in my house without government knowing about it, I can do that. We’re into really, really big, fundamental issues here, and I don’t want to do it.”

Commissioner Chuck Chestnut said churches have been calling him about the proposed Emergency Order. Others were concerned that having relatives over for dinner when they already had 7 people living in the house could go over the limit. “I don’t want to be too onerous with the regulations that people are going to ignore them, I don’t think that’s right or fair… If this is just for the students and the University of Florida, I don’t mind having some regulations, but how do we have a regulation that is not over-reaching to one’s home?” 

Hutchinson became animated: “Commissioners, it is incumbent upon us—in other words, you—to come up with the alternative proposal that I’m going to have to take back to these folks… I’ve got to tell them our plan is not to do what we said we were gonna do, our plan is Plan B. You tell me what Plan B is, because I literally don’t have one.”

Cornell said he never committed to a registration process. Hutchinson said, “But we’ve heard from Paul that where this stuff is being spread is in parties. We know that from all the other universities that had to shut down. The University of Florida’s trying to get ahead of this, and we’re doing nothing to help. And that’s what I’m going to tell them: We’re doing nothing to help unless you guys tell me what you want me to do.”

County Attorney Sylvia Torres said that a recommendation to limit gatherings to 10 people wasn’t enforceable. She added that churches fall under the non-profit exemption from the registration requirement. She recommended removing the registration requirement and adding a requirement that there not be 10 or more people who don’t live in the household in any location, no matter how big. 

Cornell asked why it couldn’t be more than 10 if they could socially distance, and Torres said it would be hard to determine that. Hutchinson said that was because there would be no authority to go inside the house. 

Torres said that “getting through the door… requires a warrant or exigent circumstances… some life and safety issue that’s happening right now—shots fired, basically.” She liked the idea of requiring signs posted outside the house with safety rules to educate attendees and because “if the sign is outside, then you’re able to not have to get through the door. The idea is to figure out ways to hold people accountable without going inside because getting inside is very difficult. Or you just put out that it’s a requirement and understand that it would be very hard to enforce. And that, honestly, 80+ percent of the people will follow regulations.”

Byerly said, “I don’t think it’s fair to say that we’re just telling everyone that we’re not doing anything, that we’re doing nothing to deal with the COVID crisis. We’ve very progressively pushed the boundaries across the board on regulating individual behavior in the public sphere, the public sector… that much of it has been appropriate. What you’re now really proposing, Hutch, is to dramatically lower the bar, from the circumstances under which government and armed police officers can go into a home and regulate behavior in the privacy of your home, with people who choose to be there. And you seem sort of blasé about that, as if it’s just all about—I get trying to solve the COVID problem, trying to root it out and stop it, but we can also create serious new problems in trying to do so that probably aren’t going to be effective, anyway. One, on principle, it gives me a huge problem. Two, it’s going to be completely ineffective. When you pass laws that are widely ignored, you breed contempt for the law, and that’s what we’re going to be doing with this measure.”

Hutchinson said, “If you guys are going to kill the registration, tell me what you want me to tell the university on Thursday morning.”

Byerly: “Tell them that we’re not supporting the registration.”

Hutchinson: “They want their students to not be going to these parties off-campus, and they want our help because they have no jurisdiction.” 

Byerly: “I get it, but this tool they can’t have.”

Hutchinson: “Let’s get on to a proactive thing that we can actually help the university with their problem, or we can just say, university, go the way all the other schools did and shut down because you can’t control your students off-campus. We’re not interested in helping.”

Byerly: “You’re saying the onus is on this Board of County Commissioners to provide those tools because we don’t support the one that you have proposed. Are there other tools?”

Hutchinson: “This is a very soft touch, compared to the way they do it in most countries.”

Byerly: “I don’t know if that’s a true statement or not, but in a lot of the countries you’re comparing us to, I don’t want to be like. It’s a pretty broad statement… If we had the resources, would you support an armed guard in front of every home in Alachua County to make sure that people can’t come and go… exceeding our orders? Would you support that? There is a line.”

Hutchinson: “I would support an app-based solution where, when we know that there is a COVID case there, it pops up all the contacts to let them know that you were in a place where there was COVID, but all the privacy people say oh, no, you can’t have that, either. That’s working in a lot of places, as well.”

Chestnut said he’d like to make a distinction between a party and a family event. 

Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler said, “I think we’re not going to be very successful if we’re going to try to monitor what’s going on inside people’s homes—that gets a little scary for everybody—but if they’re outside gatherings where there’s an obnoxious gathering of folks, they’re loud and obstreperous, at the same time not wearing masks, that’s where we could intervene… If we could focus our energies to the town center… we could still feel like we’re a part of the team, but I feel real uncomfortable about managing what’s going on in people’s homes, and I don’t think these parties will take the time to write down who’s at those events.”

Cornell moved that they remove the registration process from the proposed Emergency Order but allow for citations for unsafe indoor gatherings where more than 10 persons who do not reside in the same space occur, where social distancing is not available. 

Torres said that nothing in that proposal would get code enforcement over the threshold: “Unless someone invites them in or they have a warrant or exigent circumstances, they’re not getting over the threshold.”

Hutchinson said, “If you’re not a fan of useless regulations, then this one’s even more useless than the other one.”

Cornell said the motion is intentionally vague—“unsafe gatherings”— because he didn’t know how to define it. “I need them to define it. I don’t want to try to define it… I know it’s vague. I don’t know how to fix it, though.”

Torres said someone can’t be held liable for not following something if they don’t know what they’re supposed to do. “I don’t believe that it will be enforceable unless we have some sort of standard.”

Cornell asked Myers how he would define an unsafe gathering. Myers said, “It would have to be inside, low air flow, and people who could not maintain 6 feet. I would say those are conditions that are conducive to spread COVID-19.”

Wheeler said they wouldn’t know about these gatherings unless a neighbor called to report a lot of cars. She said she herself had called to complain about outdoor football games last Saturday. 

Myers said, “Most of the transmission that we can confirm is household transmission… most of the transmission we’re seeing is family, in the household.”

Cornell said, “It potentially could get a lot worse, there may be a time when we have to do more, and I’m not ready to do that today.”

Torres asked for time to work on a standard with other attorneys to come up with something that would be enforceable. 

Cornell asked what would happen if they didn’t act. Torres said there would be a standard that no more than 50 people can congregate in a space that doesn’t allow for social distancing and any group of people who are not socially-distanced can be asked to disperse. 

Cornell made a new motion to remove the gathering registration process and empower the Chair to define what would be an enforceable citation for unsafe gatherings. 

Hutchinson said he would ask the County Manager’s office to keep working on the online registration system “in case things change.” 

The motion passed 3-2, with Hutchinson and Wheeler in dissent.

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