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County commission disagrees on “retail friction” but makes no changes

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

The Alachua County Commission met online on Friday, March 27, to advise Alachua County Commission Chair Robert Hutchinson on possible changes to the County’s emergency order.

Hutchinson started the meeting by saying they wouldn’t be getting any guidance from the state or federal government in the near term on any of the policy issues they’d be discussing: “It’s the current position of the State that these decisions are best left entirely to local governments, and we appreciate the acknowledgment that we can take care of our own situation.”

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The meeting was just to gather input from the commission; under the current emergency order, Hutchinson has all the authority to make decisions. 

Hutchinson began the discussion by saying, “The retail friction we created with… grocery shopping, the shock and awe, that worked—I’ve been to probably 15 different grocery stores at different times of the day, observing, and things are nowhere near as apocalyptic as some people are making it out to be.” (Many comments on the Facebook page for the meeting disagreed with his assessment.)

Hutchinson said the amended declaration would refer to a new OSHA document, Guidelines on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 instead of trying to answer questions about specific businesses. The document just provides recommendations, but the County Attorney told Hutchinson that the Count could adopt those recommendations as its standards, enforceable by codes enforcement officers. He said the benefit of doing that is that if the document is updated with newer information, the County standards would automatically reflect those changes. The proposed County wording would require employers to educate employees about the standards and require that the standards be present on the worksite. The County will create an anonymous telephone report line for employees who think they are being required to work in substandard conditions.

Churches

Commissioner Mike Byerly changed the subject to the provisions for church services, arguing that the rules for in-person gatherings should apply regardless of the purpose of the gathering. The new language says that there can be no “social or recreational” gatherings of 10 or more people.

Construction sites

Changing the subject again, Hutchinson asked if the County will be prepared if 50 people call the phone number to report unsafe working conditions: “Particularly with respect to construction, there’s no amount of fine that will, in some cases, encourage them to shut down or do the right thing… what we need is the ability to shut someone down right away… It’s not that hard to comply with. All you have to do is post this document and have an educational program for your folks, and then make sure they’ve got whatever their recommended gear is and safe practices.”

Grocery stores

Moving to grocery stores, Commissioner Ken Cornell said we need to protect grocery store workers. In his experience, long lines at grocery stores are mainly in the early mornings, not during the day (many comments on Facebook during the meeting contradicted this statement, but every account is anecdotal, and the lines at stores have varied). He said early mornings could be reserved for essential workers and that it could help “an awful, awful lot” if people who are staying home would shop during the day.

Byerly said he visited about a dozen grocery stores and stood in line at some of them to see what the experience was like. He found that the time in line was far riskier than the time inside the store – “factor of 10, factor of 100.” He said that everyone getting in line tends to walk down the entire line, walking close to people already in the line, and there’s no way to get away from the groupings that are necessitated by having a line. He said he was easily able to stay away from people once he was inside the store except for briefly passing by other shoppers. “We could significantly increase the number of people in the stores without even coming close to the exposure that you’re getting in the lines.” He speculated that most of the lines would disappear if they bumped up the occupancy limit by 10% or 20%. He didn’t think that removing or increasing the occupancy limit would increase risk much because people are already adapting to the new reality of shopping less frequently.

Hutchinson said he didn’t “sense” more exposure in the lines when he was there. He was concerned that “anything we do to change that right now would be ‘County eases up on grocery stores – go for it!’ and I don’t really want to send that signal.” He said the corporate “folks” at Publix just want to do signage, “and I don’t think that’s enough. I’m a big fan of our current retail friction experiment, and until somebody shows me that it’s not working, I think it is working.”

Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler said cashiers at Walmart have told her they have to stand too close to the people who are checking out. One employee said Walmart won’t let them wear gloves because the gloves would spread the virus. She said the rules should protect workers as well as customers. Hutchinson said they needed to write into the emergency order “that no employer shall deny an employee the right to use personal protective gear, including face masks, shields, or gloves.”

Byerly said that changing the restriction to one person per 750 square feet could eliminate the lines, which is where people are gathered most closely. Hutchinson disagreed because lines discourage people from shopping. Byerly continued to argue that increasing the allowance by even 10% would help matters, and Hutchinson continued to argue that people would shop more if there weren’t lines. Byerly also thought that people should bag their own groceries because a bagger is an additional (unnecessary) person who is close to the customers.

Cornell favored waiting another week to change occupancy limits. 

Banks

County Manager Michele Lieberman said she’d heard from banks that were concerned about an additional volume of customers because of unemployment checks, federal checks, and applications for loans under recent federal bills. Most banks no longer have drive-thrus, so all those people will have to come into the lobby, and some transactions require sitting down with a loan agent, for example. Hutchinson said that could be managed by requiring appointments. 

Complete shutdown?

Hutchinson said the life span of the order would be “as long as things don’t get worse or don’t get a lot better” (he didn’t explain how he would evaluate higher numbers that are the result of increased testing). “As soon as you get to that ‘rampant’ stage, you pretty much have to go to complete shutdown, where all retail’s closed, all construction is closed, all service industry’s closed. You keep grocery stores open and pharmacies and healthcare facilities, and that’s it. And so, once we’ve kind of perfected our order… I’m going to start working on a complete shutdown order and how that’s going to work. Because I think we will hit that trigger if things don’t change—and essentially that’s a warning to the community and the business community and everybody, that if things get a whole lot worse, we’re going to have to do a whole lot more.”

Cornell said that reducing the occupancy limits for banks during the initial period of federal funding from the latest bill could help facilitate getting the money into people’s hands. Hutchinson said he was happy to do that, but I didn’t see anything specific to banks in the order that came out today.

“Half people”

County Attorney Sylvia Torres asked if the occupancy limit included a parent with two small children. Hutchinson said the children were “half people.” They didn’t say at what age children become full people. Torres asked about family groups. Hutchinson said, “I think family groups are a problem because people ought to be encouraged to shop, as much as possible, send one person. Adults all count. I don’t think, just because you’re standing close together, you get to cram more people into the store.”

Golf courses

Hutchinson said he didn’t have a huge problem with golf courses. “I have a huge problem with golfing in general, but I don’t think that people out golfing are particularly at risk, and people do need to get out and enjoy themselves.”

Future County Commission meeting plan

In a discussion about how County business will be conducted in upcoming weeks, Hutchinson proposed that when a motion goes on the floor, they’ll open it for public input, and people can write their input by text, email, or on Facebook. They’ll wait 5 minutes, then County employees will collect all the information and give it to the commission as a “dump of text,” which they will take the time to read. 

Cornell thanked the public for all the input (many people on the Facebook page were asking how to provide input to the commission; you can email bocc@alachuacounty.us). He said it was important to prevent every possible case and that he thought the statewide number of cases was starting to increase exponentially. Cornell also spoke to people in the counties surrounding Alachua County: “If you don’t have cases, that doesn’t mean it’s not there… I would ask that the adjacent counties not just look at their county. Look at what’s happening in our county and take whatever measures they can take to help us.” 

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