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County commission discusses mask compliance and outdoor seating downtown

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

At the August 25 Alachua County Commission meeting, the board considered several topics related to COVID-19. 

Paul Myers gave a brief presentation, similar to the information in our daily update. Missy Daniels, Director of Growth Management, reported that mask compliance is currently at 98.9%, with about 88-89% already having masks and 10% accepting the masks they are offered. They’re getting repeat complaints on a few businesses that don’t require their employees to wear masks. Commission Chair Robert Hutchinson was concerned that 12% of people are “not prepared on their own” with masks. “We still have a long way to go… It’s a little disappointing to me that 10-12% of people are walking towards a store without a mask in their possession or on.” Commissioner Mike Byerly suggested that people have learned that masks will be provided if they’re going to be challenged for not wearing one. 

They also discussed a request from the City of Gainesville to use the lawn of the County Administration Building as an outdoor seating area for downtown restaurants. Commissioner Ken Cornell said it “seems kind of hypocritical, from my perspective, that we have an Emergency Order that is attempting to… eliminate block parties, and yet we’re being asked to kind of sponsor and participate in block parties, and I know it’s not exactly a block party. I think a better approach is for certain establishments to try to move some of their seating outside of those establishments than having a County-sponsored place to congregate.” 

Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler said, “It’s interesting to me that they’re talking about setting up a tent right downtown, where they have tried very hard not to have folks who are homeless hanging out… My main concern, though, is for our local high school kids, who are not going to be in school, who will have more time on their hands to congregate and intermingle with college-age kids, and how in the world are we going to monitor age, in terms of who is able to drink and who’s not? I’m not interested…”

Byerly was more positive about the idea, seeing it as an experiment. Hutchinson said, “If we decide that we’re going to shut down public spaces like restaurants and bars… what’s been shown is that we’ll see the proliferation of block parties and house parties and that sort of stuff. What I am concerned about is the implication that, like, last weekend the Sheriff chased 250 people out of Cynthia Chestnut Park who were having a block party, and they were mostly minorities, and chasing people out of public parks but making public space available here for people to gather. What we really need is a way to encourage safe outdoor gatherings during the pandemic and create a culture around that of this is what’s expected… what we can’t have is a loud indoor place where people are shouting at each other to be heard and close and drinking alcohol, and that’s going to happen if we push this stuff out into parties and block parties where there’s no chaperones.”

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Wheeler said, “There is a whole subculture of adolescents in our community that you may or may not know about. We have kids who are users; we have kids who are cutters; we have kids who are on the edge, with mental health issues, and I just don’t want to be part of anything that’s going to entice our young people downtown into a place where they are interacting with college-age kids or with homeless folks, or—and I don’t have anything against any of those groups except that we have a group of fringe kids who are very vulnerable, and unless we have some mental health counselors down there who can help guide or redirect some of these kids, I can see this as a real magnet… I just don’t want us to be responsible for any kind of endangerment that we put our children into.”

They also briefly discussed changes to the Emergencies section of the County codes that the County Attorney thought were needed, given the extended length of the current emergency. The draft ordinance will be advertised and voted on at a future meeting. 

Language was added to the subrecipient agreements for CARES Act reimbursements, stating that entities cannot receive reimbursement for any expenses during periods in which they were out of compliance with the County’s Emergency Order, even if they later come back into compliance.

In other business, the board discussed an Interlocal Service Boundary Agreement Process with the City of Alachua and proposed amendments to the Unified Land Development Code regarding tree protection and other natural resource topics.

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