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County commission makes no changes to mask or occupancy orders

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

During today’s County Commission meeting, Paul Myers (Alachua County Administrator for the Florida Department of Health) updated the commission on the current COVID-19 situation. The most recent statistics are in our latest article, so we won’t repeat all of that here.

He emphasized that the cumulative graph of positive test results is linear, not exponential. He also showed a graph of how the 5-day moving average is moving downward and said that although we’ve “flattened the curve, with the increased testing, it would not surprise me that we may see an increase in new cases. So just to try to manage some expectations out there, because we are really increasing testing in Alachua County.”

The graph above shows confirmed cases and hospitalizations by age group (we’re trying to get a sharper copy).

Myers said that the county continues to meet all of the “gating criteria” for reopening.

He showed the graphs below of the chief complaints recorded by area emergency departments. Most, if not all, of the indicators are lower than they were in February. (Some start in late March and have decreased significantly.)

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“We simply can’t sustain a 14-day reduction in trends because we’re gonna get to the point of diminishing returns”

Myers said, “The reason I wanted to show you this is because our background noise, in other words, our baseline for influenza-like illness in Alachua County’s about 2.5% year-round–that’s what we consider to be baseline, and as these trending graphs go down, they’re going to reach a point where they’re not going to trend down any more because we have got to that baseline… Especially when it comes to the gating criteria, we simply can’t sustain a 14-day reduction in trends because we’re gonna get to the point of diminishing returns.”

He also emphasized that the entire reason for social distancing was to flatten the curve–to protect ICU capacity. He said our ICU capacity is fine, and the local hospitals are monitoring it carefully. The percentage of available beds has decreased recently, as “elective” procedures have resumed, but they can be stopped at any time to free up beds.

He said we’ve met the gating criteria for testing capacity for active infection, and they’re working on increasing the capacity for antibody tests. Tests for active infection are available to everyone now at no cost:

Evening testing now available on Wednesdays

Also, evening testing at the drive-through testing site will start this Wednesday, 4-7 p.m., and continue on Wednesdays for the foreseeable future. Call the number above to schedule an appointment.

“We’re doing a LOT of testing. I mean, significantly more testing than we were doing before”

Commission Chair Robert Hutchinson asked whether increasing trends in local areas could be masked by state-wide or nation-wide graphs that are coming back down because the large cities are now trending down. Myers responded, “We’re not New York City. We’re not Miami-Dade. We don’t have the population densely packed in for transmitting this pretty efficiently, with this pathogen. And so many of the people in those cities have now overcome the disease… there’s a lot of immunity, and that’s what is driving that curve downward. In Alachua County, we’re pretty spread out… the more testing we do, we’re going to find things. That doesn’t surprise me… we’re doing a LOT of testing. I mean, significantly more testing than we were doing before.”

Myers said hospitals are being prioritized for antibody testing, but the tests are currently not very accurate. Commissioner Ken Cornell asked whether Myers is comfortable with the 400-tests-per-day number that has been discussed (2% of the population), and Myers said that is “no problem in Alachua County, absolutely no problem.”

Myers said Alachua County is ahead of most of the state and the country in focusing early on the long-term care facilities, and we are “reaping the benefits of that right now, in terms of keeping the case count and the deaths down.” Many of the local facilities have partnered with the Department of Health to do full testing every two weeks.

“It’s at least very curious to me that we’re counting these as COVID-19 deaths. I’ll stop there, I think it’s very curious.”

Hutchinson asked about the reported issue of Medical Examiners “reporting or not reporting deaths.” Myers said, “I think it’s an issue nationwide. The death reports that I have reviewed… these individuals had at least four co-morbidities, and you stack on top of that COVID-19, and it’s at least very curious to me that we’re counting these as COVID-19 deaths. I’ll stop there, I think it’s very curious.”

Hutchinson asked, “Are people putting the cause of death COVID, or do they always put it as something like pneumonia or organ failure of some sort?”

Myers responded, “If you test positive for COVID and you have all these other co-morbidities, your cause of death is listed as COVID-19.”

“Most people take the position that [mandatory face masks] might do some good, probably can’t hurt, so why not do it? That’s not the question to ask.”

The commission moved on to discussing their COVID-19 Emergency Order. Commissioner Mike Byerly spoke against the county’s mandatory face mask order: “Most people take the position that it might do some good, probably can’t hurt, so why not do it? That’s not the question to ask. The question to ask is: Should governments be mandating masks for all?… The case I keep making is there may be a serious downside to wearing masks.”

He pointed out that all of the serious research so far has been to test whether droplets pass through a mask in laboratory conditions. “The research that hasn’t been done is… how do people wear face masks in public, and will that actually undercut our other objectives and cause serious health problems in themselves?” He saids everybody supports keeping distance between people in public, cleaning your hands, and not touching your face. “We don’t really see a possible downside to any of them. Wearing a face mask can undercut all three of those things… You’re constantly adjusting, shifting, raising up, moving around; if you wear glasses… it fogs up your glasses. Face masks make you breathe more rapidly… all these things mean, unavoidably, a lot more face touching.” He said it’s common to move closer to someone and pull down your face mask to talk to someone because it’s hard to understand people through the mask. He emphasized that he wasn’t saying masks were bad but that the evidence did not support mandating them.

“In his opinion, and it’s just one person’s opinion, but I’m relying heavily on it, it could reduce the spread of the disease by 50 to 60 percent.”

Cornell said he keeps going back to Dr. Glenn Morris‘s statement that wearing cloth masks reduces transmission of the virus by 50%-60%. “The question to him was, ‘If everyone wore face coverings, what impact would that have?’ And he said… in his opinion, and it’s just one person’s opinion, but I’m relying heavily on it, it could reduce the spread of the disease by 50 to 60 percent.”

He read from the CDC’s guidelines: “A significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms… and even those who develop symptoms can transmit the virus to others before showing symptoms. In light of this new evidence, CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain: grocery stores and pharmacies. That’s basically our order.”

That statement came from this site, and Cornell stopped before reading the rest of the sentence: “especially in areas of significant community-based transmission” (emphasis in original).

“If we can just do this for a couple of weeks, get folks used to this measure, then I would be very open, a week from now, to changing the ‘shall’ to ‘should,’ changing it from mandatory to voluntary.”

Cornell said, “If we can just do this for a couple of weeks, get folks used to this measure, then I would be very open, a week from now, to changing the ‘shall’ to ‘should,’ changing it from mandatory to voluntary.” He also said he wanted to try to get enough votes to move to 25% occupancy instead of the current 1-per-500-square-foot rule for retail.

“Some of the businesses are taking it to the extreme.”

Commissioner Charles Chestnut said he didn’t think there was enough testing being done “to say it’s okay to not have a mask.” He said he’s in favor of keeping it in place “until we actually get the testing capacity up… but I do agree that some of the businesses are taking it to the extreme. Some of them are [saying], ‘Sir! You need a mask! You can’t come in here!'” He said that disturbs him because he left his mask at home one day when he went to get gas. “But the problem was his attitude toward me as a customer, kind of pissed me off… All I wanted to get was a bottle of water… I think that’s too extreme… I didn’t even go in the store; I just left, went back home, and I got my mask, but I went to another store to get my water.”

“I don’t see a downside… the occupancy limit is a low-cost, potentially-high-benefit strategy.”

The discussion around occupancy centered on whether businesses know what their fire code occupancy is. Hutchinson seemed to think that there would be a rush of businesses calling the fire chief to find out. Byerly said he didn’t think people were deciding not to go to stores because of the current occupancy limits: “I don’t see a downside… the occupancy limit is a low-cost, potentially-high-benefit strategy.”

Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler said churches are asking for a 25% occupancy restriction instead of the current one-per-500-square-feet, but Hutchinson said they’re “not differentiating between church assemblies… or movie theaters, any place where large numbers of people are sitting in rows.”

“If you look at the gating criteria, it means we’ve had 14 straight days of downward trends in cases, and as you saw from the chart that the Health Director provided, we’re flat; we’re not going down. So we need to go down.”

Hutchinson said they will likely relax mask requirements in Phase 2. For him, defining Phase 1 as “mandatory masks and one-per-five-hundred” makes it easy to go back to Phase 1 if that is necessary in the future. He said he would be comfortable going to the governor’s occupancy limits in Phase 2 (but he seemed to think that would be 25%, while the governor’s Phase 2 is 75% of capacity for retail), because “if you look at the gating criteria, it means we’ve had 14 straight days of downward trends in cases, and as you saw from the chart that the Health Director provided, we’re flat; we’re not going down. So we need to go down.” Cornell pointed out that we’re going down on the percent positive. Since it didn’t look like he would get three votes in favor of changing occupancy limits, Cornell withdrew the motion.

“Our position… is that businesses do not have to enforce, but they may.”

County Attorney Sylvia Torres said, “I know there’s been some confusion about… whether businesses have to enforce our order or not. Our position… is that businesses do not have to enforce, but they may.” She also pointed out that all of the emergency orders have only been issued because of the authority they have under the governor’s state of emergency. “There is no sense that this could become permanent.”

Yard waste now being collected at rural collection centers

In other business, the County is again collecting yard waste at the rural collection centers. They had stopped collecting everything except “straight trash,” and now they’re in a “soft opening” (they won’t turn yard waste away), but the official opening for yard waste disposal will be on May 18.

In a dispute over some parcels that the City of Newberry wants to annex, the commission voted to enter into dispute resolution on all of them. Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe said, “I understand the strategy that your attorney is suggesting to you, and it sounds like a wonderful adversarial strategy, if that’s the goal.” He proposed a compromise to save staff time for both the County and the City of Newberry, but the commission thought it would be better to do that negotiation through the dispute process.

They also voted to accept some donated land, approved a mid-year budget amendment, and voted to send a Letter of Intent to donate the Fairgrounds Redevelopment Area to the U.S. Army Reserve. They had a lengthy conversation about putting homeless people in hotels but didn’t vote to do anything.

During public comment, multiple people called in to ask about the rules governing the reopening of public pools. Hutchinson said that the “monitoring” requirement just means that the rules need to be posted at the pool. People who think the rules are being broken can call 311.

  • County Attorney Sylvia Torres said, “I know there’s been some confusion about…
    whether businesses have to enforce our order or not. Our position…
    is that businesses do not have to enforce, but they may.”

  • While I would never condone the treatment Commissioner Chestnut received it appeared that he was surprised by the fact that he was turned away. He said ” I only wanted a bottle of water” (sic) which to me implies that he thought he could go in, grab his water , and leave. I understand that not all businesses are enforcing the order but they(the Commission) did make masks mandatory so he should not have been surprised. While I don’t want to wear a mask, but will do so if the law says to, I respect the fact that others will wear a mask whether required to or not. Maybe the Commission could change the wording to “strongly suggest”, “strongly encourage”, etc.

  • There is no science that proves that a cloth masks have any impact whatsoever stopping this virus.

    This entire thing is a farce.

  • The CDC guidelines are recommendations, not a mandate as interpreted by Alachua County

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