County commission ratifies Emergency Order over public opposition
March 23, 2021
BY JENNIFER CABRERA
The Alachua County Commission (BoCC) today discussed the new Emergency Order that was signed yesterday by Chair Ken Cornell. Cornell has the authority to sign orders without ratification from the BoCC, but the commissioners had the opportunity today to modify it or ratify it as written.
The new Order revamped the “WHEREAS” section and added this sentence to the paragraph on gatherings: “To the extent that such gatherings are composed of those who have been fully vaccinated, and other individuals approved by the CDC to gather with the fully vaccinated, this section does not apply to such a gathering.” A sentence allowing officials to ask for proof of vaccination that was in an earlier draft was removed, and County officials repeatedly said they would not ask for proof of vaccination. They did not say how they would determine who is permitted to gather without masks and social distancing under the terms of this Order.
For the first time in many months, a large number of citizens attended the meeting in person or phoned in to comment on the new Order. BoCC meetings usually only attract a handful of public comments.
Eight people spoke in person, all asking the BoCC to modify or entirely remove the Order. Several speakers said that the BoCC shouldn’t coerce people to get vaccinated, given that the vaccine is not fully approved; it is being administered under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). A woman named Erica said the Order establishes two classes of people: vaccinated and unvaccinated.
Peter St. George, who said he is a research scientist, said we have seen an “abnormal increase in fear that exceeds the actual condition of the disease.” Another speaker said that one side of the science is well-represented, and the other side is being suppressed.
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Brad Weinberg said that he and his wife had moved to the area “to escape the severe draconian mandates that are coming down from this board.” A woman who only said her name was Shaye said it’s not the government’s job to determine our individual risk and what risks we should and shouldn’t take when it comes to our health and our bodies. She said government’s role is to advise us that a threat exists and then allow people the freedom to choose which measures to take. She said she is cautious about vaccines because her daughter was injured by a vaccine.
Ray Washington said he was arrested and charged with a first-degree misdemeanor, requiring him to stay overnight in the jail, after he briefly took off his mask while speaking to the Gainesville City Commission. He pointed out that Mayor Lauren Poe was behind plexiglass, 20 feet away, at the time. He continued, “This is the kind of overreach that’s happened with this nonsense that’s been going on for a long time.” He says he voluntarily wears a mask and gloves, but that’s his choice, “and others should have the ability to make their own choices.”
25 people called in by phone to comment, with 20 against the Order as written, 4 in favor of ratifying it, and one who didn’t talk specifically about the Order.
Stacy Murray said it’s “clear that the citizens of Alachua County will not stand for these mandates any longer.” Jennifer Bass said no mandate is needed to govern the conditions under which vaccinated and unvaccinated people can gather. Becky Maris said she is against any further extension of emergency orders that restrict people’s choice to determine their own risk.
Several times, Cornell spoke between the public comments, correcting the use of terms like “vaccine mandate” and “vaccine passport.” He said repeatedly that he is not in favor of making the vaccine mandatory.
Molly Renae said, “You keep saying there’s no vaccine mandate, but your Order creates the premise for it. The Order discriminates against the unmasked and the unvaccinated.” She added that “countless more” have gained natural immunity from COVID.
Rachel Holt said she doesn’t like living in Alachua County any more: “I am adamantly opposed to this. I would like to return Alachua County to the lovely county it was before you decided to turn it into California.”
Claudia Jones said the commissioners are not representing the people of this county: “I’m not hearing any support for the vaccine or the mask.”
Carol Morrell spoke about Dr. Hauser’s research that was presented at last week’s school board meeting on the brains of children wearing masks. He said he found that masks cause children’s brains to feel stress after only a few minutes, and it gets significantly worse if they exercise.
Candace Webb said she is seeing social, emotional, and psychological harms of masking in her own young children. She said her 3-year-old covers her nose and mouth with her hand in public and will not speak to anyone. The 3-year-old also drew a picture of herself and asked her mom to add a mask to the picture.
Kathy Benton asked, “What are the criteria for a local state of emergency? Why are you doubling down right now?”
Cornell told the commenters that he would answer all questions at the end.
Tracy Marinello said, “We have to stop these emergency orders.” She suggested that commissioners should “start doing some digging” with scientists who have different opinions about mask mandates and vaccines.
Carol Nash said her children go to public school here, and they are forced to wear masks outside on the playground. She said CDC guidelines say that outdoor masking for children is not required. Her child has a documented medical condition and has twice had anaphylactic reactions at school that were not noticed until the child was on the ground, gasping for breath, because the distress was not apparent while wearing a mask. “This is child abuse… It has to stop. It has to be optional. Let our children breathe.”
Sarah Wilson said it is unlawful to discriminate (against unmasked or unvaccinated people) in a place of public accommodation.
Carlos de la Cruz asked the commission to vote no on the Order: “This is an overreach of your powers.”
Another caller pointed out that although they repeatedly said they would not ask for proof of vaccination, the Order does not disallow measures such as asking for proof of vaccination.
Another caller asked what science the commission relies on for masks and vaccine passes. She said her mother falls down if she has to wear a mask and has a medical exemption but has been harassed by employees at multiple businesses. She said the County’s policies have led to discrimination and harassment of handicapped people in our community. She said there are over 100 studies that show masks do not work to prevent respiratory illness and offered to provide them to the BoCC.
Paula said she supports the mask mandate and thinks a vaccine passport is a good idea. She said the “numbers still need to come down” before easing up. Another caller said they supported the mask mandate.
When public comment ended, Cornell said he “understands the frustrations.” He said the governor’s emergency order goes through the end of April, so he would favor reviewing the County’s Order at that time. He added that one of his conditions for removing restrictions is general availability of the vaccine. He said, “I’m against a vaccine passport. I don’t know who put that in. I’m against any vaccine mandates.” He went on to say he won’t necessarily follow UF’s lead on masks and added, “I think the Emergency Order, as it stands today, … relaxes some of the restrictions and gives an end date.”
Other than those statements, Cornell did not answer the questions posed during public comment, as he had promised.
Commissioner Mary Alford moved to ratify the updated Order, and Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler seconded the motion.
Wheeler asked, “Are we that far apart from what the governor has mandated for the state?… We have not been enforcing masking as hard as we could have been… Nobody’s being challenged or arrested… I understand the concern for the little ones being masked all the time, especially on the playground… We’re talking about a wide range of needs… A lot of people are very thankful for what we’ve done … I look forward to our April meeting.”
Commissioner Chuck Chestnut acknowledged that some of the stories presented did “sound a little discriminatory,” but “We’re trying to… protect the health, safety, and welfare of our citizens… we’re following the science, we’re listening to our local health department director… that’s our job, we have to protect everyone… I don’t know where this opposition is coming from… I’m going to do what I think is right and best for everyone.”
Commissioner Anna Prizzia said “There’s not really a mask mandate” because the County hasn’t had a single mask citation, and they’re not able to enforce it on individuals.
The motion to ratify the Order passed unanimously.