BY JENNIFER CABRERA
The Alachua County Commission (BOCC) decided yesterday to extend the indoor mask mandate another 7 days and also to provide incentives to both the public and to employees for getting COVID-19 vaccinations.
After hearing an update on local data from Paul Myers, Alachua County Administrator for the Florida Department of Health, Board Chair Ken Cornell said he had spoken with Dr. Michael Lauzardo from the University of Florida about whether children under the age of 6 should wear masks (the County’s existing Emergency Order required children over the age of 2 to wear masks indoors). Cornell said Dr. Lauzardo told him that “the best thing we could do for those kids, until they’re able to get a vaccine, is ensure the adults that are surrounding these kids are vaccinated. I know that masking is difficult for those 2 to 6. But he thought it would be okay if we didn’t require masks for the 2-to-6-year-olds in our order.”
County Attorney Sylvia Torres also clarified that charter schools are exempt from the order because they are governed by their own boards and by state regulations. She said private schools are subject to the County’s order because they are not governed by the Alachua County School Board or the Florida Board of Education.
Commissioner Anna Prizzia said she had supported masking children ages 2 and up because that was recommended by the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics, and she’s had conversations with two pediatricians and a pediatric physician from UF Health about the issue. She said, “the overall consensus was, from the medical community here locally, if we can get more buy-in from the community to wear masks by removing them for ages 2 to 5, that’s worth their weight in gold. They’re not really the super spreaders anyway. And if it’s going to change a public health behavior of the parents and the older children in that household to have seen it move our public health policy, to be listening to our constituents, then they felt that might be more important from a public health perspective than masking young children.”
The motion to renew the order for 7 days had five parts:
- Move the low end of the mandatory masking age from 2 to 6 but highly encourage it
- Begin enforcing the order on individuals
- Clarify that charter schools and schools governed by the school board are excluded from the order
- Make sure business employees are not prohibited from or discouraged from following the law
- Direct the Communications Department to print up signs and begin distributing them
The vote to approve the motion was unanimous.
The BOCC then discussed providing incentives of $50 per person (a $25 gift card for each mRNA vaccine or a $50 gift card for J&J) to try to persuade another 45,000 residents to get vaccinated and get the vaccination rate to 81% of the population. For employees, they discussed providing an insurance premium reduction of $10 per month per vaccinated family member over the next year. In addition, they discussed a $500 cash incentive to employees that are fully vaccinated ($250 per shot for the mRNA vaccines and $500 for J&J). The first vaccination would need to occur by September 15 to be eligible.
The funding for all of these programs would come from American Rescue Plan funds.
Assistant County Manager Tommy Crosby said the County had been working on the gift card program with the retailers that provide vaccines, and none of them had signed up yet. He said they may not be able to get the program in place at Walmart, in particular. The County can buy gift cards for the health department to hand out, but there would be no way for smaller retailers or physicians to provide the incentive, although Crosby agreed to contact Wise’s Pharmacy at Commissioner Mary Alford’s request.
County Manager Michele Lieberman said she was disappointed in the number of employees who have reported that they are vaccinated: “Hopefully this employee incentive will move the needle. If it does not move the needle, after September 15, I will be back to you to discuss the option of mandatory vaccinations.”
Commissioner Alford moved to accept all three options, with a deadline on the public incentive of September 30. Alford added, “It’s sad to me that we have to do this program. I agree with Commissioner Prizzia that, you know, the number of people and the number of programs that we could have helped with that money rather than trying to incentivize people to do the right thing makes me very sad. But I do see it as a necessary thing, and I hope that it makes a difference.”
Lieberman said the staff have been discussing requiring County contractors to be vaccinated and also requiring all new hires to be vaccinated. Lieberman also said that a benefit like a vaccine incentive can’t just be given to employees who are in a union, so that will have to be negotiated. She said that a meeting with the IAFF (Firefighters Union) “was not a positive result. And at the current time, we have been asked to cease and desist requiring our fire rescue employees from providing vaccination status or even being tested before they go out on the road. And it is not our intent to cease and desist. We’re moving forward on our policy with that.”
The vote to approve the motion passed unanimously.