County commission votes to make masks voluntary but keep occupancy at 1/500 square feet


Commissioner Ken Cornell moved to eliminate the mandatory facial covering order, saying that “robust testing” had convinced him that any uptick in community spread would be caught.

In a discussion about occupancy limits, Commissioner Mike Byerly said he was concerned that Commission Chair Robert Hutchinson put out a new emergency order over the weekend, moving occupancy limits to those set by the governor, without consulting the commission. He said that the change in occupancy limits was a “substantial policy shift” that shouldn’t have been made by Hutchinson alone.

Hutchinson said, “I no longer have any confidence in what the governor’s opening or closing or any of that.” He added, “We need to completely shift the way we’re thinking… ” and that they should train codes enforcement to make “health-related judgment calls.”

Commissioner Charles Chestnut said he wanted “reasoning” for why they should not follow the governor’s recommendation.

Hutchinson said that most stores normally operate around 25% of their fire code occupancy, so “50% of fire occupancy is no limit whatsoever.” He said the County’s policy up to now has been, “Restaurants, you’re fine to be unsafe, but everyone else is one per 500 [square feet].”

Byerly said a 50% occupancy limit is “conning the public into thinking there’s an occupancy standard, and there isn’t… The governor’s standards are not real.”

Cornell said he trusts the public to turn around and leave if they don’t feel safe in a business: “I think we need to follow the governor and more important, follow our data.” He said the commission should focus on percent of positive tests and hospital capacity and address outbreaks if they happen. He suggested sticking with 50% and watching the data, specifically keeping the percentage of positive tests under 4%.

Chestnut said, “I don’t want to be hard-nosed on any of this stuff.” He had concerns with gyms and fitness centers: “I don’t know how they’re going to sanitize, how they’re going to provide the wipes” when there are shortages.

Byerly said that the 1/500 square foot standard “feels about right.”

Hutchinson said, “It will close most gyms, as a practical matter,” and Byerly said, “Ok.”

Paul Myers, Florida Department of Health Administrator for Alachua County, “The whole reason why we flattened this curve was to protect our healthcare facilities.” He said the percentage of positive tests is a “point-in-time” number and that the focus should be on bed capacity and long-term-care facilities.

The commission voted to remove the facial covering requirement, 3-2, with Hutchinson and Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler voting against the motion (Hutchinson said he was a “strident no”). Hutchinson said he was “very disappointed in this commission.”

With that out of the way, Byerly moved to keep business occupancy at one person per 500 square feet (the emergency order that was put in place over the weekend allowed 50% of fire code occupancy). During that discussion, Chestnut said he didn’t know how many deaths there had been in the county from COVID-19, but he was willing to try 50% occupancy for a few weeks because there is an “outcry in the community” to let businesses re-open.

Much of the discussion focused on the fact that 50% can be a large number in a big-box store, but commissioners seemed to think that allowing 50% would be the same as requiring 50%. Byerly said, “If there’s no limit on the people in a store,” businesses can’t enforce social distancing. He continued, “This makes that all voluntary,” and it makes it “impossible” for businesses to keep people separated.

The vote was 3-2 to keep occupancy at 1/500 square feet, with only Chestnut and Cornell in favor of the 50% occupancy restriction recommended by the governor.

Wheeler then moved that bowling alleys and billiard halls be allowed to open. Tattoo parlors and piercing establishments will be looked at by staff, and gyms can follow the governor’s 50% occupancy. That motion passed.

Hutchinson said he wouldn’t sign the order until after today’s joint City/County meeting at 3:00, in case they decide to change something.

  • Hutchinson said he was “very disappointed in this commission.”

    Retire Hutch! You are out of step with Alachua County.

    (Thank you Jennifer Cabrera for your timely, informative articles.)

  • According to the local propaganda paper, many students from down south are dying to get back to Gainesville to get away from their moms telling them to make their beds. Wonder if local leaders will try to curb that invasion since those areas comprise the more infected populations?

  • Great news, but let’s don’t forget that the Alachua Fascists had this measure in place. Vote them out when up for re-election. Now they’re shifting to other ways they can be more restrictive than the state order, only for petty reasons (they don’t like the governor). As Florida starts to open up and people realize that they can go back to living life in other areas, they’ll simply bring their business elsewhere. Times up, Alachua Fascists!

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