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County defers consideration of occupancy restrictions for restaurants and bars

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

At today’s Alachua County Commission meeting, the commission voted 4-1 (with Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler in dissent) to direct staff to review the county’s COVID-19 data and an economic impact analysis from the University of Florida in case they need to make a quick decision to reduce capacity in bars and restaurants in the future.

Paul Myers, Alachua County Administrator for the Florida Department of Health, led off the COVID-19 agenda item with a presentation on the situation in the county.

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Myers said hospitalizations are “concerning but nowhere near crisis care.”

Alachua County is first in the state in vaccinations per capita and third in testing per capita.

Myers said the governor’s plan for prioritization of vaccines is “spot-on,” and 80% of the vaccines delivered to the county so far have gone to the healthcare system. Every patient in skilled nursing and long-term care who wants the vaccine has received the first dose.

Myers gave an age breakdown of the vaccinations to date in the county, drawing attention to the fact that 134 people over the age of 90 have already been vaccinated:

Myers said Alachua County has the lowest pediatric positivity rate for COVID-19 in Florida.

He also showed the results of recent contact tracing, showing that retail environments were the top risk factor over the holidays, followed by restaurants/bars and social gatherings. Contact tracing does not indicate where the person was infected but where they reported going in the period before testing positive. Myers said retail had risen to the top because of holiday shopping.

County Commissioner Anna Prizzia asked about the “opportunity” in the governor’s order that allows counties to reduce capacity for restaurants if they quantify the economic impact of each limitation or requirement on those restaurants and explain why each limitation or requirement is necessary for public health.

Myers responded that he and the other public health officials he meets with don’t recommend that at this time. He said that reducing capacity of restaurants and bars could possibly reduce infections, “but at what cost?” He suggested holding the line, saying the vaccine should start to make an impact soon.

Commission Chair Ken Cornell agreed, saying he didn’t feel we should “be moving in that direction at this time.”

Regarding the vaccine, Myers said we need to have a “community conversation” about Phase 2; who are our “essential” workers? He also said that people who are vaccinated should understand that it provides no protection from day 0 to day 12. Between days 12 and 21, it gradually increases to over 90%, possibly 95%. He also said the amount of vaccine will “really open up” within 2-3 weeks.

Myers said that those who have signed up to get the vaccine from the health department should answer their phone; around 35% of calls aren’t answered. The health department is working on setting up an automated system so people can select appointment times, but right now they’re limited by the number of phone lines they have. They currently have the capability of making 400-500 appointments a day, and they’re starting with the oldest people and working downward. They are currently working on people in their mid-80s.

Prizzia moved that the County should engage Well Florida to gather data in preparation for making decisions about Phase 2 vaccinations and that the County should work with the City of Gainesville and other organizations to make sure people know how to sign up to get a vaccination.

After the commission voted to do that, Prizzia again brought up her desire to reduce capacity at bars and restaurants. This time, she moved that they should “direct a review of health research provided by Paul Myers and peer-reviewed literature and economic impact analysis from Alan Hodges for capacity reductions to bars and restaurants within the County so that if the commission needs to make such a decision, the information is available.”

Multiple restaurant owners called in to ask the commission not to reduce the capacity of their businesses. After public comment, Cornell said he was hesitant to identify a specific source of spread right now. He said businesses are following the County’s orders and that we are doing very well as a community. He said he supported gathering data but was “adamantly” against reducing capacity or shutting down businesses until the experts at UF and the health department tell him this is a hot spot.

The commission voted 4-1, with Wheeler in dissent, to gather the information.

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