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“Every day, the federal government and the state government is actively trying to kill people”: how the Gainesville City Commission convinced the county commission to change their minds on masks

The Gainesville City and Alachua County Commission meet on Zoom on May 19

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

During a joint Gainesville City Commission and Alachua County Commission meeting on May 19, the county commission reversed the vote they had taken earlier in the day to make facial coverings voluntary instead of mandatory. Here’s how it happened.

Cast of characters:

County commission: Mike Byerly, Charles “Chuck” Chestnut, Ken Cornell, Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson, Marihelen Wheeler

Gainesville City Commission: Mayor Lauren Poe, David Arreola, Adrian Hayes-Santos, Gail Johnson, Gigi Simmons, Harvey Ward, Helen Warren

Paul Myers, Alachua County Administrator for the Florida Department of Health

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The COVID-19 discussion began with the city commissioners questioning the data from the state, in light of recent media reports (contested by the governor) claiming that an employee was fired for refusing to change data to make it more favorable. City Commissioner Gail Johnson said, “In the absence of, you know, hearing some of the stories that we are not getting accurate data from the state level, I would like to talk about how we might be able to have a local strategy for understanding what the real data is behind the infections and death rates”

Paul Myers, Alachua County Administrator for the Florida Department of Health, was in attendance and had a presentation ready for the commissioners. He said that the overall positive rate for COVID-19 tests in the last two weeks of increased testing has been about 1.3%. His focus from the beginning has been on the vulnerable, particularly those over 65 with underlying health conditions. A number of long-term care facilities partner with the Department of Health to test everyone, every 2 weeks. In just the last couple of weeks, they’ve tested 716 residents and 492 staff.

“the vast majority of the individuals who have perished, either with or from this disease, have had at least four, if not more, comorbidities; these were individuals who were medically frail at the time that they passed.”

He pointed out that 6 of the 7 deaths of county residents came from the same nursing home. He also pointed out that the cumulative graph of new cases is linear, not exponential as people had feared in the beginning. He added: “Being privy to many of the death reports that come through Alachua County, I can tell you that… the vast majority of the individuals who have perished, either with or from this disease, have had at least four, if not more, comorbidities; these were individuals who were medically frail at the time that they passed.”

Regarding contact tracing, he said, “Every one of those [positive tests] results in our disease investigators contacting the confirmed case, tracking their movements, and trying to figure out who it was that they significantly exposed during the incubation period. This is a high workload, but one that we have staffed up to do. And one that we feel comfortable doing. This is classic public health.”

“Hospitals, this is the major metric that I look at. Because this is the whole reason — the primary reason why we wanted to flatten the curve, as everybody has come to know.”

Myers also talked about hospital capacity: “Hospitals, this is the major metric that I look at. Because this is the whole reason — the primary reason why we wanted to flatten the curve, as everybody has come to know.” He said that although capacity is trending up, that’s because they’ve re-started “elective” procedures, and the CEOs of the hospitals say that’s a “spigot” they can turn off at any time to increase capacity.

Then he turned to testing: “Robust testing criteria for health care workers and the community at large… I can tell you that in Alachua County, no person that has met the criteria for testing—and basically right now, it’s open to anybody—has been denied a test.”

County Commissioner Ken Cornell asked Myers how many tests the county should be doing each day and how policy makers can decide, based on the percentage of positive tests, what they should do “if things are turning the wrong way.”

“And right now, for the last two weeks, you saw that chart, we’re at 1.3%.”

Myers said we currently don’t have any way to know what percentage of the population has actually had the disease; what we do have is a “point prevalence” number—the percentage of daily tests that come back positive. “And right now, for the last two weeks, you saw that chart, we’re at 1.3%. Now, over the last several months, we are now trending down to 2.9%. The trigger that you need to look at in terms of policy is perhaps take into account the positivity rate, but I would point you back to the whole reason why we started social distancing to begin with, and that was to flatten the curve.

“We were flattening the curve so we did not overwhelm our health care system. That is the primary reason why we did this, why public health recommended that we flatten the curve, and so we really need to keep an eye on the ball, and that is our ICU beds and our hospitalization beds. Because in an environment where they don’t have elective surgeries and we start to see this narrowing of the gap between available beds and the capacity, now we have a problem. But right now, we don’t have a problem.” He said the positivity rate can be a valuable tool in the context of the other metrics they have, “the main one being our hospital system.”

Cornell also asked about the data on the dashboard, given Johnson’s earlier statement doubting the accuracy of the data. Myers said the data comes from the Alachua County Health Department and goes from there to the state. The local Health Department validates the data every day.

Concerned about UF reopening and students returning

City Commissioner David Arreola questioned the availability of contact tracing: “Now that we’ve reached a point where everyone can request a test, you know, the way that I see it, we can test everybody. As long as we’re getting positive tests, even one or two or three positive cases without tracing properly leaves a lot of vectors where the virus can spread again.” He said he was concerned about UF reopening and students returning.

Myers assured him that every positive case results in contact tracing: “I can assure you, each positive case absolutely results in contact tracing by Department of Health employees and agents. So, that’s gonna continue as we get the students back in. There’s gonna be a test and trace program on some design, on some level. And that is going to cause us to ramp up the number of contact tracers that we have… but every single positive case results in contact tracing.”

City Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos asked about the timeline for better antibody testing. Myers responded, “Right now there have been several tests that have been approved by the FDA, but they have not been validated. The distinction is, they’re approved for emergency use only. And from what I have seen so far, I don’t have a whole lot of confidence in the specificity or the accuracy of these tests. To answer your question, no, I don’t have a timeline.”

City Commissioner Harvey Ward liked the “moving 5-day average” graph: “I would love to see this kind of information more regularly. And again, maybe it’s out there and I just haven’t been aware. All of the information you’ve given us, but particularly the contact tracing information, very helpful. And very useful, but it’s new information… We, as city commissioners, have not had access to information to pass on to the 135,000 people that ask us questions regularly. The more information we can get from the Health Department, the more we can help disseminate that information, and the more confident people can be in it.”

Ward then questioned why the county commission had reversed the mandatory mask order earlier in the day. “Regarding masks—if we have a system that’s been driving our numbers down, why do we want to stop? I mean, I — I don’t get that. I don’t — I don’t know what the trigger was to say, oh, well, that’s good enough. It’s okay to go ahead and, you know, put our foot back on the gas now.”

“We can play with data in any number of ways, but I’ll be damned if I see this as a constitutional issue.”

Ward continued: “I talked to a friend of mine a few minutes ago, before we started the meeting, who has a daughter who is about to turn 10 years old that has some health conditions, and if she catches this, she’s gonna die. I have a daughter who is about to turn 9 who’s got asthma. I have an aging father who I help take care of. With lots of comorbidities. I and the hundred or so people who have emailed us in the last two hours really don’t understand backing off the mask thing. I just don’t. I mean, I — we can play with data in any number of ways, but I’ll be damned if I see this as a constitutional issue. This is — this is trying to remind people on a regular basis that if you wear a mask when you go in public, fewer people are gonna die. And I don’t see what the problem with that is. I don’t.”

Johnson asked Myers about the recent firing of a Department of Health staffer: “I think there’s an elephant in the room right now that I would just like to bring up and get Paul Myers’ response to this. You know, recently we’ve seen that article about the COVID-19 data chief being removed.”

Myers responded, “I can tell you that, as a matter of rule, the department typically does not address personnel issues in the public square. I have not seen any change in the data that I’m receiving or the data that we’re sending up there and how it’s analyzed or assimilated into the statewide data. So, you know, I saw those news reports. But to answer your question, I haven’t seen any change and I don’t expect any change to occur as a result of that.”

“So we’re now making decisions based upon potentially faulty data, and I think that needs to be said.”

Johnson countered, “At this point, especially with this article, I think a lot of trust has been decimated. So we’re now making decisions based upon potentially faulty data, and I think that needs to be said.” She said she hoped “that we would be able to come to some type of solution outside of the state mechanisms where we can make sure that the data that we are receiving is the truth.”

Myers responded, “What I can tell you is that COVID-19 is a reportable disease. We know how many tests we are conducting. When a positive test hits an ordering physician’s office or it hits the health department, these are mostly electronically-generated alerts from the labs that run the tests. By law, they have to report these to the Alachua County Health Department. Every one of those 340 confirmed positive cases has resulted in that individual being isolated and the contacts of that individual being investigated.

“So, yes, it is true that more than 7 people have died in Alachua County that have been tagged as COVID-19 deaths… The 7 people are residents of Alachua County. The others are residents from outside of Alachua County.”

“In terms of the deaths, we all have to understand that we are a hub for many things in North Central Florida, a primary one being our healthcare system. So Shands, in North Florida, we see patients from all over North Central Florida, really all over the state, depending on the subspecialty that is required. And sometimes from the Southeast United States. So, yes, it is true that more than 7 people have died in Alachua County that have been tagged as COVID-19 deaths… The 7 people are residents of Alachua County. The others are residents from outside of Alachua County. And that’s a distinction that unfortunately was made deep in the article that hit this weekend in one of our local newspapers. And I thought that the headline, quite frankly, was, you know, a bit alarming. Because when I read the rest of the article, it was clear that not all of those people were Alachua County residents. So why would they be counted as Alachua County residents when they were transported here from outside?”

City Commissioner Helen Warren wanted to know whether there was any way to know how many people are tested each day because “well, 2% of 20 is a lot different from 2% of 200.”

Myers said that information is reported on the dashboard. Warren asked whether the number of tests could be included on the county’s Recovery Dashboard (which is created by the County, not the Health Department). 

Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe was concerned about privacy when contact-tracing apps are rolled out. Myers said that’s “being looked at very closely.”

Cornell asked whether the prevalence of COVID-19 has increased or decreased in the two weeks since Alachua County started opening up. Myers said the positive rate is “1.3%, much, much lower than what we have been experiencing over the last two months.”

Poe asked if anyone had more questions for Myer so they could “get back to saving lives.”

“But if the County takes steps to walk off a cliff—and that’s what I believe is happening with them rescinding their facial covering order—we shouldn’t follow…”

After a brief discussion about whether code enforcement officials could be trained to make decisions on whether a wide range of businesses are operating safely, the discussion turned to the mask ordinance. Hayes-Santos started the discussion: “I was saddened today to see the County rescind their facial covering order this afternoon. We as a City discussed previously about trying to stay together with the County on emergency orders, and I agree that it would be great for us to be in lockstep with the County. But if the County takes steps to walk off a cliff—and that’s what I believe is happening with them rescinding their facial covering order—we shouldn’t follow…. We received hundreds of e-mails in the past couple hours, asking us to enact our own mandatory facial covering emergency order to protect them. With that, I would like to move that we direct the City Manager to enter a mandatory emergency facial covering order.” Johnson seconded the motion. Poe asked Hayes-Santos to add authorization for him to send a letter to the State Department of Health, expressing privacy concerns over any technological contact tracing solution.

“What we’re asking is for people who can wear masks to wear a dadgum mask for the safety of the people that they’re around… I don’t see us being in a position as a community to say, yeah, you can stop wearing a mask.”

Ward said he would prefer to see the County reconsider the issue because most people don’t know where the city/county limits are. He said he knows some people object to masks and some people can’t wear masks, but “that’s true of many orders and ordinances. There’s lots of things that there are exceptions to. What we’re asking is for people who can wear masks to wear a dadgum mask for the safety of the people that they’re around… I don’t see us being in a position as a community to say, yeah, you can stop wearing a mask. I just don’t. It’s pretty obvious the City is going to pass a mask order if the County doesn’t reconsider, and I really cannot understand why you would not. I’m not angry at you. I’m not disappointed. I just really wish you would reconsider.”

Arreola asked why the County would make that change without “talking it through” with the City. County Commissioner Mike Byerly said the County’s business is “ongoing all the time,” and they made a number of decisions that morning, the same as they do every week.

Arreola said he understood that, but “we have made progress in containing the spread, and because of that, I think that there’s this inclination to begin to relax restrictions, but I think we need to resist that inclination a little while longer. We have too many people in this state dying, and they’re traveling through Alachua County.”

“Like, every day, the federal government and the state government is actively trying to kill people, that’s how I feel about it, and honestly, that’s how a lot of other people feel about it, too”

Gail Johnson chimed in, “So it’s sad that we’re at this place because I expected honestly better of us, and I’ll just say it very plainly and simply: I feel like—these are the kinds of thoughts that run through my mind. Like, every day, the federal government and the state government is actively trying to kill people, that’s how I feel about it, and honestly, that’s how a lot of other people feel about it, too, but I felt like this was really a safe haven for us, like we were making better decisions for the people that live here, and therefore, I just felt a little bit more safe.”

She continued, “I wish that I could be a little bit nicer about this and say I’m not disappointed or I’m not angry, but I’m not going to lie; I am. I thought y’all made a real bad decision. A lot of people out there did… I’m really kind of confused about why you did this because it seems so simple to me. We don’t even have really good data about how this opening up is affecting our infection rates. We’re not even two weeks out of this. Can we at least have waited for another week or two to reassess, maybe to see what the data is? That to me would have seemed like a better idea. So I would love for us to all be on the same page about this, but I’m hearing from my constituents, our constituents of the city, that this was a really, really bad idea and people are mad and they are—they feel unsafe by this decision, and like Commissioner Ward said, at the very least right now, we are expected to keep people safe, keep people alive.” 

“I like to view things, it’s probably the economics teacher in me, you know, tradeoffs and costs. There’s virtually no downside to requiring people to wear masks, besides the public frustration.”

City Commissioner Gigi Simmons said she agreed with her colleagues and would like the County to reconsider. Poe said, “I like to view things, it’s probably the economics teacher in me, you know, tradeoffs and costs. There’s virtually no downside to requiring people to wear masks, besides the public frustration. I mean, I get that part, and people are frustrated, and there are things that have become flash points for the expression of that frustration,” but the medical community, “the vast majority of the research that Commissioner Hutchinson shared, that was compiled through another professor at UF,” supports wearing masks where social distancing is not possible. He said his “strong, strong preference” would be for the County to reconsider. 

Hayes-Santos wanted to make sure that the order could not result in arrests. 

“It’s incredible to me how rapidly this thing that we did has become something that we feel our survival depends upon”

Byerly read into the record his position on masks, first saying “if we’re in a good spot right now, it doesn’t have anything to do with mandatory face masks. Just bear in mind, they’ve only been required less than two weeks.” He said that prior to the mandatory mask order, a few people were asking for it, but mostly they were concerned about occupancy limits in retail stores. “It’s incredible to me how rapidly this thing that we did has become something that we feel our survival depends upon and we’re taking a massive step backwards. We just did it! And by the way, I didn’t support it then.” 

Byerly also said everyone looks for the studies that support their point of view, but many of them are just “surveys of educated opinion… but even those articles that do a survey essentially report that most healthcare professionals, researchers, think it’s a good thing, they don’t ask should government make it mandatory… There’s a big gap between ‘we think it’s a good idea’ to ‘everyone has to do this.’” He said there are few studies of mask use “in the real world,” and “if masks are not properly handled, this can undercut these objectives and apparently, people are not handling them properly.” He discussed additional risks to wearing masks and summed up by saying it’s “premature” for government to mandate wearing masks.

Compromise between masks and occupancy

Cornell said he was the one who originally brought up masks because they were opening up the economy and that he has a “difference of opinion” with Byerly on the research about masks. He said that it made a difference to him that all seven of the city commissioners wanted them to reconsider. He proposed a compromise: if they put the mask order back in place, would the other county commissioners support changing the occupancy limit from 1/500 sqft to 50% of fire code occupancy?

County Commissioner Charles Chestnut said he initially supported masks, but many people have expressed concerns about the mandatory mask policy, so he was willing to move to voluntary face masks for a few weeks and see how it goes. 

County Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler said, “I think with the City strongly in favor of the masks, and their constituents are our constituents, and the city commissioners are our constituents as well, that we need to be listening.” She said they should take a re-vote.

“The University of Florida and presumably Santa Fe College… I think they’re gonna require it through the fall.”

County Commission Chair Hutchinson said, “The University of Florida and presumably Santa Fe College had told us that they’re going to require masks for everybody indoors on the campus other than when they’re in an office, so to me, the community should be providing a consistent message to all of those folks coming here. I think they’re gonna require it through the fall. I think what we heard was until the end of December… irregardless of phase.” He supported the compromise of re-voting on masks and loosening occupancy limits. 

Chestnut asked for an opinion from the County Attorney on re-voting on something during a joint meeting. County Attorney Sylvia Torres replied that it only had to be a properly-advertised Sunshine meeting. Their rules say they can reconsider votes at a subsequent meeting, and the joint meeting could be considered a subsequent meeting. 

Chestnut moved to reconsider the earlier face mask vote. Wheeler seconded the motion. 

“I don’t want this to be a deal breaker, but I’ve been consistent from the beginning. I much, much prefer the 1 to 500 than the 50%”

Poe said, “I don’t want this to be a deal breaker, but I’ve been consistent from the beginning. I much, much prefer the 1 to 500 than the 50%. It’s easier to determine, easier to enforce… I would hope that you would keep that…We’ve been back and forth on that from the beginning, and I would enjoy some consistency on that particular one.”

Arreola thanked the county commissioners for a “good exchange of ideas.”

After public comment, which was mixed between people who supported mandatory masks and didn’t support mandatory masks, Hutchinson restated the motion: “Basically the motion is to go with the current order [he had not yet signed the order resulting from the earlier vote], which retains the mask requirement. It also retains the governor’s occupancy requirements at 50%. It adds back in bowling alleys and billiard halls, and that instruction regarding the tattoo places [for staff to determine whether they could open] and so forth, personal service places.”

Byerly asked for the motion to be split, so the face mask issue could be separated from the occupancy issue because he doesn’t support mandatory masks but supports more restrictive occupancy limits. 

Before they voted, Wheeler said, “To address the concerns of the callers who thought that we were not considering the needs of the outlying communities, I would like to make sure that those folks know that our County Manager has been talking to city managers. Mark [Sexton, County Communication Director] has been working with the outlying communities as well, to make sure the information is getting out there, so that folks have been considered in all these conversations.”

On the motion to allow 50% occupancy of businesses, the vote was 3-2, with Byerly and Hutchinson voting against the motion.

On the motion to make masks mandatory, the vote was 4-1, with only Byerly voting against the motion. 

“It would have been hell to try to be the City keeping the masks-on requirement”

Outgoing City Commissioner Helen Warren said she was pleased that the County had reconsidered “because it would have been hell to try to be the City keeping the masks-on requirement…I remember when this all started, there were all the students coming back from their winter travel for internships and all across the world, and it frightened me to think about what could be happening as they were coming back and to see that we did so well… this time, we got it right, you guys. And I really am proud of y’all.”

The city commission then considered a two-fold motion, stated by Poe: “One is the County didn’t take action on this, so for us, for me, to send a letter to the State Department of Health asking them to consider privacy protections, in any electronic contact tracing that might get adopted. And the other is to ask our charter officers to draft language for an order requiring masks and coming up with the enforcement mechanisms.”

The motion passed unanimously. 

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