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Facial coverings will be required in Alachua County starting Monday

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

In a meeting that lasted over 5 hours and took over 50 public comments, the Alachua County Commission decided to follow some of the governor’s orders but added restrictions of their own.

Restaurants

The governor’s order allows restaurants to resume normal operations at 25% of indoor capacity and unlimited outdoor capacity with proper social distancing, starting Monday, May 4.

Commissioner Mike Byerly thought it’s not safe to have servers moving from table to table, leaning over the food and the patrons, so he moved to allow the 25% capacity without servers. A number of restaurant owners called in with various objections. Satchel Raye, of Satchel’s Pizza, said he had a lot of servers who were begging to work and that they needed the income, including tips. Other restaurant owners said they weren’t set up to take counter-service orders. In the end, Commissioners Ken Cornell, Marihelen Wheeler, and Chuck Chestnut voted against the motion, and the governor’s orders for restaurants will go into effect on Monday.

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Retail

The governor’s orders recommend opening retail stores (both the “essential” stores that were already open and the “non-essential” stores that had been previously closed) at 25% of capacity. Commissioner Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson said this was “no restriction at all” because fire code occupancy is significantly higher than normal traffic at a typical grocery store. Hutchinson claimed that the busiest day you can think of (Christmas Eve, for example) is about 25% of the store’s fire code occupancy.

After some discussion, the Commission decided to slightly relax their previous one-person-per-750-square-feet rule to one person per 500 square feet.

Facial coverings

The Commission decided to incorporate Miami-Dade’s facial covering Emergency Order into their upcoming Emergency Order. That Order says, “Persons working in or visiting grocery stores, restaurants, pharmacies, construction sites, public transit vehicles, vehicles for hire, and locations where social distancing measures are not possible shall wear facial coverings as defined by the CDC.” The order exempts children under the age of 2 “or persons who have trouble breathing due to a chronic pre-existing condition.”

Although County Attorney Sylvia Torres warned the Commission that if they decided to diverge from the governor’s order, they would need to “articulate findings” to be able to defend against lawsuits and that their reasons would need to be “something more than arbitrary,” the Commission’s discussion featured very little data. Cornell said he was willing to try the governor’s orders for a week with no further restrictions, but he couldn’t say what data would change his mind after a week, and no commissioner gave metrics for decision points that might move us closer to the governor’s orders. Since Alachua County is not fully implementing Phase 1, it is unclear what will happen when the state moves to Phase 2.

The Commission moved forward on mandatory facial coverings in spite of the CDC voluntary recommendation for masks, the governor’s voluntary recommendation for masks, and the conclusion from Paul Myers (Florida Department of Health in Alachua County) that there is no consensus on the wearing of face masks.

Byerly said business owners are an important part of the community, but they shouldn’t be given responsibility for what to do when there are broad-scale public health issues. He said we shouldn’t just “turn to the Chamber of Commerce and ask them what we ought to do. Unfortunately, this is what Governor DeSantis did. If you look at the task force membership, it is overwhelmingly made up of business interests or elected officials who represent business interests. There’s very little, very little involvement from public health officials, from people with advanced degrees, people with a perspective to balance what business interests want us to do. People keep asking why we would disagree with what the governor’s business task force recommended? That’s why. I don’t think the governor’s task force was unbiased or balanced, and that’s why I’m perfectly comfortable with taking some positions locally that the state’s not willing to do. The state’s in line with Donald Trump, and I don’t support his perspective on most things, including this one.”

The full list of the task forces is here. Governor DeSantis was asked several times at press conferences why he didn’t have many medical people on the task force, and his response was that he had a Surgeon General and an entire Department of Health to advise him.

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