The Alachua Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) voted Tuesday to leave in place its face mask mandate for businesses and events, but commissioners said a request for vaccine proof will never be part of county policy.
The BOCC also directed the county attorney to address the language in Emergency Order 2021-13 about group gatherings with a goal of emphasizing that gatherings where social distancing is not possible should include face mask use regardless of being vaccinated or not.
The meeting included almost two dozen public comments, a majority of which were against keeping the EO. Commissioners had said last month they would consider dropping the order, but on Tuesday they explained that they received more emails and phone calls supporting retaining the order than those who called in or came to the meeting in person.
Commissioner Anna Prizzia proposed striking language that said vaccinated people can gather together without masks. Commissioner Mary Alford advised that the BOCC should keep the language the same in the EO and voted against the motion, but the rest of the board agreed with Prizzia's amendment.
Commissioner Charles Chestnut said he wants to follow the recommendations of the health department, doctors, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Our responsibility is for all citizens of Alachua County," he said. "Let's turn this corner first, then we will relax those mask requirements."
Commissioner Prizzia said that according to her research of peer reviewed articles, face masks are saving lives. She also said that local business owners and organizations who operate indoors all day made the request to keep the face mask mandate.
Commissioner Chair Ken Cornell said that he had read all emails both for and against the EO and also checked the data.
He agreed with several commenters who were concerned about children wearing masks and that it would be a good idea to add a mental services representative to the pandemic advisory board that advises the school board.
Cornell also referred to the information presented to the BOCC by Dr. Michael Lauzardo, deputy director of the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute, and Paul Myers, administrator of the Alachua County Health Department.
According to Myers, it is now the younger age groups who are spreading COVID-19.
"The disease spread is in 20-, 30- and 40-year-olds," he said. "It is concerning, but it's not the populations that suffer most. As vaccines are put in arms of the younger, the decline in cases is stabilized in the elderly population."
As of Tuesday, 82 percent of the county's 65 and older population has been vaccinated, Myers reported. He also said, with the health department administering 1,600 doses a day, 67 percent of residents over 50 have been vaccinated.
"We would shut down the flu every year with numbers like these," he said about the vaccine percentages.
One in three Alachua County residents have at least one vaccine dose.
According to Lauzardo, it would be best to continue wearing face masks.
"We are not done yet," he said, stressing the importance of young adult vaccinations. "We've got to get vaccines in arms."
Lauzardo said that ending the pandemic is still in the hands of the community as long as there is a strong turnout for vaccination in April and more people get past vaccine hesitancy.
Lauzardo acknowledged deaths have leveled off, "but everyone in hospital (with COVID-19) has one thing in common: they have not been vaccinated."
He added that hundreds of people in Alachua County have died of COVID-19 and thousands have been hospitalized. His advice to the BOCC was to continue with vaccinations and masks.
"Slow the spread, slow variant impact, press on, and it will work," Lauzardo said. "It's too early to declare victory."