Alachua County Chairman Robert Hutchinson responds to State order to reopen bars

Bars
Bars

Alachua County Board of Commissioners Chairman Robert Hutchinson wrote an open letter about the State Order to reopen bars, and posted it on social media. Here is the letter in its entirety:
 
“There’s some misconceptions about the “bar re-opening” that I’ll try, probably unsuccessfully, to clear up. 
 
When the announcement came from the State last Friday, what actually occurred is that a prior action by a state agency which had closed bars was rescinded, meaning a previous Governor’s order was now back in effect. That previous order allows establishments such as bars and restaurants to operate at 50% of capacity as long as patrons are seated at tables. What adds to the confusion is that the definition of bars, restaurants, and nightclubs has become blurred to the point of being useless. The State has essentially waived any distinction between them – in the old days, to be defined as a “restaurant”, a business had to derive more than 50% of its revenues from food sales. But the rule waiver now allows bars, breweries, etc. to sell a few snacks or food items and be opened up under the restaurant rules. 
 
So, on Friday, I began working with the County legal team and heard from some mayors, the Health Department, and many others. On the previous day, I had been in a long meeting with UF epidemiologists, student affairs staff, athletic staff, etc. We all knew on Thursday that the number of local COVID cases was beginning to rise precipitously. On Friday, the County Health Director met with the team of medical experts that advises him, and I anticipated that they would come up with a strong recommendation regarding closing of bars and restaurants, in part because they had previously ranked the most likely sites of pandemic spread being bars. But they made no recommendation on which to base our local emergency order despite my asking for it. 
 

Robert

Because the news cycle on Friday was dominated by headlines that said “Bars Re-opening”, we needed to move quickly to respond. Around 5 pm on Sept. 11th, I signed an emergency order that will strictly enforce the 50% of occupancy rule in restaurants, and that everybody who is drinking must be getting their drinks via table service, etc. In the Order, we now have the emergency power to close down any establishment for violations on the spot, initially for a day, and then for a week upon a subsequent violation. It also broadens the number of people within county and municipal governments who can enforce the rules to more than just law enforcement and codes enforcement officers. Often, police have higher priorities, and the number of codes enforcement personnel and the hours they work, aren’t sufficient for the late night nature of this particular action.
 
The City of Gainesville’s new “Streetery” program  where restaurants and bars are provided outdoor spaces in the public realm, such as closed streets, parking lots, etc. begins soon. This is an intentional attempt at “harm reduction” under the assumption that if people are going to congregate around food and drink, it’s safer to do so outdoors. If we close bars and restaurants altogether, it is likely that these activities will move indoors into private spaces. Our local epidemiologists and their contact tracers have confirmed that these private gatherings are the most infectious venue for COVID transmission.  
 
Last week, the County made an attempt to educate people about the problems associated with private parties, and to create a mechanism where these parties could be shut down if they weren’t complying with two basic rules: 1) the host posted a sign on their door about masks and social distancing; and 2) they restricted their indoor gathering to a maximum of ten unrelated folks, unless the venue was large enough for social distancing of a larger group.  Local law enforcement cannot enforce any rules related to COVID on private property unless we create an application system, which the County Commission unfortunately decided against implementing “unless things get worse”.
 
Perusing my e-mail and social media, there seems to be approximately two positions about this issue that people are taking:  1) Local government is neglecting our health, safety, and welfare responsibilities by not shutting down the University and schools and/or bars and restaurants. And then there’s the countervailing position:  2) Local government is run by power-hungry fascists trampling on our constitutional rights to infect whoever we please. 
 
Well, I’m the person who signs local emergency orders at least weekly, and in my opinion, we’ve threaded the needle given a few basic tenets of the dispersed nature of power within our mostly non-authoritarian local governments, including:
 
— Local government (cities and counties) have no authority to dictate any policy to the State University system or to the School Board; they are independent and don’t have to abide by local comprehensive plans, our ordinances, or our emergency orders. We do all of our governance collaboratively.
 
— The County Commission has no police force, as the Sheriff is an independently elected constitutional officer; and the Judiciary is completely independent as well. Some cities, like Gainesville, do have their own police force for administering sanctions.  None of these agencies – whether law enforcement or the judiciary, has to pay any attention to what county commissioners would like to happen – so anything we accomplish is done through collaboration or contract negotiations.
 
— The County Health Director is a completely independent officer of the State. And while we cooperate on many things, at the end of the day, he is subject to the Governor’s orders and not to anything the County Commission would like him to do.
 
There are many things we are doing right. Alachua County’s COVID dashboard is one of the better ones, and our proactive communication efforts, compared to most other local governments and agencies, has emphasized precision and transparency. We were among the earliest local governments in the South to close non-essential businesses and to require masks indoors in public places. Our testing rate has remained high throughout the pandemic and our health care institutions have been remarkable. Our citizenry has been more cooperative and generous than many other areas, and even our trolls are mostly droll. 
 
I am open to your ideas on how we should better manage this pandemic among us – please comment below or send by private message. 
 

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