Commission reverses course: Face masks back on in Alachua County

joint commission
joint commission

Gainesville City Commissioner Harvey Ward implored his Alachua County commission colleagues to reconsider removing the mandatory face coverings rule from the emergency order during a joint city and county meeting on May 19th.

Earlier in the day during a special meeting, Alachua County Board of County Commissioners voted 3-2 to lift the face mask requirement from the emergency order.

BOCC Chair Robert Hutchinson said he left the emergency order unsigned until the evening joint meeting because he wanted to see what the City of Gainesville wanted to do about face masks as the county and city had planned to work in conjunction with each other to avoid confusion for people who would operate under two different rules as they worked and shopped in different parts of Alachua County.

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Gainesville Commissioner David Arreola said, “I have not been persuaded,” to remove the mask requirement and said the low case numbers can be attributed to mitigation efforts such as required face coverings.

City Commissioner Gail Johnson said she was disappointed in the BOCC’s decision. “I have walked out of stores and decided to pay 30 percent more for groceries,” she said because she chose to go to stores that required masks.

“I am really confused why you did this. We don’t even have the data,” she said about removing the mask requirement as more people are out and some restrictions have been lifted.

“We are expected to keep people safe,” she said.

Mayor Lauren Poe said, “There are people in our community who can stay away from transmission points,” but he pointed to essential workers who don’t have a choice to avoid the public.

“We need to continue the trajectory,” Poe said. “It’s in the best interest and safety. There is no down side to requiring people to wear a mask.

“We have absolutely got to do this for our neighbors,” Poe said, “at least until we see if the reopening has a negative impact.”

Ward echoed the sentiment but said he does not want anyone to go to jail for not wearing a face covering.

“You’ve got a good thing going,” he said to the county commissioners. “I’m not sure why you would want it to stop.

“If we as a community do these simple things, we can keep this disease at a minimum. I don’t think masks are impeding economic progress, I think sick people will.”

County Commissioner Mike Byerly said his political drive to vote against requiring masks was to heed the complaints of his constituents. He said that most articles in favor of mask rules referred to when making decisions about wearing masks are actually surveys, not studies. “The problem is there has been no time for studies about unintended consequences of wearing masks.”

According to Byerly, the three most effective mitigation strategies will continue to be social distancing, frequent hand washing and refraining from touching your face.

County Commissioner Ken Cornell said he would support the city if they wanted to require masks. He asked County Chair Hutchinson if he would reconsider the 1 per 500 square feet rule.

“I counted 7-0,” Cornell said about all seven city officials being in favor of a face covering requirement.

County Commissioner Charles Chestnut referred to emails about asthma, mental illness, people being turned away if they didn’t have a mask. He said he was against the fines and bothered by some of the reports that store employees were treating customers disrespectfully when demanding mask wearing.

He said he wanted to try two weeks without masks and see.

County Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler said with the city commission feeling so strongly about face masks and because the county also represents the citizens of Gainesville that, “We need to take a revote.”

County Chair Hutchinson said that UF and Santa Fe College would both be requiring face coverings and thought it would be inconsistent to not require mask wearing in the rest of the county.

County Commissioner Cornell said he would support required masks if County Chair Hutchinson would restore the 50 percent capacity for retail spaces and remove the criminalization and fine attached to the mask requirement.

County Commissioner Chestnut moved for the county to return to the previous emergency order language, but asked the chair to change the penalty for not wearing a face covering to be a civil citation and not criminal act with fines.

In the end, the County compromised by continuing with the face covering requirement and retaining the 50 percent occupancy rate for retail spaces. The new order also reopens bowling alleys and pool halls minus the bar component not allowed by the governor’s order, and allows tattoo parlors to open.


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