The Newberry City Commission voted 3-2 to lift the State of Emergency order status put in place on March 17th by letting a motion for its extension to fail during the May 11th meeting.
But then, after weighing the impact that lifting the emergency status would have on emergency funding access and flexibility for the city manager to make decisions without convening the commission, a motion to essentially reverse the vote they just took to extend the emergency order for seven days passed by another 3-2 vote.
“Who has the authority here?” asked Mayor Jordan Marlowe, who has made his point of view clear to his constituents through Facebook posts and exchanges with residents.
Marlowe’s public rationale to challenge Alachua County’s authority to set more strict rules is that only the Florida governor can set the rules for the State and that local municipalities know what is best for their businesses and residents.
As a result, a number of businesses and consumers in Newberry have opted to not comply with or enforce Alachua County’s orders. While some businesses such as Hitchcock’s, require employees to wear face masks but not customers, some restaurants in Newberry do not require masks for either. Several retail stores in town allow customers to enter with or without face masks and have no signage on the doors indicating rules about face coverings or capacity rates which are not being controlled by someone counting at the door.
Hitchcock’s policy for not requiring customers to wear face coverings applies to the store in Alachua also, according to employees as of May 11.
Employees at two gas stations in town choose not to wear masks and have no shield between them and customers, who also are not required to wear face coverings. At least two pizza restaurants have opted for no masks for employees or patrons.
Ace Hardware on Newberry Road has chosen to comply fully with the county order and announces so on the sign out front, “Masks required for entry starting 5-4.”
When asked, several local business employees say they know that no one is watching because the mayor has made that clear. That has been their interpretation of the information they are getting from social media, they say.
“We are strongly recommending the wearing of masks,” Mayor Marlowe posted on his official Facebook page in response to a post from a citizen. “But we will not threaten to arrest or shut businesses down who can’t, for whatever reason, comply.”
Marlowe said he reached out to the governor’s office to find out if Alachua County can set rules more strict than the state for municipalities.
“We did have an informal conversation,” Marlowe said about contacting Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody over the matter. Marlowe relayed that the opinion delivered to him was that the “County, still by the letter of the law right now, does have the authority to go more stringent and they advise the City of Newberry to comply with the County’s emergency order.”
Alachua County’s Emergency Order points to research by the University of Florida and to CDC guidelines as proof that more strict rules should be in place to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Marlowe said the Governor is following the situation and that if he decides counties or municipalities are getting too far out of line with his order, then he will write an order that deprives them of doing so, but the governor is hesitant to do so right now.
At an April 29th briefing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recommended face masks in situations where people are in close proximity and doing business face-to-face.
“We’re recommending face masks if you’re in face-to-face interactions with people particularly in the workplace and if you can’t adequately social distance,” he said.
“If you are in a face-to-face business, that to me has got to be a business practice.”
At the May 11th regular meeting, the Newberry commission wanted to send a message to Alachua County by exiting the State of Emergency. Commissioner Tim Marden said he wants the people of Newberry to make their own decisions.
“Freedom lets people decide what’s best for their family and their businesses as well,” he said.
Commissioner Ricky Coleman made his opinion clear,“(I’m) not in favor of state of emergency.”
Before a motion to exit the state of emergency was made, Mayor Marlowe said, “I understand the symbolism of voting out of the state of emergency. If the governor extends the state of emergency and we don’t, it goes the other direction,” meaning that exiting the state of emergency would appear to put the City of Newberry in opposition of the State’s extension of the State of Emergency for 60 days put into effect on May 11th.
Commissioner Rocky McKinley disagreed with exiting the State of Emergency. “(I) don’t want to tie the hands of our city manager or mayor,” he said. “We have to do right by Newberry,” he said. “I don’t want to be so dogmatic that it hurts Newberry. There are things I wish I could change at a national, state, local level,” he added and said he didn’t want to “send a message and put Newberry in trouble.”
City Manager Mike New reminded the commission that there could be financial implications to exiting the State of Emergency. “If you declare (state of emergency), it helps financially with reimbursement from FEMA,” New said and added that expenses entered because of COVID-19 have an 87.5 percent funding return while in state of emergency and the City would, “potentially lose that.”
Marlowe reminded the commission that exiting the State of Emergency, “would be purely symbolic,” and that the City of Newberry would still be bound by state and county orders.
Commissioner Paul Norfleet asked, “If businesses in Newberry are not fully complying with county ordinance is the county or sheriff enforcing it? “
Mayor Marlowe answered that Alachua County empowered municipalities to enforce the order that he had been reassured that the county manager wouldn’t “reach into” the cities. He added that the cities have taken the stance to educate and that 8 out of the 9 municipalities in Alachua County don’t have the resources to enforce the county order.
Commissioner Marden started to explore the idea that, “The very idea of FEMA is not constitutional,” but set that discussion aside and said, “Our charge, from my seat, is we are not an extension of the county.”
Commissioner Coleman said, “We already have a State state of emergency. It’s time for this to be over, let’s get back to work.”
So the motion to extend the general State of Emergency for the City of Newberry was put up for the vote and failed with Commissioners Coleman, Marden and Norfleet voting “no.”
But as soon as the commission learned that exiting the State of Emergency meant they would have to start making a motion to try to give the city manager back flexibility possibly by waiving business practice procedures such as waiving the penalty utility disconnects, they had second thoughts about the decision.
Commissioner McKinley tried to motion to reconsider the state of emergency, but was not allowed to because only a commissioner who voted against extending the State of Emergency could bring it back for a vote.
Commissioner Coleman then said that if the commission needed to turn around and give the city manager all the power back, “then why not just stay in the emergency order then,” he said and entered the motion to reconsider which was seconded by Commissioner Farnsworth.
And the motion to extend the State of Emergency for the City of Newberry for seven more days went back on the table and passed with three votes in favor and two dissenting votes from commissioners Marden and Norfleet.
During the comments section of the meeting, Marlowe thanked the residents and businesses of Newberry for all that they sacrificed through the pandemic.
“It is because of your voluntary cooperation,” he said that the State of Florida is one of the best places to be in right now “when it had all of the markers to be the worst.”
Currently, there have been 41,923 residents of Florida that have tested positive for COVID-19, and 1,779 deaths. In Alachua County, there have been 324 residents who tested positive for COVID-19 and five deaths.
Watch the meeting here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=soRObaa9tNc