When will Alachua County businesses re-open? Board Chair weighs-in

 The Alachua County Board of Commissioners Chair Robert Hutchinson released a statement last night that outlines his thoughts on re-opening Alachua County:


 “Everybody is trying to figure out when and how to safely and expeditiously re-open businesses. The President and the Governor both have task forces working on it. Local governments are conferring with a wide range of experts who may be asked to provide formal recommendations to supplement their welcomed advice. Civic engagement, at the day-to-day frontline, as well as those who enthusiastically provide policy advice, is the most robust and inspiring we have ever witnessed.   
Reducing restrictions on businesses and gatherings will be a combination of federal, state, and local guidelines, orders, and regulations. Part of the decisions will rely on purely objective data, and part will be based on more subjective judgements. Data-driven objectives in the initial phase of recovery include: “Downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests within a 14-day period (flat or increasing volume of tests)”.  Alachua County has already met this criteria and others, according to the Department of Health.
But there are more subjective judgement calls that must also be made, including: “Ability to quickly set up safe and efficient screening and testing sites for symptomatic individuals and trace the contacts of people with positive COVID test results.”  And another is: “Ability to quickly and independently supply sufficient Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) . . .”  To safely open up, many businesses will need PPE and cleaning supplies, neither of which currently have reliable supply chains. While we don’t meet all Phase 1 criteria yet, we would definitely benefit from more specificity in how to reach these goals and when we’ve done so. 
The Federal framework for three phases of economic recovery, each of which is reached by attaining a few benchmarks, is a good one (see Comment 1). And so is sorting business-types into risk categories of High, Medium, and Low, which OSHA does with its “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19” (see Comment 2).  The State of Florida will probably mirror this approach.  Alachua County has adopted these OSHA guidelines as a key requirement in our local emergency order (Comment 3). 
Re-opening soonest will be our low-risk businesses, where there is little or no contact between employees and the general public, and where workers are able to maintain significant separation. Medium-risk businesses, which have more frequent contact with the public, will require proactive screening for symptoms, the use of masks, effective sanitation and hygiene, and a way to quickly contact customers if necessary. High-risk businesses, where direct and frequent human contact is required, will need to establish industry-specific practices in addition to what the lower risk businesses are doing.
Fortunately, business groups are working quickly and creatively to adapt to the new abnormal, and many have already published their recommendations. In some cases, these may be adopted by licensing and regulatory agencies, and will certainly become the expectation of customers and employees who value health and safety.

What we need now are easily measurable, scientifically derived, equitably administered, and transparent benchmarks for when and how to re-open local businesses. Progress in attaining key objectives needs to be shown on a frequently updated and publicly available website so anybody can figure out how we are doing. The Board of County Commissioners will be discussing the topic at an April 28th public meeting, and individual commissioners will be doing so during inter-agency staff meetings all week. City commissions, notably Gainesville and Newberry, will also be discussing similar agenda items during their meetings this week.
During this crisis and others, whenever there is a void in the desire for information, if leaders and experts do not fill that absence with actual data from solid sources, then somebody will simply fill the vacuum with made up and outlandish claims which are quickly amplified and difficult to counter given our fractured communications channels.  So, my hope is to soon have a dashboard with gauges showing how we are doing and how far we have to go towards recovery, so that we can begin to create our community’s future, together.

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