Commission changes deadline on employee vaccines

The Gainesville City Commission on Thursday made changes to its vaccine mandate for city employees but did not lift it amid a flurry of public comments.

During its afternoon meeting, the city extended the vaccine requirement to city contractors who are working alongside city employees and delayed the required reporting deadlines by two weeks.

The changes, which passed 5-2, amended the initial mandate, which the commission passed 4-3 at its Aug. 5 meeting.

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Commissioner Harvey Ward, who did not vote for the vaccine mandate at the Aug. 5 meeting, moved to amend the requirements so that contract workers who worked in close proximity to city workers be required to vaccinate as well.

Ward, who said he supports vaccines but still opposes the vaccine mandate, said the amendment was an issue of fairness to make contract employees subject to the same rules as city employees.

“If you’re going to share the workspace, you’ve got to share the consequences and share the requirements,” Ward said.

Contract workers who work from their own offices or who do not have regular contact with city employees would not be required to get the COVID-19 vaccine under the amended guidance.

City Attorney Nicolle Shalley told the commission that the city would have to review the contract workers to see who would be in close proximity to city workers and to review the terms of existing contracts to see who might fall under the order.

While existing contracts might affect which current contractors would be affected, new agreements could include provisions to require contract workers to get the vaccine, Shalley said.

The commission also extended the deadline for employees to submit proof of their first vaccination to Oct. 1. The deadline to submit proof of the second vaccination was moved to Oct. 31.

Commissioner Reina Saco, who voted for the changes along with Commissioners Ward, Adrian Hayes-Santos, David Arreola and Mayor Lauren Poe, said the deadline extension was needed to give the city more time to talk to employees to educate and reassure them about the vaccine and its safety.

“We are not doing this flippantly, and we are not doing this lightly,” Saco said. “Two weeks is what I am proposing just because it’s wiggle room but it’s not saying this is next year’s problem.”

Commissioners were greeted by protestors on their way into the meeting, and many people spoke in opposition to the required vaccine during the meeting, including employee union representatives.

Gainesville City Commissioner-at-large Reina Saco

Tristan Grunder, who is president of the Gainesville chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) union, said 52 percent of employees represented by his organization were prepared to “walk out the door” over the vaccine mandate.

“We can get to where you want to get to, but we’re not going to get there with a mandate,” Grunder said.

He also said that members of the city police department had not been given any education about the vaccine.

“Nobody has come over and explained to us why we should [get the vaccine] or why we shouldn’t,” Grunder said. “There needs to be entirely more education. There needs to be more conversation. And until that point, the FOP will not accept a mandate.”

Robert Arnold, president of the Communication Workers of America Local 3170, also spoke in opposition to the mandate and asked the commission to reconsider it.

“It is not going to help. It is going to make it worse,” Arnold told the commissioners. “Work with us. We will work with you. There is plenty of room to find something in the middle.”

Commissioner Gail Johnson, who along with Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker opposed the original mandate and Thursday’s amendment, said her opposition to the mandate was that she felt that the city employees were not included in the vaccine discussion.

“I absolutely believe we need to meet people where they are when it comes to these big decisions, and we didn’t do that,” Johnson said. “We didn’t have the discussions. We didn’t think through how we were going to implement this.”

She said she also would have liked to see the commission include some middle steps to the vaccine requirements, including gathering data about employee attitudes as well as offering incentives and implementing a larger education campaign.

Johnson also suggested tying the vaccine requirement to full Food and Drug Administration approval of the vaccines, which currently are administered under an FDA emergency use authorization.

A June poll found approximately 30 percent of unvaccinated Americans said they were waiting for full FDA approval before getting the vaccine.

“I believe that there’s absolutely a different way to get [to higher levels of vaccination] than mandating in the way we did,” Johnson said.

She also apologized directly to the city employees.

“I am really sorry for the way we have treated this and you,” Johnson said. “I believe we took a cavalier attitude. We should never do that with a deeply personal choice like this. And I hope moving forward, we continue to involve people in the decision-making process so that we get the desired outcome that we want without saying you have to do X, Y and Z.”

Commissioners who supported the mandate and the amendment said they didn’t think the city had time to wait to study the issue or engage in a more deliberate process because of the rising COVID cases and hospitalizations in the area.

“It becomes a cost benefit issue of: if we take a lot more time to study, having meetings and engaging, and get data and put together a PowerPoint, how long does that take, and meanwhile, how many people get sick or die?” Saco said.

The commission also unanimously voted to ask the city administrators to come up with a proposal to initiate a COVID leave pool for employees and develop a plan for a potential COVID vaccine disability fund, if it becomes necessary.

During the commissioner comment period at the end of the afternoon session, the city commission also voted unanimously to affirm it would support and enforce the Alachua County Board of Commissioners’ seven-day mask mandate. The BOCC passed the mandate during an emergency meeting on Wednesday.

The mask mandate started Thursday and requires people 2-years-old and and older to wear a mask when gathered indoors in public spaces.

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