County’s hands tied until the State addresses reopening

Alachua County residents can keep posing the same questions to their county commissioners about when will hair salons get to open, when will pool construction permits be issued, etc.

But the answer remains the same: When Gov. Ron DeSantis gives the go ahead.

During the April 21st special meeting addressing the current stay-at-home order, commissioners discussed the next steps to possibly opening up low-level risk businesses and activities and said they will base a lot of their decisions on the criteria presented by Florida Department of Health Administrator Paul Myers and Alachua County Director of Emergency Management Hal Grieb.

Grieb reported to the board that his main concern in lifting restrictions is making sure that personal protective equipment (PPE) for first responders remains available. “As we slowly lift restrictions, calls will increase,” Grieb said. “The need for PPE will increase.”

Grieb said childcare for first responders and for families with children home from school, basic understanding of what hygiene standards are appropriate and how to educate the community are also priorites.

Grieb emphasized that the added objective to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 is to “maintain a steady state of low to no transmission.”

Reopening criteria

Re-opening after a shutdown must happen in phases and with deliberate thought, county officials said.

Managing airport and public transport hubs, pros and cons to wearing face masks, food security are all topics that need to be taken into consideration, Grieb said.

“We’re prepared to support the transition back and make sure we provide as best of a safety net as we can through the Emergency Operations Center,” Grieb told the BOCC.

Myers emphasized that cases in Alachua County continue to grow in a linear movement instead of exponentially and that he sees a downward trend in the data which he checks consistently every day.

As of 1 p.m. on April 21st, there were 27,495 positive cases and 839 deaths reported in Florida with 223 cases and zero deaths reported in Alachua County.

Myers then itemized criteria for the BOCC to base decisions on.

“We are on a downward trend,” Myers said about cases in Alachua County.

He also said symptoms reported at medical facilities over a 14-day period have decreased for influenza-like illnesses, cough, fever and shortness of breath.

In an environment of increased testing, Myers reported that the 6 percent positivity rate has decreased to 4 percent.

Local hospitals are prepared with equipment and capacity if there is a surge, Myers said. And there is a robust testing program for at-risk healthcare workers and first responders. Hospitalization rate has decreased from 15 percent to 13 percent in the last two weeks.

“The only area we don’t have a lot of information on is antibody testing,” Myers said.

Myers said his biggest concern about a surge in Alachua County is with The Villages retirement community in Sumter County. “If an outbreak occurs in The Villages, it would impact our capacity,” he said. “Ed Jimenez (CEO of UF Health Shands) is in touch because he knows that is going to be the area that impacts his hospital.”

Testing

Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler asked Myers about the status of testing in Alachua County.

Myers said there were upwards of “500 people a day” being tested on peak days but that the drive-thru testing site is underutilized. “We can do 200 people a day at the drive thru but they are averaging 30 a day,” he said, and added that they are testing every resident and staff member at long-term care facilities.

Emergency order amendment

The BOCC opted to change only the burn ban element of the current emergency order, lifting it because of recent rains and a lower call load for fire rescue crews.

Citizens called into the meeting asking about reopening certain businesses such as hair salons, dog grooming and pool construction but were repeatedly told by Chair Robert Hutchinson that the essential businesses list has been established by the Executive Order issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

And the BOCC asked County Attorney Sylvia Torres to explain the difference between President Trump’s federal guidelines to reopening, the State executive order and the local order.

The Federal guidelines are just guidelines, Torres said.

“Our order adopts the Governor’s orders,” she explained. “Until the Gov. changes his, we cannot open beyond that.”

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