Gainesville requires city employees to get vaccinated

Employees of the City of Gainesville will be required to get vaccinated as a condition of their employment following a 4-3 commission vote Thursday night.

The city also authorized the development of a local ordinance based on current medical guidance that includes masking requirements, social distancing and occupancy limits within the city.

The measures were part of a series of COVID-related proposals that Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos brought to the commission. In a phone interview with Mainstreet Daily News earlier in the week, Hayes-Santos said that the spike in the community spread of the disease had prompted him to recommend the actions.

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“We have higher numbers than we had during the worst of last year,” Hayes-Santos said. “I understand some of the fears that people may have or concerns about the vaccines, but it is a safe and effective vaccine. I have had it myself. It’s one of the main ways we can keep COVID from running rampant in our community.”

The mandate will have exemptions for people with documented health issues or disabilities that keep them from getting vaccinated.

At the beginning of the night, the vaccine mandate looked headed for defeat until Commissioner Reina Saco changed her mind during the course of the discussion.

When first speaking about the set of proposals, Saco said she supported masking and other requirements but didn’t support requiring city employees to get vaccinated.

“I don’t think it is my job to force you to get a vaccine,” Saco said early in the discussion. “All I can do is beg you to have some common sense and care about yourself.”

However, following a long set of public commentators about the COVID measures, many of whom made unsubstantiated claims about the vaccines and their effectiveness, Saco changed her mind.

“I am disgusted to represent a lot of people right now that are that selfish, that are that entitled, that are that willfully misinformed,” Saco told the room toward the end of the commission’s discussion. “You have a free education and you have a lot of health care at your fingertips, and you are throwing it all away for someone on TikTok, for someone on YouTube, for someone on Twitter.”

She said the public comments swayed her, though not as the citizens had intended.

“I was on the side of ‘Let’s give people a lot of latitude. I don’t want to force things on people.’ Do you know how you lose that vote? With a lot of really dumb comments,” she said.

Joining Saco and Hayes-Santos in voting for the vaccine mandate were Commissioner David Arreola and Mayor Lauren Poe.

Poe talked about the people the city had already lost to COVID in discussing his support of the mandate.

“If there’s a little something we can do to prevent that next person from dying on our watch, I am going to do it,” Poe said.

Commissioners Desmon Duncan-Walker, Gail Johnson and Harvey Ward voted against the mandate.

“What I am comfortable with: masks,” Duncan-Walker said. “I am not comfortable with telling people you have to get vaccinated. My prayer is that all of our employees know how serious this is.”

Ward called a vaccine mandate “fairly draconian,” but he also said the rise in cases and hospitalizations were weakening his opposition to a vaccine requirement.

“I am not there on the mandate, but I am darn close,” Ward said.

City Attorney Nicolle Shalley told the commission that while the city’s charter officers weren’t in agreement about whether to enact a mandate, that they did think the commission could legally implement one.

“We are not telling people that we are going to hold you down and force you to submit to a vaccine,” Shalley said. “What we are saying is that vaccination is important as an employer because we need you to be here, we need you to be healthy, we need the entire workforce to be healthy. And you have a choice, if you don’t want to get vaccinated, your choice is to seek employment elsewhere.”

The citywide ordinance has not been drafted but Shalley said it would need to contain facts based on expert medical opinion and on public health guidance.

In terms of particular requirements, the city will look at measures requiring people to wear masks indoors and placing occupancy/capacity restrictions on businesses. The ordinance also will have to set civil fines for violations.

“We need to be rethinking how we are going about city life right now,” Arreola said. “This surge is nasty, y’all. When hospitals turn away needed surgeries because of their concerns about having enough beds to deal with the surge, we have a major, major problem.”

In addition to the vaccine mandate and the development of a citywide ordinance, the commission also approved an additional day of paid time off for vaccinated employees, and asked for the city’s Communication and Employee Health Services to work with the unions on a vaccine outreach program.

The commission also approved temperature checks and indoor masking requirements for employees and members of the public in city buildings. They authorized administrators to draft a resolution asking other employers in Gainesville to mandate vaccinations for employees, and asking members of the public to vaccinate and wear masks indoors.

The votes came hours after the county declared a state of emergency amid the advancing pandemic, but the county order did not include any specific requirements on individual citizens.

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