New mask order falls apart over enforcement issues

The Gainesville City Commission on Thursday backed off a request for a stronger mask order, repeatedly citing concerns about the city’s ability to enforce such an order.

At its prior meeting, the commissioners voted 4-3 to ask City Manager Lee Feldman to issue an executive order as part of the city’s emergency declaration that would tighten the restrictions on patrons at bars and night clubs and would develop a mechanism to fine businesses that didn’t make reasonable attempts to enforce mask wearing.

Feldman told commissioners this afternoon he had two concerns with what they asked him to do: first, the proposed mask order would be different from Alachua County’s order, which would cause confusion among residents; and second, a more restrictive order would be difficult to enforce.

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As he did at the prior meeting, Feldman likened enforcement of mask ordinances to a game of “whack-a-mole.”

The narrow majority that initially asked for an expanded executive order, meant to fight the spread of COVID-19, had evaporated by this afternoon’s meeting. When Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos made a motion to renew the request for a stronger executive order, no other commissioner would second it.

“Since Sunday 13 people [in the area] have died from COVID, and that’s too many for me,” Hayes-Santos said at the afternoon meeting. “I don’t feel like we are doing enough as we should to protect our residents of our community, and I think we should move forward with this emergency order.”

But while his fellow commissioners said they shared Hayes-Santos’ concerns about improving mask wearing in Gainesville, they said they were unsure how the Gainesville Police Department and the city’s codes enforcement officers would carry out such an order.

“I was a strong supporter of this, and I want to be able to do something,” said Commissioner Reina Saco, who originally voted to ask for the order. “I don’t want a Potemkin village setup where we have all these laws, but nobody has to obey them because they know we don’t have the person power to follow up. And I think it’s a matter of public record now that we don’t have the person power.”

The tighter rules would have been modeled on a Hillsborough County order that bans dance floors at night clubs and requires patrons at bars and night clubs to be seated. The Hillsborough order also sets up fines for businesses that fail to take certain steps, such as posting signs, making announcements and asking people in the building to wear masks.

“We all had an opportunity to watch Hillsborough County’s enforcement of their order a week and a half ago on national television during the Super Bowl, and it didn’t look real effective to me,” said Commissioner Harvey Ward, who had been among the three who voted against the request initially.

Mayor Lauren Poe reiterated his concerns that an order setting up fines for businesses would damage the city’s ongoing Healthy Gainesville initiative, which partners with businesses to promote positive messages about wearing masks.

Poe also cited a decreasing number of positive COVID cases in February—the 14-day positivity rate is currently 3.3 percent—and an earlier analysis from the Florida Department of Health in Alachua County that found transmission was happening mostly in homes followed by retail establishments.

“If we were trending in the wrong direction, and we had good data that it was because of transmissions in bars, then this would make a lot of sense to me,” Poe said.

While the commission disagreed on the feasibility of an expanded executive order, they continued to decry the lack of mask wearing, citing mask-less college students lined up outside of bars and night clubs.

“I have always hated—and this makes it much worse—to see people treat Gainesville like it’s not real. Like they are here for college, and everything surrounding them just doesn’t matter,” Ward said. “I don’t know what more we can do to people to stop behavior that is clearly dangerous, not only to themselves but to other people. To the people they interact with after they leave the bar. To the folks they will spread the virus to—the cashier at the store, the apartment manager, the professor, whoever you come in contact with.”

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