Split commission asks city manager for stronger mask order

A split Gainesville city commission voted 4-3 Thursday afternoon to ask City Manager Lee Feldman to develop a mask-wearing enforcement mechanism, modeled on a Hillsborough County effort.

The enforcement requirements would be set in an executive order from Feldman as part of the mayor’s emergency declaration, said Mayor Lauren Poe.

“I do not set the conditions in the order,” Poe said during the meeting. “I sign the order declaring there is an emergency – which I will. There continues to be an emergency. And the manager determines what the appropriate actions are in response that emergency – not me, not the commission, the manager.”

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The Hillsborough County order has stricter regulations for bars and nightclubs, requiring that patrons be seated at a bar or table and prohibiting dance floors.

The Hillsborough order also mandates steps that businesses must take to enforce mask wearing among its patrons, including signage, announcements, and asking people to wear masks inside. If the businesses don’t make “reasonable efforts” to police their establishments, police or code enforcement officials can cite or fine them.

“I think Hillsborough County has something that has been more effective in enforcement and in trying to get businesses closer to having everyone wear a face mask,” said Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos. Hayes-Santos, along with Commissioners David Arreola, Gail Johnson, and Reina Saco, voted for the request.

Saco said that Hillsborough-style order may help local businesses by offering them a way to convince customers to wear a mask. With stricter enforcement guidelines, Saco said, employees could tell customers: “You need to wear a mask or we’ll be fined.”

The request for an executive order comes out of the commission’s ongoing discussion about how to increase mask wearing in the city. The whole commission agreed on the goal but differed on how to achieve it.

Poe said he wanted to wait and see if the newly launched “Healthy Gainesville” initiative, which encourages mask wearing through positive messages, would make a difference. The initiative uses marketing materials like T-shirts, posters, stickers and coasters, intended to “nudge” people into wearing masks.

“We are asking all of these establishments to work with us on the Healthy Gainesville initiative, and I think that cooperation would quickly evaporate if we take a heavy regulatory hand,” Poe said. “I think Healthy Gainesville is our best option for increasing positive social behavior. I think we owe it to our community to see if that actually works.”

Poe, along with Commissioners Gigi Simmons and Harvey Ward, voted against the request.

Ward’s concern with the executive order was that it would be difficult to enforce and that enforcement could put a strain on the Gainesville Police Department (GPD) and code enforcement personnel.

“I don’t want to put our workers—be they GPD or codes enforcement or the city manager—in a position where they are trying to meet our stated goals in an unwinnable environment,” Ward said.

Hayes-Santos acknowledged it would be difficult to enforce but said a Hillsborough-style order would give the city “leverage” in improving mask wearing.

The commission also voted unanimously to ask the city’s staff to analyze and report on a Tampa ordinance that requires masks outdoors where lots of people are gathered.

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