Update (3:45 p.m.): Both UF President Kent Fuchs and Santa Fe College President Paul Broadie responded to BOCC Chair Ken Cornell on Friday saying they have no plans to implement a face mask.
“Unfortunately, we do not read the State University System policymaking environment the way you describe in your letter,” Fuchs wrote in an email obtained by Mainstreet Daily News. “The university does not currently have the authority to take the actions you recommend. However, my colleagues and I will continue to strongly encourage masks indoors on campus until conditions improve sufficiently.”
Broadie said Santa Fe is “unable to take the actions recommended in your letter,” but assured Cornell the school has “implemented many protective measures including making masks widely available and providing them to employees, students, and guests. Soon, in addition to the various measures we have taken, we will be introducing a vaccine incentive program coupled with an informational campaign.”
While neither president named Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the governor has been a vocal opponent of mask orders. State agencies are engaged in ongoing litigation with school districts that have sought to implement mask mandates.
Our original story (11:39 a.m.):
Alachua County Board of County Commissioners Chair Ken Cornell said on Friday that he is hoping both the University of Florida and Santa Fe College will comply with the current countywide emergency order that mandates face mask wearing indoors.
“While we are under this short term emergency order, we hope the university and college will join us in following the advice of their own scientific and medical experts,” Cornell said in a phone interview with Mainstreet Daily News.
Cornell said the county has not received a response to a letter he signed and delivered to UF President Kent Fuchs and Santa Fe College President Paul Broadie on Thursday.
The letter addressed public health mitigation measures in response to the COVID-19 delta variant. It notes UF Health’s own medical experts have stated the delta variant is more contagious than previous strains and is impacting the ability of local hospitals to function, because COVID-19 patients occupied a majority of the ICU beds since the latest surge began in July.
At the BOCC’s Wednesday meeting, county attorney Sylvia Torres told commissioners the Board of Governors and the Board of Education have the ability to regulate face mask protocol on campuses but to date they have chosen not to do so.
Cornell first declared the latest state of emergency on Aug. 5. The BOCC has since modified and expanded the order, which it has extended in seven-day increments.
The current order does not apply to “the internal operations or policies of local governments within the county, to the State University System, State College System, the State of Florida, or Federal agencies,” but the order states that these entities “are encouraged to adopt their own rules and procedures regarding the matters set forth herein.”
Masks are “strongly encouraged” at Santa Fe, and UF “expects but will not require everyone to wear a mask at all times when inside any UF facility, even if you are vaccinated.”
The county order states that masks “shall be worn in all indoor places when there are more than two people present,” but it excludes private residences or spaces occupied by a single family unit from the rule.
In his Thursday letter, Cornell states that the county could remove the exemption for state university and college systems and that would equate to a face mask mandate on the campuses. Instead, he is asking the institutions to implement policies that match the executive order.
“We owe it to our healthcare professionals, residents, students, employees, and especially the most vulnerable in our community to do what we can to stem the tide of this Delta variant surge,” Cornell wrote. “While we fight the spread of this Delta variant, we hope that our nationally recognized educational institutions will seriously consider the implementation of similar masking requirements, both for the protection of your university and college community, and the protection of the Alachua County community, at large.”
On Friday both institutions acknowledged receipt of Cornell’s letter.
“We’re currently reviewing the letter and will be responding to the county in the coming days,” Steve Orlando, assistant vice president for communications at UF, wrote in an email.
Santa Fe communications manager Jay Anderson said the school is exploring its options.
“Our current position is that we will need some time to research the legal aspects of mandating masks,” he said. “The college has promoted, and continues to promote, the importance of getting students, faculty and staff fully vaccinated as a best practice in mitigating the risk of spreading COVID-19 and the Delta variant.”
Cornell relayed to both institutions that the BOCC will meet again on Sept. 14 and will consider their responses and any actions at that time.
“We hope that you will consider the necessity for these requirements and will join us in enforcing the indoor masking requirements, whomever imposes them,” Cornell wrote.