Gainesville and Alachua County were under a state of emergency Monday after city and county officials announced new measures taking effect because of concerns due to the coronavirus.
All places of public assembly, whether indoor and outdoor, are limited to no more than 50 people, or 50 percent of the meeting place’s occupancy load, whichever is less, City Manager Lee Feldman said at a special City Commission meeting. County Commission Chairman Robert Hutchinson in a separate video message described what the declaration means across the county.
Businesses that serve food and beverages are limited to table seating of up to six people – and their hours of operations are restricted to between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m., though delivery and takeout are allowed beyond these hours. No bar seating is allowed and all other customers must be seated. Feldman said the goal is for each table to have hand sanitizer.
Essential businesses such as pharmacies, grocery stores, convenience stores, banks, airports, etc., are excluded from the time restriction, Feldman said.
Each RTS bus was to only carry 50% of its normal capacity of 37-45 people, he said. All city parks and recreation programs were closed, with the exception of outdoor trail systems. City playgrounds and pavilions also would not be available for use.
Despite urging from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to halt even relatively small public gatherings, city officials said they knew of a recent one of more than 600 college students at a pool party and an “overflowing” presence of them at bars. The officials said they would work with the University of Florida to discourage public gatherings of more than 10 people.
Feldman said the city is at the prevention stage with respect to handling the coronavirus.
“Hopefully we don’t get to a point of mitigation and we can prevent the COVID-19,” he said.
Mayor Lauren Poe said the special meeting was called so commission members could ask questions and raise concerns of city staff as to how best to proceed. Poe and the other commissioners sat apart from one another, keeping a distance of two seats, during the meeting.
Commission members were disappointed that no state health officials attending the meeting.
“When are we going to find out the logistics for testing, how are they going in our community, and how are we going to be communicating appropriate testing for the virus in the community,”
Commissioner David Arreola asked.
Poe said he would honor Arreola’s request to advise Gov. Ron DeSantis to implement statewide regulations that some jurisdictions may otherwise ignore should they remain just regional.
Gainesville Fire Rescue Chief Jeff Lane said a special testing protocol was being created within the city, and that first responders were in the “fast lane” for being tested.
“Quite frankly, there’s not a lot of testing going on right now,” said Lane, who added that the number of local and statewide tests would likely increase over the next few weeks.
Commissioner Harvey Ward said he believes more Gainesville residents may have the coronavirus than local health officials are able to report, simply because there is so little testing.
To which Feldman replied, “I don’t want to sound vague and inconclusive, but I’m going to be vague and inconclusive, because we haven’t been furnished that information.”
The city is working to distribute free meals this week to children under age 18 in collaboration with the Alachua County Public Schools district, which last week closed schools.
Saying “we are working with an extremely vulnerable population,” GRACE Marketplace Executive Director Jon DeCarmine said the homeless resource center is working to prevent the escalation of public health issues despite its $50,000 per month budget shortfall.
All GRACE volunteer programs are suspended and meal service changes were to begin Wednesday, DeCarmine said.
The commission also agreed to follow up with senior living facilities regarding a potential need for support. Poe said he would ask officials at the Alachua County Jail for their plans on handling the virus and the suspension of convictions. The mayor also said he would also request clarity on relevant matters from the state Department of Health.
Poe said the city would host a telephone town hall meeting related to COVID-19 for the public at 6:45 p.m. Wednesday. For the foreseeable future, the mayor said, “As much as we love each other, let’s try to stay away from each other.”