The Alachua County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to send a chair letter to the University of Florida and Santa Fe College asking for the institutions to join the county in its mandatory indoor mask-mandate on campus.
Commissioners gathered for a special meeting to discuss the extension of the local state of emergency and short-term emergency order. This conversation led to the topic of the University of Florida’s football game Saturday against Florida Atlantic University and the lack of masking among the crowd.
“We’ve got students that are pictured in the newspaper at the game at UF, and not one person in those photographs was wearing a mask – not one single person,” said Marihelen Wheeler, vice chair of the commission. “We don’t have a cohesive approach to this.”
Despite Ben Hill Griffin Stadium consisting mostly of outdoor seating, County Commissioner Anna Prizzia is concerned about the lack of masking in indoor walkways and concession areas.
“People are in confined spaces without a lot of ventilation, which is a pretty risky situation to be putting our community in,” Prizzia said. “All of those people [at the football game unmasked] go out into the community to bars, restaurants and all the other establishments to get the services they need.”
UF’s current policy states that masks on campus indoors are expected.
Ken Cornell, commission chair, said he spoke with UF leadership about its policy. The university stated that although there is not full compliance with the mask expectation, there are a vast number of willing students.
UF and Santa Fe are overseen by the Florida Board of Governors, which does not currently have a position on masking at its institutions, hence masks being expected and encouraged at the university.
Questions arose Tuesday about what the county could do to enforce an indoor mask mandate on state university or college properties. According to County Attorney Sylvia Torres, the county could take action despite Gov. Ron DeSantis’ suspension on COVID-19 restrictions.
“There is nothing in the statute that says our emergency order cannot impact the university or state college system,” said Torres.
The county intends to send a letter to both institutions with the hope of encouraging additional mask enforcement prior to UF’s next home football game against the University of Alabama on Sept. 18.
Commissioners also voted to extend the short-term emergency order, requiring a face mask to be worn indoors regardless of vaccination status.
The short-term emergency order refers to evidence highlighting the importance of becoming a vaccinated individual. Slightly over 66% of Alachua County residents eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine are vaccinated, and the commission hopes for this number to continue to increase.
To encourage further vaccination, Assistant County Manager for Budget and Fiscal Services Tommy Crosby spoke about the Alachua County COVID-19 Vaccination Incentive Program. Participating vaccination sites will be distributing $25 gift cards to individuals for each dose administered between Sept. 3 and Sept. 30.
Crosby is hopeful that this program will increase the county’s vaccination percentage.
“From January 2020 through July 2021, our health insurance plan within the county has paid approximately $3.9 million in COVID-19 related expenses,” said Crosby. “Hopefully, the health incentive program will help deter those future costs as vaccinations happen and hospitalizations decrease.”
To ensure that Alachua County businesses are also combating against the spread of the coronavirus, Carl Smart, the acting deputy county manager, stated that his team distributed mask mandate signs to 487 locations county-wide to be posted on front doors or windows.
The county commission also approved the motion to go to the enforcement stage – resulting in a possible warning or citation – if a business fails to comply and not hang the sign.
The county commission’s goal is to protect its residents and community from the spread of COVID-19, and its next step in doing so is asking for the UF and Santa Fe’s compliance and regulation of mandatory mask usage indoors on campus regardless of vaccination status.
“I thought [the county commission, University of Florida and Santa Fe College] were all a partner in this,” said Commissoner Charles Chestnut IV. “If we’re all not partners, and they’re not going to follow our guidelines, then what’s the point?”