Want To Get Up To Speed On Gainesville And Alachua County’s COVID-19 Drama With The Governor? Here’s An Explainer

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For the past few months, Alachua County Public Schools, Gainesville and Alachua County took actions that drew scrutiny from Gov. Ron DeSantis and his philosophy on COVID-19 mandates.

The ongoing conflict between the parties has garnered national attention, said Beth Rosenson, an associate professor in the University of Florida’s political science department.

“For some people, they look at it like it’s a good thing, this tiny county defying the governor,” she said. “But other people look at it like this county is overstepping its boundaries.”

The Florida Department of Education ordered funding to be withheld from the school district as a result of its mask mandate for students. So far, $26,800 has been withheld, according to district spokesperson Jackie Johnson.

In a statement to WUFT, Christina Pushaw, the governor’s spokesperson, said the school board does not have the right to impose a mask mandate.

“Under Florida law, every parent has the right to make health and education decisions for their own children,” she said. “Forcing all schoolchildren to wear masks, regardless of parents’ choices, infringes upon that right.”

Alachua, along with Broward and Orange school district leaders, filed a lawsuit against the Florida Department of Education over this dispute. Recently, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona cast his support for the board’s decisions in a statement.

“We stand with you,” he wrote.

On Sept. 23, the school board announced the federal government agreed to cover any losses the district may incur. So far, the district has received an initial sum of $148,000 from the U.S. Department of Education through its Project SAFE grant program, according to a press release.

Cardona personally called Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon to congratulate the district on its COVID-19 procedures, Johnson said.

“What we’re trying to do is protect students, protect staff, protect families, limit the spread of COVID in our schools and in our community, reduce the strain on our healthcare system, while keeping schools open, and keeping students learning in person,” Johnson said.

While the school board has said it will not change its mask policy, Gainesville commissioners voted 6-1 on Thursday to reconsider the city’s initial policy on employee vaccinations.

“We want to consider President Biden’s plan,” said City Commissioner David Arreola. “We believe that his plan is being well received around the country, which basically requires that people choose vaccination or another reasonable alternative, like periodic testing.”

Previously, Gainesville had announced all city employees needed to provide proof of vaccination by Oct. 30, or face consequences including possible termination. The mandate resulted in a lawsuit by over 200 employees.

The 8th Judicial Circuit of Florida had on Wednesday granted a temporary injunction against the city enforcing a vaccine mandate against employees.

“We welcome the court’s decision and congratulate the City of Gainesville employees on this victory,” Pushaw said. “They took a courageous stand not only for their rights, but for everyone’s right to make their own private medical decisions without fear of losing their livelihoods.”

Alachua County has implemented a mandate of its own.

An indoor masking mandate has been in place since Aug. 19, under an emergency order the county created. Because Florida is no longer in a state of emergency, Senate Bill 2006 gave the county the power to enact its own, said county spokesperson Mark Sexton.

Still, in August, Pushaw told the Gainesville Sun that the county’s order was invalid under the law. Sexton said Pushaw was wrong.

It is important to note the governor has the power to void the county’s order, Sexton said. The mandate will expire on Sept. 30 and the governor has not done so.

“In our view, what that means is in looking at our order, he has decided not to veto our order, because our order is very simple and compelling,” he said. “And frankly, our numbers are very convincing that our mandate has been effective.”

Despite these conflicts with nonpartisan local governments, DeSantis’ actions have largely gotten support from Republicans. Stephen Craig, also a UF political science professor, said he doesn’t see DeSantis, or his Republican colleagues, changing their stance on COVID-19 mandates.

“I think they’re locked in,” he said, “and there’s really not much political mileage to be had by changing at this point.”

Whether the governor runs for reelection or in the presidential primary, people will focus on his response to COVID-19 in Florida, Craig said. The fact that the safety of children is involved makes it even more complicated.

“It’s going to be a nail-biter.”

About Nora O'Neill

Nora is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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