Alachua County and Gainesville move on from mask mandates as COVID-19 numbers drop

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Two days after Alachua County and Gainesville began moving away from coronavirus mask mandates amid declining COVID-19 numbers in their jurisdictions, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday made it clear once again that he has no patience for anyone wearing a mask.

DeSantis, a Republican, grew visibly annoyed and admonished a group of students for wearing face masks at a news conference at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

The governor approached the students and asked them to remove their masks as they stood behind him, just as he was about to discuss cybersecurity.

“You do not have to wear those masks. I mean, please take them off. Honestly, it’s not doing anything. We’ve got to stop with this COVID theater. So if you wanna wear it, fine, but this is ridiculous,” he said, letting out an audible sigh and shaking his head.

Several of the students could be seen taking off their masks and smiling, according to a video of the governor’s admonition that went viral after the news conference.

DeSantis is running for reelection and considered a potential 2024 GOP presidential candidate. His opposition to masks and vaccines has drawn national attention, and his administration has banned mask mandates in public schools in the state.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday eased its masking guidelines, stating that mask-wearing is optional in areas with low-hospitalization, or for about 70% of the U.S. population.

The day before, DeSantis announced new guidelines on COVID-19 for Florida. In a separate video released by his administration and with him standing beside newly confirmed State Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo, he encouraged Floridians to “Buck the CDC.”

The guidelines give medical practitioners the freedom to treat patients with off-label prescriptions if the patient requests their use.

“We want people to be able to have a right to access these medications,” DeSantis said in the administration video. “Especially if they’re in a situation where nothing else has worked.”

The governor’s new rules set the isolation period for people with COVID to five days, the same as the CDC-recommended duration for those who are asymptomatic with the disease.

On Monday, Alachua County and Gainesville ended mandatory masking and other coronavirus policies in their facilities. Visitors to county and city buildings and governmental meetings are no longer required to wear masks.

“We’ll be going back to recommended masks for staff, with the exception of if we have a customer or a client requests us to wear one” in their presence, County Manager Michele Lieberman told the Alachua County Commission on Feb. 22. “I expect the employees to put one on, because that is out of respect of the customer or the client.”

Mark Sexton, the county’s communications director, said the county is still advising the wearing of masks in high-risk environments, such as in crowds.

“We still recommend it if social distancing isn’t possible, but it’s voluntary,” Sexton said.

Weekly COVID-19 cases in Gainesville have declined significantly since the omicron variant rippled through the city in January.

“Local positivity rates and workforce impacts from COVID-19 support the discontinuation of the city’s indoor masking policy,” Shelby Taylor, the city’s director of communications and engagement, wrote in an email.

The Alachua County Sherriff’s Office has set its own rules for COVID policies out of an abundance of caution for corrections officers and inmates in the county jail.

While an uptick of COVID-19 cases there in January resulted in policy changes and an end to on-site visitation, a recent decline in such cases led to a return to pre-pandemic practices this week, according to Capt. Kaley Behl, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office.

At the University of Florida, masks remain as only “expected” in classes and across campus this semester. Steve Orlando, a spokesperson for the university, said this week he was not aware of any new plans to change COVID policies at UF.

Masks are still required when riding on the city’s Regional Transit System busses, at least until March 18, according to an order by the federal Transportation Security Administration.

Masking guidelines in Alachua County Public Schools caused a stir between the state and classrooms last year. The school district made masks a requirement and filed a lawsuit against the state Department of Health in September. A judge ruled in favor of the health department.

The Florida Department of Education withheld nearly $200,000 in school board salaries last year over the district’s choice to mandate masks for students and educators.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

About Bella Ruiz

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

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