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Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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The Alachua County Commission could be decreasing its indoor gathering limit to reduce the spread of COVID-19 as soon as Monday.

The county commission voted Wednesday to direct its chair, Commissioner Robert Hutchinson, to change its person limit on indoor gatherings, such as house parties, from 50 to 10 people. Outdoor gatherings in enclosed backyards or areas where social distancing is difficult will remain limited to 50 people.

Hutchinson said his goal is to implement the change on Monday, coinciding with the first day of UF classes.The change will be made through an amendment to the county’s emergency order. 

The county’s current COVID-19 emergency order expanded the indoor gathering limit from 10 people to 50 on July 2. This occurred when Alachua County transitioned into Phase 2 of the business reopening plan included in an executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis. 

The changes to the order will not impact occupancy limits of businesses, which are currently set at 50% capacity, but can limit the amount of people per table at a restaurant, Hutchinson said. The changes also won’t impact UF’s campus or football games because the university operates outside of the county’s jurisdiction.

The changes would affect off-campus UF students, who are under the same legal requirements as county residents. Off-campus tailgating and other outdoor activities would not be impacted by the amendment.

The vote came after local officials voiced concern that the influx of UF students for the Fall semester may increase local COVID-19 cases. City Commissioner Reina Saco said the indoor gatherings limit should be reduced because of the potential transmission of the virus through students’ house parties.

“I’m concerned that 50 people allowed to gather is 45 people too many,” Saco said.

The county attorneys, along with others from the Alachua County Sheriff's Office, Gainesville Police Department, and UF Police Department, are drafting the new amendment to the new emergency order, Hutchinson said. 

And it may not be the only change to the order.

The lawyers are also considering amending the order to punish occupancy violations with civil citations, Hutchinson said. The change would fine violators instead of charging them with a crime. 

The order currently allows law enforcement to break up gatherings that exceed the limit. If people don’t leave, police can charge them with failure to disperse, a second-degree misdemeanor, said County Attorney Sylvia Torres

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City and county commissioners discussed adding the civil citations, similar to the ones used for violations of the county’s mask order, during the meeting. The county currently requires wearing a face mask at all public places when social distancing isn’t possible.

Saco, who supports this move, said sending police to gathering violations might escalate the situation unnecessarily. The county’s mask requirement has allowed code enforcement to deal with violators instead of law enforcement, she added. She said she hopes adding the civil citation for gathering violations will have a similar effect.

The attorneys could add this to the emergency order amendment, but Hutchinson would have to make the decision to accept it.

Gainesville City Commissioner Harvey Ward supported the changes, but said he’s upset because he feels the decision should have been made sooner instead of days before UF classes begin.

“Clearly, this is something we should have had in our back pocket ready to go,” Ward said.

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