Since March, Gainesville resident Sarah Felman has worn a mask, respected social distancing and only left her home to work or to feed her American Paint Horse, Loki, who is housed at Powell Farm near Paynes Prairie.
Felman, 26, said she drove down University Avenue in early August on her way home and saw who she believed to be UF students gathering in large crowds and not wearing masks. As some universities moved fully online, she said she felt a slight panic because UF reopened its classrooms and dorms to some students.
More than 28,000 UF students will return to Gainesville for the Fall semester, said UF’s Chief Operating Officer Charlie Lane during a Wednesday Gainesville City Commission and Alachua County Commission joint meeting. With this return, many residents, like Felman, fear that a spike in COVID-19 cases will accompany students’ return.
Felman said she’s stressed about spreading the virus to her best friend, Blair Greenroos, who suffers from Crohn’s Disease and Rheumatoid arthritis, which are autoimmune diseases that make her more susceptible to COVID-19.
Greenroos, a 25-year-old Gainesville resident, was hospitalized for three days and bedridden for two weeks in March after getting the flu. The doctors told her that if she contracts COVID-19, she should expect major complications.
Upon hearing the doctors’ warning, her concerns have manifested through daily panic attacks -- a jump from the ten she used to have per month. Every time she sees students gathering through Snapchat’s map, she said she fears for her health and well being.
“I think that students coming back was bound to happen,” Greenroos said. “I just need to hope that everyone is able to take proper precautions.”
Dr. Kathleen Ryan, a UF infectious disease specialist and member of the county’s COVID-19 advisory committee, said it’s difficult to predict if cases will spike as students return. However, she said the elderly and immunocompromised, like Greenroos, continue being the most at risk for the virus.
While students’ return could potentially increase COVID-19 cases, Alachua County’s cases count has decreased in the last few weeks, Ryan said. The county hit its peak number of cases with 109 positive tests, at the end of July.
Along with residents, the county is concerned about the spread of the virus from house parties and other large gatherings, said Alachua County spokesperson Mark Sexton. To reduce future COVID-19 infections, the county commission agreed to limit all indoor gatherings to 10 people during the Wednesday joint meeting.
Sexton added that there will not be county policies specifically directed at students but emphasized that students are expected to abide by the county’s COVID-19 order just like other residents.
Since March, GPD patrolled the city to ensure residents wear masks and respect social distancing, Glover said. Seven GPD officers will work weekly on Friday and Saturday evenings from 10:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. to monitor parties around Gainesville.
GPD officers broke up two student parties with less than 50 attendees last Friday and Saturday after noise complaints, Glover said. GPD notified University Police about the gathering because students are subject to UF’s COVID-19 safety policies, he said.
Officers can also issue citations to students who don’t wear masks when asked to do so, Glover said. GPD hasn’t made any arrests related to the face mask order or social distancing policies as of Wednesday, he said.
Satchel Raye, owner of Satchel’s Pizza and Satch Squared, said UF students have tried to come into Satch Squared, Satchel’s Pizza’s second location downtown, without masks. The students wore their shirts over their face until employees handed them a disposable mask.
This is a regular occurance, Satchel said. Students forget their masks at home or in their cars and put them on only when asked, he said.
“We’re going to continue to be careful with what we’re doing because our life is not about students’ life,” he said. “Our life is a restaurant life.”