On Aug. 26, Dr. Michael Lauzardo gave a thoughtful answer when asked if UF’s opening would cause COVID-19 to spread, and what steps the university would take to mitigate the impact. In the two weeks since, much has changed, and my worries have only grown — COVID-19 has spread rapidly within the Gator Nation including a 23.9% positive test rate at the Student Health Center. Testimonies of dead end contact tracing, students afraid of or refusing quarantining and testing, and lack of proper guidance for positive cases have raised issues that need immediate attention, not just from UF Health and administration, but from the powerful decision makers on the Board of Trustees and the Office of the Provost Joe Glover.
The median age of new Alachua County cases was 20 years old and the daily median age of those testing positive has decreased since Aug. 31. There is little doubt this is a result of the 200-plus UF COVID-19 cases and the 600-plus individuals in quarantine. I have no doubt UF Health is monitoring the campus spread closely, but it has been my job to govern off-campus pandemic policy since March and I have concerns that aren’t being addressed. When students are off campus at Publix, Walmart or a favorite restaurant, remember there are immunocompromised people in our community you could be endangering if you carry COVID-19 from a weekend party. If you live off campus with random roommates, you have added responsibility to not go out because your roommates can’t distance easily at home. Alachua County has required masks indoors to protect consumer confidence for our businesses reopening since April. These messages have been lost in UF’s reopening plan because they have said it isn’t their jurisdiction.
Some cynics might ask, why should UF care if that’s my job? Since I was elected in 2017, UF officials have worked with me hand in hand to improve our city with groundbreaking the Community Resource Paramedics program, the I-Street transit initiative and the first ever formal strategic planning memorandum between UF and Gainesville’s government. It’s in UF’s best interest because if they aspire to become a top five public preeminent university, then Gainesville must evolve into a preeminent city. Our future success is intertwined. Then COVID-19 struck Wuhan, then Europe and finally Florida. Now our survival is intertwined. Gainesville is students’ city too, and we love to have them here but in 2020, health and safety from COVID-19 is our new priority. The off-campus gatherings are threatening our survival. It is cynical to suggest that UF’s campus is the safest place in the city if the rest of Gainesville is a casualty.
I have called on Alachua County Chair Robert Hutchinson and Mayor Lauren Poe to convene another joint meeting with UF administrators to discuss the reopening outbreak. In the meantime, I call on the community to submit their questions to their elected officials so that we can pose them in writing and expect answers in writing. My office will be directing questions to the Board of Trustees and the Office of the Provost because I hold them responsible. Until now they have been content to pass the buck to their administrators, their faculty, their undergraduate students, their world class health care system and the entire Gator Nation.
As long as I have something to say, the buck will stop here. I will accept zero deaths related to UF community spread whether on or off campus. I have family here who work at UF and our local essential businesses that must remain open. I will not see one of them endangered because of well paid office holders who throw up their hands and say “Let’s just hope it works out well.” Hope is not a strategy, nor is it scientific. Hope is a question of faith and sincerity and both are subject to proof. I place my hope in a well informed citizenry asking critical questions of their public institutions and leaders. Together we will faithfully see this through — since every pandemic in human history has an end — but I will not accept a single casualty because of a lack of leadership.
Don’t be afraid if you woke up with a fever today. Call for a test. Don’t be afraid of being alone in quarantine if you test positive. You will be back. Don’t be afraid if you go to the hospital. Gainesville’s health care system is second to none. And don’t be afraid to admit you made a mistake, we all do. Decent people own up to mistakes and try to correct them. UF has made mistakes and it is time to fix them.
David Arreola is the Gainesville City Commissioner for district three and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.