A deleted Facebook post sparked conversations about the potential dangers of the Gainesville nightlife scene during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A photo taken in front of DownTown Fats Bar, located at 112 S. Main St., shows at least 30 maskless people gathering on the sidewalk within 6 feet of each other. It was then shared to Twitter and Reddit.
It’s unknown who took or posted the original photo, but commenters’ mixed reactions reflect Gainesville residents’ concern that local bars and restaurants aren’t following COVID-19 guidelines put in place by local government. These fears are grounded in the fact that earlier this month, Gov. Ron DeSantis gave bars a green light to reopen at 50% capacity.
The bar was closed when the photo was taken.
After forwarding the photo to the city manager Monday evening, Gainesville City Commissioner David Arreola posted the photo on his public Facebook page with a plea for Gainesville businesses to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously. He said he deleted the post because the bar’s management apologized and informed him that the bar wasn’t open when the photo was taken.
“So you think we’re playing?” Arreola wrote in the post. “Ok find out.”
The photo was taken a half-an-hour before DownTown Fats Bar was scheduled to have a soft launch on Monday at 10 p.m., said Jonathan Gold, the manager who worked that night. The crowd gathered at around 9:30 p.m., but bar employees weren’t ready to enforce social distancing then, he said.
A soft launch is meant for a small number of people prior to inviting the general public, co-owner JD Chester said. The bar marketed the reopening through word of mouth to keep the event small instead of advertising as it usually would through social media.
“We carefully chose this time because we knew it wouldn’t be crazy busy,” he said. “But we were wrong.”
Staff addressed the problem as soon as the bar opened, Gold said. They told the crowd to move away and respect social distancing, even yelling at them after several stern orders. After about five minutes, staff were able to get the crowd to properly distance with their face masks on, he added.
To Chester, it’s unfair to blame the bar staff and management instead of the people gathering outside because the bar was closed when the photo was taken.
“There isn't a bar in the entire town that has been more COVID-aware,” he said. “We have done everything to train our staff to ensure that COVID-awareness is of the utmost importance. This situation was just a kick in the stomach.”
City Commissioner Arreola said his frustration lies with the ignorance of UF students as well as UF’s reluctance to manage students’ off-campus conduct.
“To willfully ignore health guidelines for the sake of going out, from a policymaker’s perspective, it's frustrating,” he said. “From someone who is from Gainesville and calls it home, it is hurtful.”
Arreola said he’s reached out to UF multiple times to address this issue, but the university maintains that it doesn’t have control over off-campus conduct.
“By being silent and not telling students to behave the same way off-campus as they do on-campus, it’s almost as if they are saying students can do whatever they want off-campus, which is inappropriate,” Arreola said.
Although he deleted the post, City Commissioner Arreola said his intention was to address misconduct in Gainesville and give local businesses a chance to correct their mistakes.
“I have put my heart and soul into saving as many lives as possible since March,” Arreola said. “I believe we are a society that is compassionate, and that we are a country that does care. I am not trying to shame anyone, I am trying to hold people accountable.
While UF can be blamed for students’ off-campus conduct, Gainesville’s government is also to blame, said Jeremy O’Brien, a 23-year-old UF political science senior. Local bar owners made the choice to reopen and put the community at risk.
Students regularly walk in large groups without masks near Midtown, O’Brien said. He believes that students consider themselves as invulnerable to the virus and don’t care or understand the impact they have on the Gainesville community.
O’Brien said he called Alachua County’s 311 Critical Information Line earlier this month to report a bar that wasn’t following county protocols. He said about 90% of the people in the bar, including the staff, didn’t wear face masks.
“It’s not just DownTown Fats: it’s Lit, Silver Q’s, Mid,” O’Brien said. “This is what every single business has been doing. They are trying to shift the blame off of themselves and onto other people when they are a part of a bigger problem.”
Correction: The original version of this article omitted an identifier for City Commissioner David Arreola. It has been updated to reflect his title and first name.
Alan Halaly is a first-year journalism and Spanish major and the East Gainesville Beat Reporter. This is his second semester on staff, and he previously worked as a news assistant on the Metro desk. He's excited to use this semester to shine a spotlight on underserved communities in Gainesville.