After more than a year of quarantining, testing and masking up, Gainesville has had enough of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Residents and city leaders alike have expressed frustrations with Florida politicians and UF’s response to the pandemic. After UF reopened in the Fall, COVID-19 cases climbed and the university’s decision to return to in-person classes brought protests. But some residents agree Gainesville was better off than many other cities over the past year.
Arthur Stockwell, a 58-year-old Gainesville resident, said he believes the county health department has handled the COVID-19 pandemic well within mandates of the state.
Stockwell said he recently visited his hometown of Travis County, Texas where he was shocked to learn that out of his family gathering of 12 people, he was the only one who wasn’t vaccinated.
“But of all the counties in North Central Florida, Alachua County is the best at providing the most services and resources,” he added.
As of Wednesday, Alachua County has vaccinated 50,480 people, or about 18% of the population, ranking 23rd in total vaccinations among Florida counties.
Mayor Lauren Poe said the city’s top priority from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic was to communicate with residents.
“We all understood that there needed to be a unified message coming from all of us to help people understand that A: we're all in this together,” Poe said. “But B: that we are going to base our decisions on accurate information.”
Poe credited UF Health because it has been the community’s source for this information.
In regard to UF’s return to in-person classes, he said the city stayed focused on what was directly under its control, such as efforts to promote mask-wearing and to work with local businesses.
He said the decision to re-open the university came largely from the Board of Governors and Gov. Ron DeSantis’s office.
“While we were willing to give input, we recognized that they were going to make decisions based on their views on things,” he said. “And so we really just tried to assist and support the university as well as the rest of our community.”
After Gov. DeSantis announced a statewide reopening plan in September, maskless students returned to bars and clubs, which stirred controversy in the city.
City Commissioner David Arreola said Gainesville had kept its cases low until students returned to campus.
“We didn't start to see truly discouraging numbers for COVID until the university reopened, which was forced by the governor of Florida,” he said.
Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said Gainesville’s responsiveness to mask-wearing and social distancing has been a big help.
“I think what's worked the best is our residents have taken it seriously,” Hayes-Santos said.
Compliance with masks mandates and social distancing guidelines over the past year have shown that citizens are taking the necessary steps to prevent the virus’ spread, he said.
Some Gainesville residents felt positive about the way that the Alachua County Health Department, UF Health and UF have handled the spread of the virus.
Pastor Hongjun Li, a 60-year-old Gainesville resident, said he doesn’t know much about the COVID-19 regulations in the county, but he and his family have been cautious about their own health. They keep outside interactions to a minimum, participating in online sermons at the Gainesville Chinese Church, Li said.
According to the state, churches were allowed to reopen after Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed Florida into Phase 3 of the COVID-19 recovery plan on Sept. 25.
“The church has considered reopening, but we don’t know when is the right time,” Li said.
Contact Jack Prator at Jiselle Lee at email@example.com and @firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow them on Twitter @jack_prator and @jiselle_lee.
Jiselle Lee is a journalism junior and The Alligator’s features and investigations editor. Previously, she was a reporter for NextShark and a news intern at The Bradenton Herald. In her free time, she enjoys thrifting and going to the beach.
Jack is a UF journalism sophomore covering the Gainesville City Commission. If he's not in a hammock at the plaza he is probably watching the Queen's Gambit for the fifth time.