Alachua County residents and visitors now need to wear a mask in public indoor areas for the next week following a vote from the Alachua County Commission. But the mandate doesn’t include UF buildings and facilities.
Following an Aug. 18 county commission vote, the mandate went into effect Aug. 19. It expires on Aug. 26 and requires anyone age 2 or older to wear a mask in public, indoor areas including gyms, restaurants, retail stores and supermarkets.
There is no formal application or identification needed to go maskless due to a medical condition — it’s based on the honor system.
Those with medical exemptions, like trouble breathing due to chronic conditions, can choose not to wear a mask. They are not required to show documentation of their condition and should instead explain in general terms why they can’t wear a mask, according to the emergency order.
The emergency order does not apply to the State University System or the State College System. This means UF and Santa Fe College are excluded from the mask mandate. On UF’s campus, masks are expected, but not mandatory.
UF students only need to wear masks when they are off campus and within county limits, UF spokesperson Steve Orlando said, adding that the university also encourages students to get vaccinated.
“It’s proven safe., i It’s free. We just want everybody to go get it,” Orlando said.
The emergency order for masking must be seven days long and can be renewed only up to six times, which is a total of 42 days, because of a Florida Senate bill outlining those requirements, county spokesperson Mark Sexton said.
The same bill allows Gov. Ron DeSantis to void any emergency order if he deems it “unnecessarily restricts individual rights or liberties.” However, Sexton said the expert testimonies at the Wednesday county commission meeting and Alachua County’s current COVID-19 numbers show the need for a mask mandate.
Health care professionals spoke in support of masking and vaccines at the meeting, including UF Biology Professor Derek Cummings and Eric Lawson, Chief Executive Officer of North Florida Regional Medical Center.
Until Aug. 26, the county plans to focus on educating people about the mandate rather than issuing citations to those who don’t comply, according to the emergency order. To do so, the county has been posting about the mandate on its Facebook page and has provided signs for businesses to print out and display in their storefronts, Sexton said.
Most county residents present at the Wednesday meeting spoke in favor of the mandate. One public commenter pointed out a portion of the county’s population is under 12 years old and cannot be vaccinated — 23% are under 18 according to the U.S. Census — which makes masking more important.
Sarah Rockwell, an expert in special education, said her daughter has a medical disability and cannot attend school because of the Delta surge. Rockwell, who supports masking, said even her daughter loves matching her masks with her outfits.
“It’s about modeling the correct behavior;, it’s about making it a positive experience,” Rockwell said.
One resident, Nathan Skop, said the county should push vaccinations more than masking as vaccines reduce the possibility of severe illness with COVID-19, and some people don’t wear their masks properly. He said he supports personal choice over government mandates.
“Shouldn’t the focus be more on vaccination rather than masking?” Skop asked.
The mandate comes as the state and county are facing a spike in cases, Paul Myers, administrator for the Florida Department of Health in Alachua County, said at the meeting. As of Aug. 20, there have been more than 30,000 total cases of COVID-19 in the county since the beginning of the pandemic with a new case positivity rate of 14.7%.
With more than 151,000 people vaccinated as of Aug. 20, the county firmly believes vaccines will prevent severe illness and death.
“A relatively painless and free vaccine can prevent a very, very expensive hospitalization,” Myers said. “If you think that being hospitalized in any way is some sort of vacation, when you can just get a relatively painless pinprick in your arm. You get hospitalized., y You’re getting way more than a pinprick.”
Contact Meghan McGlone at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @meggmcglone.
Meghan McGlone is a UF junior majoring in journalism and English, and this year she’s the City and County Commission reporter. In past years, she’s served as the University Editor, the Student Government reporter, and other positions. Her favorite past time is eating gummy worms and reading a good book.