Filled with hope to see campus return to pre-pandemic reality, UF students lined up outside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium eager to get vaccinated last Spring.
However, plans for in-person classes, full-capacity football games, parties and life without face masks persist despite record-breaking COVID-19 case numbers in Florida amid the rise of the Delta variant.
Experts and city officials once again fear students’ return as cases surge.
Gainesville City Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said he expects to see an increase in cases after UF students return to the city. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to bar mask mandates in the state could negatively impact Gainesville’s ability to mitigate infections, he said.
In a span of three weeks, COVID-19 cases more than doubled across Alachua County — showing a jump from 664 on the week of July 23 to 1,644 by Aug. 13, according to the Alachua County COVID-19 Dashboard.
The city is now exploring “creative ways” to bypass the governor’s restrictions and reinstate a mask ordinance, Hayes-Santos said. While the order is still in the works, he said he hopes it introduces mandatory masking indoors.
“We should have more information in [the] next week or so on the details of [the ordinance] and how we can put the public safety and public health of our Gainesville neighbors first and not the politics first like Gov. DeSantis has,” he said.
The commissioner added that he hopes UF enforces a mask mandate and requires students and employees to be fully vaccinated.
UF has stood firm in its position that masks are expected but not mandated on campus. The university instead emphasized encouraging students to get the COVID-19 vaccine — something it does not require either.
Hayes-Santos said local hospitals are filling up with unvaccinated people, and vaccinations are the best way for the city to prevent a greater spike in cases.
“I’d love to see 100% of the people vaccinated in our community,” the commissioner said. “I don’t think we’ll get there, but I think we need to strive for that and to find ways to get to that point.”
While hospitalizations rise, the city hasn’t yet reached a crisis point, said Kathleen Ryan, a pediatrician and member of the Alachua County Health Department’s COVID-19 Science and Medical Advisory Committee. The effect of students’ return remains unknown, she said, but vaccination, masking and social distancing can help slow the variant’s spread.
To Ryan, current local vaccination rates aren’t optimal. As of Aug. 17, 60% of eligible Alachua County residents have been fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID Data Tracker.
Without more residents showing up for their doses, the county will not attain herd immunity, she said. While Ryan noted there is no absolute number that marks the herd immunity threshold, she believes it’s unlikely herd immunity can be reached while children under 12 remain unvaccinated.
Her message to unvaccinated residents and students is that vaccines are safe and effective.
“College-aged students are more vulnerable to COVID and the consequences of actual infection than the younger age groups — at least until this point,” she said. “We know that the consequences of COVID could be severe.”
Ryan said she would have to wait and see if students caused a rise in infections, but she hopes incoming students would already be vaccinated or have plans to get vaccinated after arriving in Gainesville.
“The biggest message is people need to get vaccinated to protect themselves [and] protect those around them,” she said. “They need to wear masks, and they need to physically distance when possible.”
With the surge in Delta cases, local businesses are making adjustments to protect staff and customers.
The staff of Sublime Tacos, located at 317 SW Fourth Ave., is encouraged to wear masks, owner Sen Khiev said. He said he intends to post signage at the entrance encouraging guests to mask up. The restaurant may also limit the number of people allowed inside to half the current capacity.
Khiev said he thinks having a mask mandate implemented locally would help him deal with customers. A local mask mandate would allow him to identify to customers city authorities as the source of the requirement rather than the restaurant, he said.
“That takes the enforcement out of our hands, and we don’t have to be the bad cop,” he said.
The Alachua County Commission plans to meet Wednesday, Aug. 18, to discuss reinstating a county-wide mask mandate.
Contact Omar Ateyah at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @oateyah.
Omar Ateyah is a third-year journalism student and the Alligator's Race and Equity reporter. He previously served as the Alligator's crime reporter and as a news assistant on the Metro Desk. He enjoys going on long, thoughtful walks.