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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Locals and business owners brace for UF students’ return amid Omicron surge

Some residents feel UF is not doing enough to keep the community safe

As the COVID-19 omicron variant surges, so do Gainesville residents’ concerns about UF students returning for the Spring semester.

Omicron cases in Florida began to rise mid-December, and infections have rapidly increased since then. From Dec. 10 to Dec. 16, 29,514 new cases were reported in the Florida Department of Health COVID-19 Weekly Situation Report. From Dec. 31 to Jan. 6, 397,114 new cases were documented. 

In Alachua County alone, 3,789 new cases were reported the week of Jan. 7, adding up to 47,057 cumulative total cases in the county, according to the Alachua County COVID-19 Dashboard

UF expected Alachua County cases to rise throughout January as students travel to Gainesville and expanded testing capacity, according to its Dec. 31 campus brief

“This spike is expected to be relatively short in duration — perhaps no more than two to four weeks,” it stated in the brief.

Alachua County is taking precautionary measures to control the spread of the virus as students return. 

Although there is no mask mandate for residents, county employees working indoors and individuals attending board meetings are required to wear masks, said Mark Sexton, the county Communications and Legislative Affairs Director. 

The county is also creating motives for employees and residents who have been hesitant to get vaccinated.

“We’re offering a $250 incentive for employees to get their booster shots, and we’re going back to a $100 incentive for anyone who is getting their first or second shot,” said Sexton. “We’re getting ready to reinstate a vaccine incentive for citizens, as well, to encourage them to bring our vaccine rate up.”

UF students, who are considered Gainesville residents, will be eligible for this incentive, he said.

However, these measures provide little solace to Gainesville locals.

Tina Days, a 43-year-old East Gainesville resident and food delivery driver, is skeptical of UF’s projections after watching videos of maskless students at indoor gatherings. 

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“You have all these people coming to these basketball games,” Days said. “I’m seeing very few with masks, and you’re coming in and you’re bringing it to the community that is already high with omicron.”

The contagiousness of the omicron variant is Days’ biggest concern, which has already hit her home. Her 13-year-old daughter came in contact with another student at Abraham Lincoln Middle School who tested positive on Tuesday. 

The omicron variant is more transmissible than the first variant, SARS-CoV-2 virus, according to the CDC. Masks and vaccines are the best ways to prevent the virus’ spread and ensure public health.

Days wishes the state and the county would prioritize public health and safety over politics. She credits UF’s lack of mask and vaccine mandates, in addition to its lack of online alternative class options, to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“People are dying,” she said. “UF needs to go online at least for the Spring semester, but it won’t. Governor DeSantis doesn’t want it to. It became too political.” 

The East Gainesville resident does not see a near end in sight for the pandemic. She said the only way to control COVID-19 is if people are vaccinated and wear a mask, but these conditions are not mandated in Alachua County.

“This is going to be a virus that's going to stay with us. How we deal with it is on us,” she said.

The Florida Department of Health released new COVID-19 testing guidelines Thursday that say testing is unlikely to clinically benefit asymptomatic individuals.

Constance Harbin, a 50-year-old Newberry resident and a proposal manager for Wood Environment & Infrastructure Solutions, Inc., thinks this guidance will discourage people, like UF students, from being tested.

Like Days, Harbin experienced a COVID-19 issue with her 32-year-old daughter. She tried to schedule an online doctor’s appointment when her daughter showed symptoms resembling the virus, but she could not find one.

“The community resources are stretched thin already,” she wrote in a direct message on Facebook. 

The arrival of UF students only exacerbates the shortage, she added.

“UF really is putting the entire Gainesville community at risk by not supporting virtual classes,”  Harbin added. 

Business owners also face challenges with students returning amid the surging pandemic. Local businesses are dependent on students to stay afloat, but more customers is synonymous with more chances for infections.

Restaurant owners, like 63-year-old SweetBerries Eatery and Frozen Custard owner Jane Osmond, are grateful that business is booming but are wary about the virus spreading. 

“I’m probably more concerned about the delta variant spreading around since it seems to cause greater illness,” Osmond said. 

She has about 30 employees and about 25 of them have been infected with COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, she said. Currently, three SweetBerries staff members are in quarantine. This staff shortage puts strain on Osmond and the other employees that are able to work.

“Some people are willing to work overtime, but we will probably end up having to make some kind of changes to either our hours or what we offer,” Osmond added. 

SweetBerries is maintaining its standard sanitization and social distancing measures that were implemented at the start of the pandemic. It still requires all employees — in the front and back of the restaurant — to wear masks. It also asks that customers wear masks, though Osmond admitted that some frequenters do not. 

“We're kind of following what we've been following from the beginning,” she said.

Almost two years have passed since the beginning of the pandemic, but normalcy still seems out of grasp. 

Contact Carissa at @callen@alligator.org or follow her on Twitter @Carissaallenn .

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Carissa Allen

Carissa Allen is a second-year journalism and political science double major. She is a Metro General Assignment Reporter for The Alligator. In her free time, you can find her scuba diving, working out or listening to a podcast.


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