As the start of the Fall semester draws near, UF officials are preparing for a return of about 56,000 students — some with the expectation of more political turbulence than ever.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter movement and upcoming presidential elections have already made an impact on the Gainesville community. With the additional influx of students returning in Fall, UF law professor Clay Calvert said he expects tensions surrounding each to grow.
“It’s an interesting time with a lot of forces triangulating,” he said. “Navigating these issues will not be easy on any university campus, given the heated political climate in which we live in today.”
The university is no stranger to protests. When Donald Trump Jr. visited UF, hundreds of students protested. However, this year’s demonstrators have an additional factor to contend with: COVID-19.
After Gainesville residents held weekly demonstrations to protest police brutality, the county health department announced that no confirmed cases of COVID-19 were traced to protests. Paul Myers, an administrator at the county health department, told The Alligator said that while this is accurate, some cases may have been misattributed if people weren’t truthful or misremembered when their symptoms began.
The university will support students’ First Amendment rights, said UF spokesperson Steve Orlando, but on-campus protesters must respect public health guidelines: This means wearing face masks where there are more than 250 people outdoors and socially distancing from others.
The university’s COVID-19 prevention guidelines aren’t in place to limit speech but to instead maintain the public’s safety, health and well-being in light of COVID-19, Calvert added.
Astrid Rojas, a 20-year-old UF marketing junior, attended five Dream Defenders protests over the Summer. She told The Alligator she plans to continue joining BLM protests when she returns to campus.
As long as the demonstration is safe and organized by Black leaders, she said she will attend wearing sunscreen — and a mask.
“Wearing the best mask I can get my hands on is probably the best precaution I can take,” she said, adding that she hydrates in advance so that she doesn’t have to remove her mask constantly during the protest.
Reflecting on historical social movements, like the fight for women's rights, Rojas said big changes in the U.S. have stemmed from the power of the people. She said she protests to stand up for causes important to her and call for change.
With the pandemic changing rapidly, people shouldn’t be gathering in large groups at all, said Dr. Michael Lauzardo, the director of the Screen, Test & Protect program at UF.
Lauzardo said any type of gathering will increase the risk of transmitting the virus. He added that there are always people who don’t adhere to safety measures like wearing masks at large gatherings.
Florida continues to set records for new cases among young people in their 20s who are tired of staying at home, Lauzardo said. Younger people can spread the virus to the elderly, who are among the most vulnerable. To Lauzardo, this shift makes it challenging to keep the hospitals clear.
“We’re in the middle of a big crisis in the second wave,” he said. “The world and life don’t always balance up with public health ideals and public health principles.”
Lauzardo said he believes that people can express their opinions in different ways that pose little-to-no risk to the community.
There are other methods of protesting, such as using social media, Calvert said. In response to the murder of George Floyd, several student organizations and college departments at UF took to social media to join the Black Lives Matter movement.
However, Calvert said there is something different about rallying in person.
When people take to a public space, whether a sidewalk, park or campus, they’re making more of an effort by gathering in a real space than a virtual one, Calvert added.
“Symbolically, gathering people like that — it can send a more powerful message,” Calvert said.