Residents can no longer get fined for COVID-19 order violations, but businesses can.
The Alachua County Commission approved a new COVID-19 emergency order and set a deadline for business and individual Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act applications at a Tuesday evening meeting. Commissioners also discussed funding for Grace Marketplace, a non-profit organization fighting homelessness, and a UF research study.
The county order states that businesses must have signs that promote social distancing and encourage customers to use face masks. Employees must also wear face masks.
Businesses that violate the new order will be fined. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Sept. 25 Phase 3 executive order banned the fining of residents.
While the county order doesn’t challenge the state order, it outlines fines for businesses whose employees don’t wear face masks. No past order from the county had previously outlined penalties for businesses whose employees chose to not wear masks.
The first time businesses violate the order, they will receive a $125 fine, according to the emergency order. A second violation increases to $250. All future violations will require a mandatory court appearance with a fine capped at $500.
Gatherings of 50 people or more are prohibited in spaces where social distancing can’t be maintained, according to the order, and law enforcement can order such groups to disperse.
While the county has changed its orders various times, County Commissioner Ken Cornell said the pandemic is a fluid situation, so the responses should be too.
“We’ve been criticized that we are constantly changing things, but that is by design,” Cornell said. “We have set up a process whereby we look at data, reallocate and then make a decision.”
Along with the new order, the commission set Nov. 15 as the deadline for new CARES Act applications for businesses and individuals.
Following a commission vote, county staff will look into funding Grace Marketplace from the CARES Act or budget reserves. The organization wants $116,500 to continue the two-year process of closing Dignity Village, a low-barrier homeless shelter, and rehouse some of the encampment’s residents, said Joe DeCarmine, Grace’s executive director.
The closure project has housed 97 former Dignity Village residents, DeCarmine said. The funding would help support efforts to rehouse high-risk homeless populations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Alachua County and the City of Gainesville each appropriated $250,000 to Grace Marketplace in the 2019-2020 fiscal year, according to an official funding request. The city already agreed to provide more than $116,500 in the 2020-2021 fiscal year.
The commission also voiced concerns over a request from Gainesville City Manager Lee Feldman to use $87,500 of CARES Act funding for market research by the UF Center for Public Interest Communications. The research would identify why people are influenced to party and go to bars and make recommendations so that public officials can reach groups who disregard COVID-19 health protocols.
Commissioners didn’t reach a decision about funding the research study.
While some UF authority figures ask students to follow the county’s COVID-19 protocols, the research study may provide necessary insight into who is discrediting the severity of the virus, county spokesperson Mark Sexton said.
Gainesville City Manager Lee Feldman defended his request at the meeting.
“I would invite anybody to come with me on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night where we’re having congregations of large unmasked groups,” Feldman said. “We are moving forward with this. This is an important next step to keep our curve flat.”