ALACHUA COUNTY – Like many states, Florida has begun reopening business and easing social restrictions. As of May 19, there were 46,944 cases and 2,052 deaths in Florida. While numbers have declined somewhat from early April when cases were averaging between 800 to 1,100 daily, infections continue to spike and recede with single day increases varying between 500 and 850 cases per day.
Part of this represents an increase in testing while part of the decline from early April is due to the month-long stay at home requirements, many of which have been lifted in the past week. Any upswing in infections due to reopening will not become apparent for a week or two due to the incubation period of the virus. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and many businesses feel economic pressure building to further ease restrictions. DeSantis has now issued revised rules for reopening in Phase 1 and is now considering Phase 2 of the three-phase plan.
Alachua County has had more stringent requirements on social distancing, regarding what establishments can open and how, and requiring that masks be worn. Alachua County officials issued a revised emergency order May 17 that brings local COVID-19 rules closer to those issued by the state the previous Friday.
New regulations allow certain businesses to operate at up to 50 percent versus the previous local rules that capped businesses at 25 percent. If a restaurant has outdoor seating spaced six feet apart, then that is not included in the 50 percent rule. Local gyms may now open using social distancing.
Individuals considered most vulnerable to infection are still urged to stay home as much as possible and to use care when leaving home. Public places where social distancing is difficult to maintain remain closed, including zoos, playgrounds, bowling alleys, pool halls, movie and other theaters and concert halls and bars, among others. All services and activities must still keep the six-foot distance rules between employees and members of the public, including when customers are standing in line. Churches are now open, but are limited by the same occupancy and social distancing rules as businesses.
Bowing to pressure from some groups, the governor also declared that while masks are suggested he would not make it mandatory. In Alachua County mandatory mask rules were instituted on May 1, but in a 3-2 vote on May 19 the County Commission voted to reverse that ruling and not make masks mandatory. Later in the day, the County Commission reversed that decision and are still requiring that face masks be worn. There will no longer be a criminal penalty for disobeying the county's order, although earlier there were fines up to $500 for not wearing masks. The County also now allows pool halls and bowling alleys to open as long as they don’t serve alcohol.
With the reopening, things are beginning to have a semblance of normalcy as local businesses and restaurants partially reopen. Traffic has increased and more people are out on the street. Many still wear a mask both for their own safety and out of respect for others’ safety as well. Other places, especially outdoor recreation locations are overwhelmed with people who have been stuck at home for a month. Unfortunately, some people are not concerned about the safety rules or crowds. On Saturday, May 16, the popular Ginnie Springs Recreation area was so overwhelmed by crowds, that they had to close entrance to the park by 11 am.
For local businesses and entrepreneurs, the reopening is a financial relief, especially for the self-employed or service workers. For many there has been no income for at least a month. Massage therapist Carrie Lynn had set up a massage chair outside a farmer’s market at Bambi’s Cafe in High Springs. She was offering massages for a donation. “I just need to get out and work my profession. I have been in self quarantine since February and no income due to the COVID,” Lynn said.
“Massage therapists were not considered essential medically so we had to stop all business. Massage therapists have always been concerned about transmission of disease and conditions; we use disinfectants and clean materials between each client. Now the only change is an increased use of gloves and masks by therapist. If there is something good that comes out of this maybe it will be an increased awareness of the importance of hygiene,” Lynn said.
The Great Outdoor Restaurant closed when restaurants were only allowed to do take-out orders as they didn't think it was practical for their menu. That left many of the restaurant employees facing the possibility of being laid off with no income. Instead, they used the closed time to renovate, repair and clean the restaurant and patio using the staff instead of contractors, which kept the staff employed.
As Florida progresses through Phast 1,all eyes are on when and what to expect when Florida enters Phase 2 of reopening, although there is no timeline for when that will happen.
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