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NEWBERRY ‒ The subject of fireworks led to a spirited discussion at the July 26 Newberry City Commission meeting. For residents attending the meeting, the issue was whether to allow them, permit them or eliminate them.

Finding that the City’s Code of Ordinances has conflicting provisions regarding the sale or use of fireworks within city limits, Fire Chief Ben Buckner asked for direction from the Commission as to how he should proceed when a request is made to conduct fireworks displays in Newberry. Horses and cattle knocking down fences in fear at the sound of the fireworks was a cause of concern by some Commissioners and citizens.

Commissioner Rick Coleman said he had to help corral cattle after they knocked down fences and stampeded following one fireworks display. Cheryl Coleman addressed Commissioners to say that her horses run wild with fear whenever fireworks are set off anywhere near them. The City Attorney told her that these shows had public liability insurance and would be responsible if any of her animals were hurt because of the fireworks show.

Robert Miles of Ram Pyrotechnics, Ocala, said he did private small venue fireworks shows. He asked that the City develop a permit process for people who want to hold fireworks displays. He said there are low noise fireworks that can be used, but they are limited. He added that Volusia County had a good policy on fireworks and described how that works.

Several residents spoke against fireworks, including Preston Ponse who said he was a horseman and that fireworks are dangerous to horses and he was against having fireworks. Alvin Langford also spoke against allowing fireworks, saying that fireworks shows cause them extra work, problems with his livestock, and someone else makes money at their expense.

Mayor Jordan Marlowe explained that the carnival and music show the Commission recently approved was a done deal, but that the City needed to come up with a way to handle future requests.

The City Attorney will be reviewing Volusia and Alachua County’s ordinances and the item was tabled. Marlowe said the item would be publicized so that the public could come and express their opinions.

City Manager Mike New said he would contact the people putting on the carnival and concert to see if it might be possible for them to use low noise fireworks in their display.

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ALACHUA COUNTY ‒ One High Springs man died and his passenger was sent to the hospital with serious injuries after the motorcycle they were riding traveled off of the roadway and onto a center grass median, overturning multiple times. Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) was called to the scene of the crash on Friday, July 30 at 11:41 p.m.

According to the FHP, after hitting the median, the motorcycle came to a final rest on its right side facing east within the median. The driver was thrown from the motorcycle, coming into a final rest within the east boundary of State Road 26.

The driver, a 34-year-old High Springs man, was pronounced dead at the scene. His passenger, a 29-year-old female, also from High Springs, was sent to the hospital with serious injuries.

In Newberry, a second crash occurred late Monday night. An 18-year-old Bronson man died when the gray sport utility vehicle he was driving struck a tree that was blocking both the north and southbound lanes of Southwest State Road 45.

Florida Highway Patrol officers were called to Southwest State Road 45 and Southwest 215th Terrace at 11:17 p.m., Aug. 2. The FHP’s report indicates that the driver was wearing a seatbelt at the time of the crash. He was pronounced deceased at the scene.

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HIGH SPRINGS ‒ The High Springs Police Department (HSPD) and the City of High Springs teamed up once again with area organizations to host the annual National Night Out on Tuesday, Aug. 3. High Springs is one of 100 communities in Florida that sponsor a National Night Out event. Every year first responders and city staff host the event at the Civic Center field. This year starting at 6 p.m., a line of police and fire vehicles parked with lights flashing for kids to explore along with prizes and games sponsored by local civic organizations.

For the past 38 years, on the first Tuesday in August, communities throughout America hold a National Night Out event. Over 38 million neighbors take part in National Night Out across 16 thousand communities from all 50 states, U.S. territories and military bases worldwide getting together for an annual community-building campaign that promotes police-community partnerships and neighborhood camaraderie. The goal is to build relationships with local police and neighbors in the community to make neighborhoods safer, more caring places to live.

The events are usually organized by block watches, not-for-profits, businesses, and police departments. They may be as small as a backyard barbecue or as large as a full-blown festival. Whether they’re big or small, these events impact each neighborhood in positive ways and improve communication and trust between the community and their first responders,

This year’s High Springs event was under threat of thunderstorms that had been passing off and on throughout the day, but the rain let up in time for the 6 p.m. start time.

The event is a fun festival with community interaction, and is especially geared toward children. In addition to the line of police cars was a large bounce tent and a pool filled with water balloons for the kids. The Kiwanis set up a booth where kids could “fish,” with a Kiwanis member making sure every kid got a catch and a prize. The High Springs Women’s Club offered prizes for playing a bean bag game. Children could also get their faces painted in a variety of colorful themes. Under a tent, in case of rain, a long table was filled hot dogs, pizza and hamburgers for the crowd to enjoy as well as a food truck offering Italian ice.

By far though, the favorite game was a dunking machine where people got a chance to dunk a police officer in a water filled tank by hitting the bullseye with a baseball. Everyone was a winner as it didn’t take skill or size to dunk the officer. If a kid missed, they could hit the target with their fist, dunking the officer regardless. The biggest crowd, including many adults, gave it a try when HSPD Police Chief Antoine Sheppard took a turn in the dunk seat.

It was not all games though. The police department gave advice for safety, drug issues and neighborhood crime prevention as well as tours of the police and fire vehicles. They also provided a demonstration of how a well-trained police dog is used to subdue suspects.

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ALACHUA ‒ The City of Alachua has negotiated a new power supply agreement now that Alachua’s new Legacy Park Electric Substation has been completed. The new substation gives the City the ability to draw power from different providers, allows an overlap of electrical services if one provider loses power, and strengthens the City’s negotiation position when purchasing energy.

Alachua’s energy needs have been supplied since 1992 by Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU). The current agreement, which provides for constant pricing of $58 per Mw-hr, terminates March 31, 2022. In February, the City issued a solicitation for future wholesale power suppliers and received proposals from seven suppliers, ultimately selecting GRU and the Florida Municipal Power Agency (FMPA) which has multiple suppliers including Duke Energy. The proposed agreements will result in reductions to wholesale electric costs and diversify the City's electric supply mix with staggered expiration terms, constant pricing, and market-driven options. The cost of both contracts is approximately $7-8 million annually.

GRU's contract will run April 1, 2022 to Dec. 31, 2026 with the original Substation No. 1 as the source. Pricing will be a consistent $42 per Mw-hr. The GRU contract also the option to deliver solar energy in the future if the City elects to award a new solar supply contract or construct its own solar project.

The contract with FMPA will run April 1, 2022 to Dec. 31, 2027 utilizing the Legacy Park Substation as the delivery point. The rate will be subject to market conditions, primarily natural gas prices, estimated at approximately $42 - $44 per Mw-hr. The FMPA contract also allows for delivery of FMPA solar project entitlements, which is estimated to come online in 2023.

“We felt this was a win-win for the city by diversifying our suppliers and making the rates competitive,” said Mayor Gib Coerper. “We are doing this now to be looking forward to future needs and not waiting until the need is critical.”

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Emergency Action 2021-22 Declaration of a State Emergency in Alachua County 
 ALACHUA COUNTY, FL – Alachua County Commission Chair Ken Cornell has signed Emergency Action 2021 declaring a State of Emergency in Alachua County due to the alarming spike in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and the severity of the Delta variant. 
 
 
“We urge all residents to read the order and take all actions necessary to keep themselves, their families, and their community safe,” Chair Cornell said. He continued by saying, “As stated in the Emergency Action, with the increase in hospitalizations due to the increase in virulence of the Delta variant when compared with previous variants and the increase in breakthrough infections of the vaccinated, the County strongly recommends that the members of the public who have not been vaccinated get vaccinated, and all members of the public, including those who are vaccinated, should follow the guidelines of the CDC regarding washing hands frequently, social distancing and wearing masks indoors.” 
 
The Alachua County Health is continuing with its walk-up vaccine clinics. 
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ALACHUA COUNTY ‒ With the COVID-19 Delta variant surging across the country, Florida hospitals in some locations are at or nearing capacity. While only weeks ago the outlook was promising, today that has changed. Much of the earlier success was due to health measures endorsed by medical experts on social distancing, masks, restrictions on large gatherings and especially vaccine distribution.

Prior to the Delta variant surge, Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis removed all distancing and mask requirements and the Florida Department of Health no longer provided daily case counts, positivity rates or COVID-19 deaths. Weekly totals are now released each Friday. When Florida changed the frequency of its virus reporting, officials said it made sense given the decreasing number of cases and the increasing number of people being vaccinated. However, reducing data reporting has alarmed infectious disease specialists who believe that more information is better during a pandemic. Florida health officials have stated that they have not curtailed the sharing of data with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Since the vaccine distribution began in December 2020, 164,919,666 Americans have been fully vaccinated, or 49.7 percent of the country's population, according to the CDC's data. Although only half the country had been inoculated, vaccine rates began to decline.

The Delta Variant

Then the new Delta strain emerged, proving to be much more infectious, bringing with it with more cases of severe illness and striking younger people than the previous variant. It also struck the 51 percent of unvaccinated residents the most. Over 95 percent of the hospitalized cases, both nationwide and Florida, were unvaccinated. Research shows that vaccinated people can still catch and transmit the more infectious variant, but with much milder effects and rarely requiring hospitalization. The CDC states that the vaccines are not meant as a 100 percent effective cure, but offers immunity to most, and in other cases has proven to greatly reduce the chance of infection and severity of the illness.

Over the month of July, cases in Florida have doubled every week, accounting for 20 percent of all U.S. cases. On July 30, the state reported 21,683 new cases of COVID-19, the state’s highest one-day total since the start of the pandemic, according to federal health data released on July 31. Only a day earlier on July 29, Florida had reported 17,093 new daily cases. The previous peak in Florida had been 19,334 cases reported on Jan. 7, before the availability of vaccinations became widespread.

The counties with the lowest vaccine rates are being hit the hardest by the virus. The state reported 409 deaths this week, bringing the total to more than 39,000 since its first in March 2020. The state’s peak happened in mid-August 2020, when 1,266 people died over a seven-day period. Since the beginning of 2020, over 2.59 million Floridians have contacted COVID-19 and 39,079 have died. That number is expected to increase as deaths usually follow increases in hospitalizations by several weeks.

Hospitalizations

A day after it recorded the most new daily cases since the start of the pandemic, Florida broke another previous record for current hospitalizations, as the number of patients in hospitals because of COVID-19 once again broke through the 1,000-person threshold. This week, Florida recorded 10,207 people hospitalized with confirmed COVID-19 cases. The previous record was from more than a year ago, July 23, 2020, more than a half-year before vaccinations became widespread, when Florida had 10,170 hospitalizations.

Many hospitals in Florida are nearing capacity. Hospitals in Putnam, Bradford and Union counties have reached capacity in their intensive care units, with overflow patients being transferred to hospitals in Alachua County. North Florida Regional Medical Center in Gainesville also is at capacity, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But it has the ability to convert more areas of the hospital for critical care. UF Health in Gainesville had 146 COVID-19 patients hospitalized on Aug. 2, according to CEO Ed Jimenez. That is over 10 times more than the 14 patients it had a little over a month ago.

Despite the swiftly spreading Delta variant, Alachua County has done better than many counties. Alachua County’s vaccination rate is higher than the state average at 60 percent. According to the State Health Department dashboard, Alachua County has had a total of 193 reported variant cases, including 11 Delta, but that is more than double the previous week's five. The 11 included six women, four men and one boy ranging in ages from 11 to 88. On Aug. 3, University of Florida Health tied its all-time pandemic high of 157 hospitalized COVID-19 patients According to Jimenez, the last time that many were in hospitals was Jan.12 shortly after the first COVID-19 vaccines were made available to healthcare workers in Florida.

As the number of cases increases exponentially, Alachua County Health officials and hospital staffs are urging people to get vaccinated. Last week, Florida reported 110,477 new cases, which is a nearly 600 percent increase from the 15,998 new cases reported just four weeks earlier. Over the past month, the statewide positivity rate has jumped from 5.3 to 18.1 percent.

New Requirements

Numerous county governments are considering requiring employees to get vaccinated or wear masks as are independent businesses. School systems are especially concerned due to the younger ages that can contract the Delta variant in packed classrooms and then spread it to their families. Several school boards are considering requiring all staff and students to wear masks or creating separate classrooms for students whose parents are opposed to mask wearing.

A positive sign is that the number of vaccines administered is also beginning to increase again. Florida has fully vaccinated 10 million people, state records show. An additional 98,696 became fully vaccinated last week, while another 235,368 received their first doses, continuing an uptick in recent weeks. The 334,064 doses administered last week is up 40 percent from the first week of July.

Governor DeSantis has urged all Floridians to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. “If you are vaccinated, fully vaccinated, the chance of you getting seriously ill or dying from COVID is effectively zero ... These vaccines are saving lives,” he said during a press conference. Despite his endorsement of the vaccine, DeSantis has resisted mandatory mask mandates and vaccine requirements, and along with the state Legislature, has limited local officials’ ability to impose restrictions intended to stop the spread of COVID-19.

DeSantis has maintained a strict “no-mandate” approach to the virus. Last week he issued an executive order banning mask mandates, school closures or other COVID-19 restrictions across the state. He has stated the choice on masking should be left to parents, not school boards or local governments. This comes after the CDC updated their mask guidance to recommend that everyone, vaccinated or not, wear a mask indoors and strongly encourage all K-12 staff and students to wear masks in schools.

DeSantis directed the State Board of Education to withhold funding to any school that ignores the order. He also vowed to fight any cities or municipalities that try to institute COVID restrictions, including mask mandates or lockdowns. DeSantis has blamed the surge on a seasonal increase when more Floridians are indoors because of the hot weather with air conditioning circulating the virus. On the school mandate, DeSantis has said “I think kids are very low risk, I’m confident things will go well.”

Local Actions

Both Gainesville and Alachua County governments will not mandate that its employees be vaccinated for COVID-19, at least for now. But starting Wednesday, all employees will be required to wear masks inside county buildings while working, and those who are not vaccinated also will have to wear them outside. Those who can’t prove they have had the vaccine must take a weekly COVID test. They will not be allowed to travel outside Alachua County for work and won't be eligible for a paid week of COVID leave the county has approved for its staff.

Alachua County Public schools announced last week that teachers, vendors, and visitors will have to wear masks when school starts back next week. School Board Spokesperson Jackie Johnson said the decision was made due to an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases and the recent death of an ACPS employee. According to a statement from the superintendent, the school district has seen a significant increase in cases among employees over the past two weeks and some of them had been hospitalized. She also stated the school district will continue to monitor COVID-19 numbers, vaccination rates and COVID data with medical advisers before deciding to extend the requirement.

According to Johnson, on Tuesday, Aug. 3, and in light of dramatic increases in local COVID cases and hospitalizations, including among children, the Alachua County School Board voted to require masks for students for the first two weeks of school. The Board will reevaluate this requirement at its Aug. 17 meeting. 

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GAINESVILLE - Today, Alachua County Public Schools Superintendent Carlee Simon sent letters about student masking to all families and staff. The text of that letter follows:

Just a few weeks ago, we were all planning for a more ‘normal’ start to the school year. Unfortunately COVID--particularly the more infectious and dangerous Delta variant--has changed those plans.

During last night’s School Board meeting, several doctors and health experts representing UF Health, North Florida Regional Medical Center, the Alachua County Health Department, Alachua Fire Rescue and other organizations shared alarming news about COVID in our community. There’s been a huge increase in cases and hospitalizations, including among previously healthy children. Intensive care units are reaching and sometimes exceeding capacity. At times, the county has run short on ambulances because of the spike in COVID cases, which has increased response times.

ACPS is experiencing this spike first-hand. Over the weekend two of our employees passed away from COVID. The number of employees testing positive for COVID has jumped in the past two weeks, even before most of them are back from summer break. We’ve had 18 new cases in the last three days alone. More than 80 employees are now in quarantine, and that number is rising fast. Many of them have symptoms and are waiting for test results.

We want our schools to be open, because we know that’s best for children. But if this trend continues, we may not have enough people to operate our schools safely.

For these reasons, the School Board has decided to require masks for students for the first two weeks of the school year. At its August 17 meeting, the Board will reevaluate that policy.

The district had already taken the step of requiring all employees, vendors and visitors to our schools and facilities to wear masks starting immediately and running through at least September 17. That would include Meet Your Teacher/orientation sessions later this week.

In keeping with our Face Coverings Policy, families may request that their child opt out of wearing a mask by submitting a form signed by a doctor. Schools will also continue to provide mask breaks throughout the day.

Our goal is to keep schools open, protect our students, staff and families and help this community avoid an even bigger health crisis. We certainly don’t want to make it harder for the citizens of Alachua County to get the emergency and medical care they need by adding to the spread of COVID.

With your support, we can help bring this virus under control and look forward to a return to normal sooner rather than later. More importantly, we can help prevent more needless illness and deaths.

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