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ALACHUA COUNTY ‒ Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced on Sept. 25 that Florida will move into Phase 3 of reopening, a move that will roll back many of the restrictions put in place over the last six months of the coronavirus pandemic. That means all statewide restrictions on bars and restaurants will be removed, DeSantis said, and the changes will go into effect immediately.

“I think that this will be very, very important to the industry,” DeSantis said. “The order that I’m signing today will guarantee restaurants can operate and will not allow closures. They can operate at a minimum of 50 percent, regardless of local rule.”

While the governor said bars and restaurants can resume normal capacity, local governments can still put some restrictions in place as long as they allow at least 50 percent capacity.

Phase 3 also suspends all outstanding fines and penalties against people who violated city and county mask mandates and prohibits counties from collecting on any penalties going forward. "We need to get away from penalizing people for not social distancing," DeSantis said.

DeSantis has taken the social distancing issue even further. As Florida’s public universities work to protect students from COVID-19, DeSantis says he wants to protect students from their universities.

He said the state is exploring ways “to provide some type of bill of rights for students” who face discipline over social distancing rules intended to stem the spread of the virus. “I understand universities are trying to do the right thing, but I personally think it’s incredibly draconian that a student would get potentially expelled for going to a party, that’s what college kids do, and they’re at low risk,” DeSantis said.

Several large Florida public universities have seen a surge in cases since the school year started. Florida State University president John Thrasher sent a letter to students threatening to suspend those who continued to socialize after being asked to self-isolate or quarantine. During the first week of the semester, 11 people were arrested at a house party held by a banned fraternity. Florida State University has reported nearly 1,360 cases of the virus since that time.

Police officers in Tallahassee, home of Florida State University's 437-acre campus, responded to more than a dozen calls in reference to large crowds last weekend. One gathering at an off-campus apartment complex involved more than 1,000 people congregating outside, police said. At the University of Florida, students who don’t wear masks can be banned from classrooms, and repeated offenses can lead to expulsion. The university has reported 1,078 cases of COVID-19 since reopening.

While statewide figures have been declining after the July/August surge, Florida is still ranked third in overall cases with 704,568 cases, 43,855 hospitalizations and 14,313 deaths as of Sept.29. Daily positive cases for the same date were 3,259 for a positivity rate of 4.9 percent, which has remained steady with little decline.

Reopening fully with no restrictions could be a recipe for a fall resurgence even higher than the summer, now that schools are in session and no restrictions on gatherings, social distancing and masks. The demographics on who is catching the virus is also changing. The median statewide age has dropped to 40, but towns with large universities are seeing it reflect the age where social interaction and entertainment is most prominent.

In Alachua County there have been 8,230 cases with 406 hospitalizations and 56 deaths. With a county median age of 27, most cases are among the college age crowd accounting for twice the number of any other age group. While this age group is generally healthier and therefor does not develop as severe cases, the people they interact with are susceptible to infection as well, which is how the summer surge happened after Memorial Day.

While the vast majority of Alachua County cases are based around the college age population in Gainesville, outlying municipalities have widely varying rates. By zip code, the largest number outside of Gainesville is 32615 with 384 cases, but that covers a large area including parts of High Springs, Alachua, Newberry, Worthington Springs and La Crosse. The zip code that covers a single municipality is 32669 which covers Newberry with 338 cases. All other outlying zip codes have a rate under 150.

One area that has been fairly successful at containing the spread has been the public schools K -12. The School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) set up rules and website information for parents and staff to help protect the students and minimize the threat prior to opening. Of the 37 schools in the district of 29,845 students, there have only been 46 students and 26 staff who tested positive in 11 schools. Most of those schools have had only one or two cases with the exceptions of Bishop Middle School and Buchholz High School each with five. The only school with a higher rate is Newberry High School which has reported 16 cases.

Under Governor DeSantis, in Phase 3 all restrictions on businesses are lifted to improve the economy and there is no mandate for fines or social distancing. While the concept is to help struggling businesses, open the economy and try to return to normal life prior to the pandemic, risks still exist. Like the summer surge, the results will be determined by the virus timeline of how fast and wide it spreads. First symptoms usually start about two weeks after infection, during which time they can spread. The illness can last for several weeks and varies in severity. If severe, hospitalization occurs two to four weeks later. The mortality rate goes up three to six weeks after hospitalization. The timeline is controlled by the virus, but it is affected by efforts to contain it. Time will tell whether Phase 3 was successful.

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