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NEWBERRY – The City of Newberry called an emergency meeting of the City Commission on May 26 to discuss actions by the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC). During the May 20 Newberry Emergency City Commission meeting, Commissioners asked that a resolution be drafted for Mayor Jordan Marlowe’s signature the following day in response to the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) actions on May 19.

During the BOCC meeting on May 19, County Commissioners voted 3-2 to rescind its mandatory mask requirement and instead made the wearing of masks “strongly recommended” rather than required. The mask requirement order was put in place earlier in the month to help curtail the spread of COVID-19 as the state begins Phase 1 of the governor’s Plan for Florida’s Recovery.

However, later the same day, in a joint meeting with the City of Gainesville, the BOCC flipped their earlier decision, once again requiring the mandatory wearing of masks. Not only had Marlowe received calls from citizens and business owners, but other Newberry City Commissioners had as well.

On the heels of the County’s flip/flop decision, Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe said the constant changes in face mask requirements were causing stress and confusion in his city.

In response to the County’s decision, the City of Newberry called the May 26 emergency session in an attempt to address the confusion. During that meeting several City Commissioners said they thought the BOCC should have talked with the other municipalities in the county prior to making changes based on one city’s preference, especially since the County was not in sync with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ Executive Order.

Several Commissioners voiced similar opinions. “This is not about facemasks,” said Commissioner Rocky McKinley, “it’s about stability.”

“Citizens are looking for guidelines,” Marlowe said. “Instead there is a lack of structure in our county government.”

During the meeting Commissioners indicated they had received several telephone calls regarding the county’s inability to make a decision and stick to it. “What we’re trying to do tonight is to find some stability for our citizens,” Marlowe said.

“The governor is getting advice and medical data in consultation with health officials,” said Marlowe. “I think it is in the citizens’ best interest to follow the governor’s lead on this issue.”

Although the city attorney was tasked with developing a resolution, Commissioner Tim Marden ultimately made a motion to update the City’s current Emergency Order to mirror the governor’s order and authorized the mayor to sign the resolution the following day so it could be implemented immediately. Commissioner Rick Coleman seconded the motion. Hearing no public comment, the motion passed unanimously.

During the May 26 City Commission meeting, City Attorney Scott Walker talked about Resolution 2020-25, which his office had drafted for the mayor’s signature. “We raised a couple of constitutional grounds for our case for objecting to the county’s position.” One issue was that the county’s order was so broad and void for vagueness that it would be difficult to require someone to be subject to criminal penalty because of the vague nature of the order. “We believe that it creates a concern on the part of implementation of that order and that due to that fact, the City of Newberry declines to enforce the order.”

The resolution specified that there is to be coordination between the County, the cities and the Florida Division of Emergency Management. “For those reasons we believe enforcement is problematic,” Walker said.

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GAINESVILLE – At press release, the Gainesville-Alachua County Association of REALTORS (GACAR) raised close to $5,500.00 and collected over a dozen overflowing boxes of food and personal hygiene donations for the Bread of the Mighty Food Bank.

Thanks to the generous contributions from GACAR members, local businesses, and the general public, GACAR is able to provide over 54,000 meals to Bread of the Mighty during such a critical time. GACAR is extremely grateful to our media contacts at WCJB TV20, The Gainesville Sun, Alachua County Today, and the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce for promoting this important charitable event and enabling us to better serve this community.

GACAR President Jeremy Thomas was on hand today helping unload donations and thanking visitors (from an acceptable social distance, of course).

“It is truly humbling to see not only our REALTORS and business partners today, but also regular members of the community and representatives from surrounding offices have dropped off donations,” said Thomas. “Everyone has been so kind and encouraging. I am proud that our community has come together to help alleviate some of the hardship caused by food insecurity. “

While summer months are typically difficult for local food banks, it becomes downright devastating when coupled with the economic effects of COVID-19 rippling through the community. Even though this event was successful, food insecurity is still a major issue within our community. For those that are able, please consider visiting www.breadofthemighty.com/donate to contribute directly to this worthwhile organization.

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HIGH SPRINGS – For the last several weeks, High Springs City Hall has been attempting to balance the health and safety of city staff while still delivering good customer service. Beginning next week, the first two phases of a three-phase plan will begin.

During Phase 1, for the week of May 26, live operators will be available weekdays from 8 a.m. to noon to answer any questions by phone at 386-454-1416. Calls outside of that time will be answered by voicemail, and a member of staff will return the call.

During Phase 2, beginning the week of June 1 and until such time that City Manager Joel DeCoursey, Jr. authorizes, City Hall will be open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. by appointment only.  These appointments are for new accounts, closing or transferring an account and tag related transactions only.  To pay a bill, continue using the City drop box or paying on line.

Plans may be subject to change in accordance with further guidance from county, state or federal government.

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ALACHUA – Alachua City Commissioner Dayna Miller has been sworn in for a three-year term after running unopposed for seat 3 on the commission. City Manager Adam Boukari administered the oath of office at the May 18 commission meeting. Miller also served as Vice Mayor during her first term.

Miller completed the Florida League of Cities' Institute for Elected Municipal Officials (IEMO) III "The Leadership Challenge" educational program in March and was presented with certificate of completion by Mayor Gib Coerper. The program is specially designed for elected officials who completed the Advanced Institute for Elected Municipal Officials program. The primary objective of the IEMO is to provide elected municipal officials with an intensive academic program that will assist them in their elected role.

In other business, Commissioner Robert Wilford will assume the duties of Vice Mayor for the coming year. According to the Alachua City Charter, the City Commission elects a new Vice Mayor annually from its members at the first City Commission meeting after the City election. This year Wilford was selected by unanimous vote.

This meeting was the first in-person meeting held in the Alachua City Commissioner Chambers since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down public gatherings. Social isolation state rules required all government offices closed to the public and that most employees work from home. Phase 1 of reopening has allowed for more openings and expanded crowd size. But there were noticeable differences. The meeting was sparsely attended and audience members wore masks and were separated in different rows. The Commission also wore masks, occasionally taking them off when necessary to speak.

Local resident Virginia Johns has been reappointed to the Planning & Zoning Board (P&Z), which serves as the Local Planning Agency and consists of five voting members and a non-voting School Board representative. The P&Z provides recommendations to the City Commission on development issues and makes decisions on certain zoning, building and development applications.

Members of the P&Z must be a City of Alachua resident. Board member Virginia Johns served a three-year term, which expires May 22, 2020 and will now begin an additional three-year term ending May 22, 2023. Local resident Malcolm Dixon also applied for the appointment. During the Commission meeting, applicants for the appointment were invited to speak prior to the vote. Of the two candidates, only Johns was present and she was subsequently voted unanimously for reappointment.

In other news, the City of Alachua Police Department (ADP) will be receiving new computer equipment. On Feb. 24, 2020, the City Commission approved submitting a grant application to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) under the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program. The grant application for $20,157 was submitted on behalf of APD for the purchase of tablets and laptops. The department has since received notice of award from FDLE for the grant project and can now purchase the items.

The annual audit of the City's Fiscal Year 2018-2019 financial statements has been completed by Purvis, Gray and Company, the City's independent Certified Public Accountants and the City received an unmodified ("clean") opinion of its the financial statements for the 2018-2019 year. This is the highest audit opinion that can be received and is the 17th consecutive year the City has received this distinction. Once the audit report is accepted by the City Commission, the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) will be submitted to the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) of the United States and Canada for review to receive the Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting.

The City of Alachua has received notice that Pressure Technology, Inc. is considering Alachua to expand its operations. The firm focuses on hot isostatic pressing services to industries such as aerospace and medical. If the company locates in Alachua, it is anticipated to create 15 new jobs over three years, beginning in 2021 with an average annual salary of $60,000.

Pressure Technology, Inc. is making application for participation in the state’s Qualified Target Industry (QTI) Tax Refund program. The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) offers several incentives to prospective and expanding businesses, including the QTI program. A company may receive refunds on taxes it pays including corporate income tax, sales tax, ad valorem tax following job creation. Pressure Technology, Inc.’s application totals $75,000.

The QTI program requires a 20 percent local government match. The match totals $15,000, which would be divided equally between Alachua County and the City of Alachua. The Alachua County Board of County Commissioners approved its share of the QTI match at its May 12 meeting. The City of Alachua Commission subsequently approved its share of the match at the May 18 meeting.

Should Pressure Technology, Inc. expand in Alachua, it must demonstrate job creation and will only receive a refund for actual jobs created and can only receive refunds on taxes paid.

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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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ALACHUA COUNTY The Class of 2020 will have a fitting venue as they prepare to ‘cross the finish line’ and mark the end of their high school careers.

The district has arranged with the Gainesville Raceway to hold open air graduation ceremonies at the facility June 8-10 for the district’s seven high schools.

To maintain social distancing, students and their families will drive into the Raceway and up to a decorated stage. As the graduates’ names are called out over the loudspeaker, they will get out of their cars, walk across the stage to accept their diplomas and have their photos taken. They will then get back in their cars and drive down a strip that runs next to the racetrack before exiting the facility.

The Gainesville Raceway is providing their facility to the district free of charge.

“We’re happy we can help the Class of 2020 have a graduation ceremony,” said track manager Mike Yurick. “We hope it will be a memorable experience for them.”

“When COVID-19 closed schools, I made it a priority to have some sort of in-person graduation ceremony for our seniors,” said Superintendent Karen Clarke. “This ‘hybrid’ approach gives graduates the opportunity to walk across the stage in their caps and gowns while still keeping everyone as safe as possible.”

The schedule of ceremonies will be as follows:

June 8: Newberry High School, 9-11 a.m.

Hawthorne High School, 2-3:30 p.m.

PAM@Loften High School, 6-7:30 p.m.

June 9: Eastside High School, 9:30-noon

Buchholz High School, 5-7:30 p.m.

June 10: Santa Fe High School, 9:30-noon

Gainesville High School, 5-7:30 p.m.

Each high school will be sending specific instructions for the ceremonies directly to students and families.

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HIGH SPRINGS – With 36.5 million Americans suddenly unemployed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many families have seen both their income and savings disappear. It becomes a challenge to decide what bills or necessities can be done without. Mortgage or rent, utilities, food or medical all are important, but food is essential.

Many individuals and organizations have stepped in to donate or volunteer for food giveaways and deliveries. The Alachua County school system has provided over a million meals to school kids during the pandemic. Farm Share and other charity food distribution organizations travel the state bringing semi-trucks of food to communities.

Locally, many churches or community organizations have donated food or money, distributing the food to people in cars lined up in parking lots, masked and never coming in direct contact with the drivers. Most of these organizations hold these drives weekly or bi-weekly, but one small ministry in High Springs is making an effort daily to provide for those in need.

Every day, Pastor Sammy Nelson has overseen the distribution of donated food to families in need with children. He usually ran the distribution in his small downtown ministry, Witness of Christ (WOC), on Main Street in High Springs. But the Covid-19 has brought a bigger challenge. “I have seen a huge rise in families in need. People coming to the food distribution has increased 100 percent or more, but you have to meet the challenge to help them,” Nelson said.

The pastor is a big man with a powerful build but a soft, calm voice. He was born in Archer and spent 23 years in the Army as a Military Policeman. During his service he participated in Desert Storm and retired as a First Sergeant.

During his time in the Army he also had other duties as a father and a pastor. He and his wife of 35 years raised 10 children and have seven grandchildren. They share both a strong religious belief and a love for children as well. While raising 10 of their own, they also founded a ministry for children. Nelson made use of the Army's education benefits and received a degree in law enforcement and a Bachelor’s Degree in sociology. Once he retired, he became a full-time student and received a Master’s in Divinity and a Doctorate in Ministry.

Ten years ago, Nelson and his wife opened a storefront where they could offer after-school services to struggling parents. The ministry also collects food for the children and struggling families. Most of it comes from donations by individuals, farms and food stores such as Hitchcock’s and Publix. The biggest provider is Bread of the Mighty Food Bank in Gainesville. Three days a week, Nelson would go to each location, as well as some farms, to gather the food donations.

With the increasing need caused by the pandemic, Nelson searched for more sources and sponsors to meet the skyrocketing demand. He also needed a bigger place to distribute and worked with the City of High Springs to distribute from a parking lot behind Main Street with police to direct the traffic.

The ministry still does smaller distributions from the building three times a week, but the other is a bigger operation with trailers full of food pallets. On May 16 the WOC held its largest distribution with 14 pallets supplying multiple boxes of food to the long line of cars winding through the parking lot. Nelson, along with volunteers from his ministry, all wearing masks and gloves, loaded each car's trunk with boxes holding a variety of food including fresh vegetables, cheese, milk, snacks and chips. “We will be here and providing for those who go hungry as long as the need exists,” Nelson said as he loaded another box in a car.

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