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Alachua Opts Against Registration System For Gatherings

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Alachua County Commission
The Alachua County Commission met online Tuesday. UF leaders asked county officials to come up with a system for registering indoor parties.

House party hosts won’t have to register their gatherings with Alachua County — at least not yet.

University of Florida leaders concerned about further coronavirus spread among students who have returned to Gainesville had asked county officials to come up with a system for registering indoor parties. The system could have helped with contact tracing, county officials believed.

It won’t be in place until coronavirus case numbers are far worse, county commissioners decided on Tuesday, instead opting to explore the possibility of issuing civil citations to the hosts of such gatherings.

Commissioner Robert Hutchinson is the current chairman of the board and opened discussion about the proposed system by saying that after meeting with UF officials, he “could have signed this last week.”

He didn’t because he wanted to first hear from other commissioners and members of the public.

“I also wanted to make sure the county system for managing it was up and running,” he told commissioners.

Three of his colleagues had immediate objections to the system, which would have worked like this:

  • The would-be hosts of gatherings with more than 10 people would have to provide the party’s location, number of attendees and square footage of the home or facility where the party was going to happen.
  • Hosts would click through a form, acknowledging the need for mask usage and social distancing among attendees.
  • Local businesses since spring have had to post signs on their doors requiring masks and social distancing; hosts would have had to post a similar county-provided sign before the party.
  • Hosts would also have had to keep a list of party attendees for 30 days to help the Alachua County Health Department with contact tracing.
  • The county’s information technology department is building a portal for people to submit the information. The system would then generate a registration number for each host.

County Manager Michelle Lieberman, who explained the above system, clarified that the registration would not be a permit. Rather, she said, it would serve officials “simply to know the gathering is existing.”
County staff planned to have the party registration portal running by next week.

Commissioner Ken Cornell started the pushback, saying he was grateful that Hutchinson held off on unilaterally signing the system’s implementation.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to register,” he said, noting some municipality leaders outside Gainesville have already begun to complain about its enforcement, along with members of the general public.

Hutchinson said he was disappointed that commissioners would back away from the system so close to its launch because of a few emailed complaints, but Commissioner Mike Byerly said he was more concerned about privacy.

Requiring citizens to seek permission from a local government to have a gathering in the privacy of their own homes, Byerly said, “is overreach. Ken is also correct that it will be widely ignored.”

Commissioner Charles Chestnut wondered if there was an alternative solution that didn’t have unintended consequences for events like family gatherings.

“How do we help out (UF) without offending others?” he asked.

Hutchinson at that point appeared flustered.

“You tell me what Plan B is because I literally don’t have one,” Hutchinson said. “UF is trying to get ahead of this, and we’re doing nothing to help.”

Byerly said it’s unfair to say “we’ve done nothing to mitigate the COVID-19 crisis. We’ve been very aggressive … but what we’re proposing now is to dramatically lower the bar on circumstances in which the government can go into our home.”

County Attorney Sylvia Torres clarified that the registration system wouldn’t apply to churches, as they’re nonprofits and have an exemption. She then suggested removing the registration process altogether, instead ordering that there not be 10 or more unrelated people in one home and look at how they could legally issue citations to those who violate that order.

Still, enforcement would remain tricky.

Attorneys for local law enforcement departments have said there are search and seizure issues with checking on those gatherings, unless “exigent circumstances” like a report of shots fired or a heart attack exist. A neighbor calling to complain about a party is not an exigent circumstance, Torres said.

Hutchinson asked the county manager to leave the nascent technical infrastructure for registration in place in case numbers spike and county commissioners later change their minds.

Cornell successfully proposed that the county ditch the registration process for now, but instead pursue Torres’ citation solution for “unsafe inside gatherings,” defined as 10 or more people in an inside place where they don’t all live and where social distancing isn’t possible. The civil citations don’t yet have a financial penalty associated with them.

Byerly and Chestnut supported his motion, and Hutchinson and Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler objected. Wheeler was worried about Hutchinson having to tell UF officials that the registration system was a no-go for now.

“They want our help because they have no jurisdiction,” Hutchinson said.

“I get it,” Byerly said, “but this tool they can’t have.”

Name one instead, Hutchinson told him.

“I don’t know,” Byerly said. “I don’t know the answer.”