LIVE OAK, Fla. — Frustrated by a seeming lack of compliance with social distancing guidelines, the Suwannee County Board of County Commissioners ordered all internet cafes in the county to close.

The board unanimously approved the order Tuesday morning in a special called meeting to renew the local state of emergency for the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Sheriff Sam St. John first addressed the issue at the meeting, which was supported by the board.

Len Stapleton, the board chairman, said he has noticed the parking lots at the establishments are packed. County Attorney Jimmy Prevatt assured the board had jurisdiction, even with the cafes located in the City of Live Oak.

“Then let’s do something about that,” Stapleton said.

The board was fully on board with that desire to get the cafes to, at least, comply with the social distancing guidelines issued by the Center for Disease Control and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, which include a distance of at least six feet between people and gatherings of no more than 10 people.

Ronnie Richardson, the District 5 commissioner, though was concerned if there would be any legal issues with addressing just the internet cafes.

Prevatt told the board he would like the board to have a finding to base the resolution on.

Stapleton and County Administrator Randy Harris said the finding is in the packed parking lots.

“The nature of their business isn’t compatible with social distancing,” Harris said.

Stapleton added that some of the cafes are so small, it may not even be possible to have 10 people inside but still have people packed in too tight.

The commissioners said there have already been some complaints received from restaurant owners in the area about them having to close their dining rooms, yet the internet cafes being allowed to stay open.

“I could make an argument that retail is an essential service with goods and supplies needed for survival,” Ricky Gamble said. “Internet gambling, I can make a case it’s not an essential service, just a gathering.

“Going to church and feeding the soul, I could argue that’s an essential service and that’s voluntarily closed.”

Stapleton also expressed concern with what would happen in the coming days if Lake City closed their internet cafe sites, saying there would be an influx of more business at the facilities that already aren’t complying.

After Clyde Fleming made the motion to close the internet cafes during the pandemic, Stapleton passed the gavel to second the motion after Don Hale asked for clarification from Prevatt on the legal standing of such an order.

“If they say they are being discriminated against for their non-compliance, good luck with that,” Prevatt said.

The board unanimously approved the order, which was set to begin immediately.

“You have your directive now Mr. Sheriff,” Stapleton said.

Board planning ahead as pandemic continues

Prevatt also urged the board to continue planning and preparing for other measures it may want to take in the coming weeks as the pandemic continues to spread throughout the state. He said those measures may continue to follow state guidance and orders or it could expand beyond that to a stay-at-home order, something Gov. Ron DeSantis has said he’s not ready to issue statewide.

“Be prepared to address those issues,” Prevatt said, adding that would include what businesses the commissioners would consider essential if such an order would come down.

Harris said he has been impressed with the willingness of most residents to do their part in stopping the spread of the virus, noting the town looks like a “ghost town” most evenings when he heads home.

However, Harris said eventually people will get tired of being at home and agreed with Prevatt that the board needs to be prepared to issue more orders if necessary.

“I always want to be proactive and not reactive,” Stapleton said.

Jamie Wachter is the editor of the Suwannee Democrat, Jasper News and Mayo Free Press.

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