This is what the novel coronavirus has wrought in Party Central, USA: Operation Cancel Spring Break.
“Last weekend, I walked down Ocean Drive, shocked at the amount of young people that could care less that this thing was going on,” said Dan Gelber, mayor of Miami Beach. “They think the coronavirus is some kind of singing band. I came back to city hall and said, ‘We’re shutting down the beaches. It’s got to stop.’ ”
And yet, what worries Gelber and millions of Floridians — particularly an elderly population more susceptible to the coronavirus — is that across the Sunshine State a whole mess of body-contact-loving spring breakers haven’t got the memo.
In a state plagued by killer storms, dog-eating pythons and the clickbait tales of “Florida man,” the coronavirus has put the fate of Floridians at least partly in the hands of responsibility-challenged teenagers and 20-somethings. Authorities are telling the tens of thousands of young revelers who regularly descend here this time of year to do the right thing: Follow national guidelines and emergency laws to limit gatherings and social contact, and to Wash. Those. Hands.
A statewide edict has forced bars and nightclubs to shutter. Miami-Dade County on Thursday ordered the closure of all beaches and county parks. Mayors have told the raucous visitors in no uncertain terms: Go home.
The throngs of scantily clad students have unquestionably thinned during the past 24 hours, officials say.
But gone, they most definitely are not.
In Panama City Beach, on the Panhandle, it’s still fun in the time of coronavirus at Hammerhead Fred’s.
By 10 p.m. Wednesday the sports bar, located a stone’s toss from the Gulf of Mexico, was brimming with hundreds of rowdy spring breakers. They tossed back shots and huddled together in the open courtyard, playing drinking games and vaping.
The prior night, local authorities ordered bars and nightclubs on the beach to close. Only restaurants were allowed to remain open, and even then just at half-capacity.
DJ Pauly D, of “Jersey Shore” fame, canceled his set because of the coronavirus. But oblivious youths certain the virus would affect them less than older Americans partied on in one of the few places they could — a restaurant that avoided closure because it serves food.
For some, the limited options smarted, despite the fact that younger adults in the United States appear to be a large percentage of patients hospitalized with the virus.
“They’re not letting us party,” said an irate Allie Shoman, 21, a junior at the University of Wisconsin. Her friend, McKenzie Feyen, chimed in, saying the virus doesn’t scare her at all: “There’s more cases where we go to school than here. We might as well stay and get hammered.”
“We’re having a great time,” Shoman said. “But it would've been more fun if they hadn’t shut down the bars.”
Asked if she worried about her own safety, Shoman said she wasn’t concerned.
“If we get sick, we get sick,” she said. “We’re not going to die.”
True or not, some people will die as a result of the coronavirus. As of Thursday, that number was more than 170 across the United States and nearly 9,800 across the globe, many of them elderly or suffering from chronic illnesses.
Forty miles northwest of Miami Beach in the Broward County suburb of Weston, Sue Graubert, 79, watched images of spring breakers on the morning news, aghast.
“It’s all over the TV,” she said. “I wanted to kill those kids. They have no conception! They need to get them off the beach and send them home. The bars and restaurants are closed. But you see these pictures of the spring breakers going crazy out there. It’s terrible!”
But she has bigger problems to worry about, as the coronavirus particularly changes the lives of elderly Floridians — at least one of whom has been confirmed to have died of the virus in Broward County in recent days. She has self-isolated, avoiding contact with her adult children and young grandchild. “Some of them have colds, we don’t know what they’ve got,” she said.
Worse, she said, her husband, an 83-year-old doctor with dementia, is in an assisted-care facility in Boca Raton. She is no longer able to visit him because of federal guidelines. She had received notice 24 hours earlier that her husband, who is in a locked ward for dementia patients, will additionally be confined to his room for safety.
“He’s got friends there, he likes to watch movies, play bingo, now he’s alone,” Graubert said, distraught. “We haven’t been separated like this since Alan was in the war in Vietnam. This is terrible. Terrible.”
As the sun bathed light on the confectionary-colored hotels of South Beach, the temperature climbed toward the high 70s. Just a few days ago the area was jam-packed with spring breakers; now just a few groups of young people circulated there.
The most iconic part of the sands of South Beach — from Fifth to 15th street near Ocean Drive, where revelers typically form a drama-inducing parade of humanity — is shut down. Nightclubs and bars are closed. Restaurants can serve only takeout. The police are stopping anyone who violates the midnight-to-5 a.m. curfew.
Four college students from Albany, N.Y., waited for takeout Cuban food wearing tight leggings and bikini tops.
“We’re still partying,” they said, almost in unison.
“So we are just hanging out with our friends,” said one of them, a 19-year-old biology student. As she spoke, a white car zoomed by with its windows down, and inside, a couple was having sex.
“Oh my God!” one of the women said, the friends giggling and blushing. “Miami gets crazy!”
South Florida is a not a place built for social distancing. The Latin-infused culture tends toward kisses, not handshakes. Simple greetings among male friends can be a contact sport of elaborate handshakes. Heavily reliant on the Speedo- and bikini-wearing set who drop billions a year on mojitos and madness, the Miami tourism sector is already bemoaning incalculable losses.
“It’s going to be a bloodbath,” said Alan Roth, 45, a longtime Miami Beach nightclub promoter forced to shut down his latest hot spot — the Nest, a South Beach rooftop bar — after just six weeks in business. “It’s like 9/11, but longer.”
For years, critics have charged Miami Beach and its police with targeting young black revelers who have made Ocean Drive a staple of the city’s spring break. Ruban Roberts, president of the Miami-Dade branch of the NAACP, cited widely circulated videos from recent days of police shouting obscenities or using excessive force against young black people. “They don’t see these youths as human,” he said.
Yet Roberts concurred with the mayor’s decision to largely shut spring break down.
“Youths appear to withstand this virus, but they have parents and grandparents to think of,” he said. “I encourage everyone to go home and be safe.”
While beaches are being closed in most of South Florida, spring break remained alive and well in other parts of Florida. Though ritzy Palm Beach and condo-coated Boca Raton have opted to shut theirs down, many others in Palm Beach County kept the spring break torch alive — with some limits.
“We’re putting up caution signs to remind people about the need to maintain social distancing,” said Lisa De La Rionda, a Palm Beach County spokeswoman. “If a crowd starts to get too big, the lifeguard will go and remind them that they may want to limit their group to 10.”
Kirk Blouin, town manager of Palm Beach — home of President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort — said he took a lot of heat for closing beaches, as much of Miami Beach and most parts in and around Fort Lauderdale have done.
But he doesn’t care.
“I wasn’t seeing any change in behavior,” Blouin said. “We were pushing out alerts, but people weren’t acting any differently. . . . The average age of our residents in Palm Beach is 68. This virus seems to have a catastrophic impact on that age group. We are taking this very seriously.”
Rozsa reported from Palm Beach County and Strickland from Panama City Beach, Fla.