“I hope you never have to lose a spouse and be unable to touch them, be in their room, or say goodbye to them,” she wrote, a short time after changing her Facebook cover photo to a picture of her stepfather kissing her on her wedding day. “I hope you never have to lose your father and be unable to hug your mom and be consoled because you have to stay 6 feet away.”
Before New York hospitals were flooded with coronavirus cases and Florida topped 3,000 cases, this tourist haven near the Gulf of Mexico was the first city on the Eastern Seaboard to report a death from the virus, a woman who had traveled overseas and died on March 5. Hannaford’s stepfather, John Gness, was the virus’s second victim here, succumbing to a fatal combination of covid-19 and the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease he had battled for the final years of his life.
The pandemic-related deaths jolted a region that boasts low crime, paradise-like weather and 50 miles of white-sand beaches — a year-round vacation destination that city leaders admit can feel immune to the problems that plague other places.
Now, weeks into the crisis, Fort Myers sits at the emotional nexus of a growing — and increasingly politicized — national debate over what to do next.
Many in this conservative community want to agree with Trump’s view that portions of the country should reopen soon to help revive the economy — a stance the president modified Sunday when he announced federal social distancing guidelines would remain in effect until the end of April. After all, most local leaders here are Republicans and civic life revolves largely around the business community. Gov. Ron DeSantis has said counties that haven’t been hard hit by the coronavirus shouldn’t be forced to take emergency measures.
Yet, local leaders here, among the first in the country to directly experience the impact of the virus, have been inching toward the opposite approach — shutting the beaches, encouraging locals to remain at home, and, now, considering more stringent lockdown orders. Today, there are dozens of people infected in a county where nearly 30 percent of residents are part of the over-65 population vulnerable to the worst effects of the coronavirus.
“If I’m a doctor in the hospital, I have one priority, the health of my patients — and of the doctors and staff members,” said Roger Desjarlais, the Lee county manager who has been given emergency powers during the outbreak. “If you’re a community leader, it’s pretty complex. Even though no one in this community is making a very loud argument about economic recovery, when this is over, they are absolutely going to. And whatever decision we make today we will have to deal with in the next six months.”
It has not been a confrontation-free balancing act. Early on, spring breakers ignored coronavirus warnings and packed the area’s beaches — until the county closed them and blocked parking lot entrances with metal barricades. A casino where Gness gambled before he died fought to stay open, despite worries about the public health threat there. Even proponents of stiffer policies to protect public health realize the damage it will do to the area’s lifeblood.
“I’m sensitive that people are really struggling,” said state Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, a Republican who represents the area that includes Fort Myers and who lobbied for the casino to be closed. “There’s still a strong contingent on both sides. There’s a very strong group advocating for more of a shelter-in-place policy. And there are groups like the Chamber in Florida that are advocating to keep businesses open. All these people get dug in their positions.”
'A survival business model'
The casino arguments started shortly after Gness’s death. Authorities who retraced his steps learned he had gambled at the Seminole Casino in nearby Immokalee. Outraged residents demanded the casino close its doors, worried that gamblers pulling on slot machines and swapping dice could unwittingly spread the coronavirus.
For a while, the casino made arguments against closing, saying none of the employees who interacted with Gness had fallen ill — and that they were regularly disinfecting equipment.
The casino has since closed, but the debate over business vitality vs. public health has continued to rage, particularly in Fort Myers, where the visitors bureau estimates the tourism industry employs 1 in 5 workers and contributes $3 billion to the local economy.
A large chunk of that comes in March, when young spring breakers, older snowbirds from the north and families with children in tow converge on the area — giving bars, restaurants and other businesses that cater to vacationers a Black Friday-like boost.
Jay Johnson’s restaurant, Bubba’s Roadhouse and Saloon in Cape Coral, is usually packed at this time of year. On a recent Thursday, there were four cars in his parking lot; all belonged to employees. In the week since the county mandated Bubba’s and every other eating establishment switch to takeout and delivery only, sales were down 80 percent. Johnson can’t bear to look at his accounting spreadsheet for long. He understands that social isolation can curtail the spread of the coronavirus, but wonders how much more his business can take.
“We’ve survived hurricanes, we plowed through them. We had the BP oil spill, and we plowed through it. But this is a tougher issue because there’s no end date,” he said. “I don’t know if this is a sustainable business model. This is a survival business model.”
'What's a human life worth?'
In one sense, decisions about movement restriction come down to simple, brutal math. Lee Health, the hospital system that serves most of the county and has been modeling the crisis for policymakers, estimates that 35 to 40 percent of the community was isolated last week. To avoid overwhelming hospitals, according to Therese Everly, the vice chair of Lee Health’s board, the city needs to be 60 percent isolated. To bridge the gap will probably take a drastic step Fort Myers area leaders have been steadily moving toward: government-enforced social isolation.
Although city and county leaders insisted that they were not trying to inject partisan politics into a crisis of this magnitude, the same fissures that inhabit everyday life nibbled around the edges of the community’s arguments: personal responsibility to stay home versus a government mandate, and arguments about how much the strong should sacrifice to safeguard the most vulnerable.
In Lee County, 42 percent of registered voters are Republican. The mayor is Republican, and running for a congressional seat. The Florida House majority leader, who is a Republican from Fort Myers, is also seeking a congressional seat. In interviews, many political and civic leaders stressed that everyone was working hard to keep partisanship out of the debate — but also peppered in praise for the Republican president and Florida’s Republican governor.
“I think President Trump had a great point when he said we don’t want the cure to be worse than the virus,” said Bryan Blackwell, the chair of the greater Fort Myers chamber of commerce, who is also a Republican seeking a seat in the Florida House. “I think it’s important that we take measured steps to make sure that we’re not overreacting and that we’re not hurting people more than we absolutely have to.”
Desjarlais, the county manager, said despite their efforts, it’s impossible to have a totally apolitical process when decision-makers are influenced by the people who elected them.
“On one side, the voices are saying what’s wrong with you guys are you not paying attention. What’s a human life worth? Saving life is more important than saving a business. You must be corrupt,” he said. “There are other people that argue . . . they have all these employees and have to make payrolls.”
Encouraged to stay home
The compromise area leaders settled on has been to strongly encourage people to stay home — but not to mandate it with the threat of fines and the force of law.
Opponents of a stay-at-home order point to signs that people are taking personal responsibility: Traffic counts are down 80 percent, public transit ridership has dropped 45 percent, people are, for the most part, obeying the glowing orange signs that say the beaches are closed.
“I’m not so sure that issuing an order to the public that essentially becomes law is either fair or necessary at this point,” Desjarlais said.
Opponents of a mandatory order point to business owners like Ruth Ann Yeoman, who has owned Blake’s Barber Styling on the city’s main drag for the last 40 years. Her business is hurting just like all the others, but she said she feels an obligation to safeguard the public, even if there’s no mandatory order.
A sign on the door tells clients to call their barber, and a conversation ensues about how the customer has been feeling. If they’re symptom-free, the barbers ask if they’re willing to wear a mask.
“We’re certainly not being careless, and we’re not totally shut down. So we are able to serve and provide a little bit of funding for ourselves. It’s not a lot, maybe just enough to pay for the gas there and back, but it’s something.”
Still with every expense, she and her husband reach deeper into their retirement nest egg, which is already invested in a stock market that has been buffeted by the coronavirus crisis. The compromise, she says, is keeping them safe and their business afloat.
“We’re being a little picky,” she said. “I don’t want to either give it to one of my clients, nor receive it from one of my clients.”
But outside the doors of her shop, everyone wasn’t heeding the soft admonition to simply stay home. A group of skateboarders rolled up the nearly empty street, passed by a couple out for a jog and a group of motorcyclists pulling up to a restaurant. A few blocks away, a group of young adults played a night game of volleyball in a well-lit park.
Area leaders continue to nudge them to go home. On Friday, Lee County pinged area cellphones with a public alert, encouraging — but not mandating — that people spend the weekend at home. A day later, a similar alert went out, noting that the Florida surgeon general recommended people over 65 stay inside and isolated.
They hoped that a council meeting, aimed for early this week, would bring more clarity or consensus, even as the number of infections increases.
“That number is rising,” Mayor Randall Henderson told The Washington Post on Thursday, when there were 52 coronavirus cases.
“Hopefully as the days go on, we’re going to see that number stabilize. If we get out of this with no more deaths, I think we’ll count our lucky stars.”
But that luck would not last even the rest of the day.
That night, the health department announced that another person in the county had died of covid-19.