Even During A Pandemic, Florida’s Spring Break Party Continues
This segment is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. This story by Caitie Switalski Muñoz and Verónica Zaragovia originally appeared on WLRN.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not over, even after a long and painful year. Spring break always attracts attention but this year, there’s another reason spring breakers are coming to Florida.
Gov. Ron DeSantis basically invited them:
“Let me just tell ya’. There’s no lockdowns in Florida, OK? It’s not gonna happen,” he told a cheering crowd earlier this month.
One South Beach visitor, Christina Thomas, summed up spring breakers’ options this way:
“California is closed.”
Even with that open-door policy, Miami Beach is more closed than it used to be, too.
There’s an 8 p.m. curfew from Thursdays through the weekend in a particular stretch of Miami Beach and also a limit on eastbound traffic on the Julia Tuttle, Venetian and MacArthur Causeways starting at 10 p.m.
City officials made that decision after days of people gathering along Ocean Drive, listening to music and dancing harmlessly ended, and tragic incidents began: A 27-year-old was shot and killed in South Beach. A woman was found dead in a hotel room, after she was allegedly drugged and raped. Last Friday night, the Miami Beach police chief said gunshots were fired and crowds ran through the streets.
Over this past weekend, the city declared a state of emergency.
By then, the bar at the Clevelander on Ocean Drive had already closed, a notable decision, because the iconic establishment is built on the party scene. Management said things just got too hectic and they were worried about their staff.
— RE: MiamiBeach (@RE_MiamiBeach) March 19, 2021
“We really should stop calling it spring break as this is not about college kids on their vacation,” Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said on Monday.
He partially blames that “open for business” message from the governor.
“Over the last weeks and longer, our city has been one of the only true destination cities open for business anywhere,” Gelber said.
About a half-hour straight up Interstate 95, Broward County had thought about a curfew for spring break but commissioners ultimately decided not to do it.
The spring breakers on Miami Beach noticed—like 21-year-old Brooklyn Pepper who came down from Ball State University in Indiana.
“I’m not gonna lie. We’re going to Fort Lauderdale tonight,” she said. “We were here last night and they started riding around on four wheelers kicking us out.”
The city of Fort Lauderdale has taken a completely different tone than Miami Beach, with the city posting this welcoming video of Mayor Dean Trantalis on Twitter:
When you @visitlauderdale, we want you to have an enjoyable, memorable and safe visit. Mayor @DeanTrantalis has a message for our visitors. #FTL #FortLauderdale #beach @ftlauderdalepd pic.twitter.com/QJkJpnnQm0
— City of Fort Lauderdale (@FTLCityNews) March 8, 2021
Broward officials are relying on people to think about “your social responsibility”—in other words they’re asking nicely—to wear masks, wash your hands a lot and stay six feet apart.
Asking nicely is just about all local governments can do.
Earlier this month, Governor DeSantis effectively got rid of an enforcement mechanism local governments were using to try to keep rule breakers in check—fines. People and businesses who’ve violated COVID-19 regulations in the last year all had their fines canceled.
Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade Counties sent out a joint statement. It said cancelling fines makes people think they don’t need to care about COVID precautions and saving lives.
Dr. Aileen Marty, an infectious diseases expert at Florida International University, said one of the problems with spring break is people let their guard down at night.
“Every single time that there’s transmission, there’s the risk of the formation of a new variant or recombination of two existing variants, which could potentially be worse,” Marty said.
Pepper, the college student from Indiana, said she already had COVID-19 around Christmastime.
“It’s like the flu on crack,” Pepper said. “It really hurts.”
It also hurts hospitals. And hospitality workers.
Florida has lots of variant cases—the most in the country. And the people who work in hotels and restaurants, ride-share and bus drivers are the ones interacting with crowds of people here for spring break. They are not eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine based on their profession. They’re only eligible if they’re old enough or have a medical condition—those ages are dropping to include all adults in Florida by April 5 but not in time for the already large influx of tourists.
And with so many people here for spring break, a lot of those workers say they’re scared.
Cindy Prins, a University of Florida epidemiologist, said it’s not that spring break is dangerous in itself—people who’ve already traveled here have safer ways they can spend their vacation.
“Enjoy going into the beach, enjoy those activities, but not doing it to the point where, you know, you’re throwing caution to the wind and partying with everyone,” Prins said.
With the rollout of vaccines still in the early stages she emphasized, “we’re definitely nowhere near community immunity at this point.”
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Verónica Zaragovia is a healthcare reporter at WLRN in Miami, Florida.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A little later, some strange stuff happening in physics. But now, it’s time to check in on the state of science.
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IRA FLATOW: Local science stories of national significance. Spring is here and maybe in your part of the world, that means flowers popping and birds migrating. Migrating people, though, can have serious consequences in this COVID world. If you’re in a beach-centered community in Florida, spring means spring break party season. And this year, even as the pandemic continues, it’s party on. Joining me now to talk about spring break in Florida and its intersection with health is Verónica Zaragovia who is the health care reporter at WLRN, based in Miami Beach. Welcome to Science Friday.
VERÓNICA ZARAGOVIA: Thank you, Ira. Thanks for having me.
IRA FLATOW: For those of us in a cave who are not familiar with this tradition, give me a spring break primer on this.
VERÓNICA ZARAGOVIA: Well, basically, starting in late February, we start receiving a lot of the college-aged students who come down, and that keeps happening until about mid-April. Peak time is mid or late March. And here in South Florida, wherever the beaches are, you’ll definitely find some degree of spring break going on.
IRA FLATOW: Is it true that this year they were basically invited down by the governor?
VERÓNICA ZARAGOVIA: That’s right. The governor Randy Santos has said multiple times in press conferences that Florida is open for business. In his words– and he said that the state will definitely not have any lockdowns– that the tourists that I’ve spoken to specifically said that they came down because of the weather, and secondly, because everything is open and they’d say California is closed or they just wanted to come to a state that didn’t have mask. Everything’s open. So that kind of rhetoric from the governor did come across as an invitation for everybody to come down.
IRA FLATOW: Are different municipalities then handling the situation in different ways?
VERÓNICA ZARAGOVIA: Yes. Basically, across Florida, most municipalities have to just depend on asking people to think of all of the measures that we’ve had throughout the pandemic to stop the spread of the coronavirus. While in Miami Beach, it’s more a reminder with the police cars and police officers everywhere, Florida is set up in such a way that we have mayors of the counties and of cities. And so the county of Miami-Dade has had a curfew throughout much of the pandemic from midnight to 6:00 AM. So now, the City of Miami Beach put a separate curfew starting at 8:00 PM through 6:00 AM from Thursday evening to Monday morning.
In a city like Fort Lauderdale, it has really just been, the mayor put out a video on Twitter welcoming everybody to the beaches of Fort Lauderdale and just kindly asking everybody to consider those measures, to stand apart, to wear their masks. Sometimes, they’re just depending on the will of people to help control the spread of this virus.
IRA FLATOW: So what’s the solution? It’s not just to say don’t come because tourism is very vital to these areas.
VERÓNICA ZARAGOVIA: Absolutely. And because of the pandemic, the hospitality and tourism industry has been hard hit. Rates of occupancy at hotels are down. And so scientists and doctors are aware that they have to give options for people to stay safe, while also recognizing that the state’s economy depends so much on tourism. Epidemiologists we’ve spoken to like Cindy Prince at the University of Florida has told us the beach is a very safe place. It’s windy and there’s usually space to spread out. But you need to be cautious.
CINDY PRINCE: Enjoy going to the beach. Enjoy those activities, but not doing it to the point where you’re throwing caution to the wind and partying with everyone. We’re definitely nowhere near community immunity at this point.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about the numbers in Florida. The vaccination rates, new infections, the rising variants. How are the numbers doing?
VERÓNICA ZARAGOVIA: Florida has 15% of its population fully vaccinated. The numbers of positive COVID-19 cases are increasing. Usually, experts say, look at the percent positivity rate rather than the daily because that shows you more of a trend. And it has been going up both in the state and in Miami-Dade county. It’s above that 5% rate that the World Health Organization had set as a good mark for businesses to open.
According to a CDC map that’s called the US COVID-19 Cases Caused by Variants, Florida has the most of all the variants, the ones that have been identified originally in the UK, in Brazil, and South Africa. And so that’s a big concern to the scientists and doctors I’ve spoken to because we have just not enough of younger people who work in the hospitality industry vaccinated.
And so when you have so many tourists coming down and just not enough people vaccinated, that’s a perfect opportunity for another variant to be created. And of course, for these variants that we have to spread, either people bring variants here or they take them with them back home.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Well, this is an interesting topic that we’ll keep watching, certainly, as the season progresses. Verónica, thank you for taking time to be with us today.
VERÓNICA ZARAGOVIA: Thank you, Ira. I appreciate it.
IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome, Verónica Zaragovia, health care reporter for WLRN. And you can read her story on our website at sciencefriday.com/springbreak.