Pandemic or not, spring break is here.
Florida’s beaches and bars are already seeing the first throngs of college students on break, crowding beaches and bars – and worrying public health experts around the country who see the weeks of partying as a potential for another spike in coronavirus cases.
The primary concern, experts say, is that partying is occurring at a crucial moment in the fight against the coronavirus: More vaccines are being administered each day, yet more cases of variants – which are highly transmissible – are being reported. Making matters worse, they say, is that students will be enjoying their break as more states relax restrictions they had in place, such as mask mandates.
“I knew the spring breakers would show up,” said Lauren Tedeschi, 53, who was visiting Fort Lauderdale with her niece. “Just look at the beach. They’re out in full force. And this is the start of spring break. It’s only going to get more crazy.”
Booked theme parks, crowded beaches and no mask mandate
Some universities across the country canceled spring break to discourage college coeds from spreading the coronavirus. One school, the University of California, Davis, is offering students $75 to be used for “staycations” to encourage them to avoid nonessential travel during spring break.
But that hasn’t stopped traveling for the popular college pastime, which typically lasts until April.
“I was here two years ago and came back to see what it’s like now with COVID,” said 21-year-old Jack Gumeinny, who flew down to Florida to enjoy the famous Fort Lauderdale strip from frigid Michigan. “Florida hasn’t skipped a beat.”
Gumeinny, a junior at Davenport University, shrugged at the lack of social distancing.
“We’re not in the at-risk group,” he said.
Some airlines have offered reduced airfare and hotels have offered deals. And already airports are seeing the payoffs.
Parker McClellan, executive director of Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP), said the facility, which is a transportation hub near the popular Panama City Beach, has more flights scheduled this month than it did in July 2019 – a month he described as being the peak of peak season.
“I think once people realized what Panama City Beach was during the pandemic last year, they realized it’s a place they want to come back to,” Mayor Mark Sheldon said. “We saw big travel last summer, even during the crazy times of the pandemic, and I think we’re going to see even bigger numbers this year as people … realize that we are a gem of the Panhandle.”
Many states and businesses count on the flood of visitors each year, especially after last year shuttered economies and many businesses across the country. Tourism is the Sunshine State’s No. 1 industry, generating more than $91 billion in 2018.
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But in Miami Beach, Mayor Dan Gelber was taking a different approach, determined to avoid a new burst of virus cases in his city. Gelber issued a stern warning for spring break revelers: “Don’t be foolish. Don’t come here if you think this is an anything-goes environment. We will arrest you and it will ruin your time here.”
And it’s not just the beaches: Disney theme parks in Orlando were booked solid this week.
For experts, the idea of college students gathering in bars and drinking, especially in a place like Florida – which never adopted a mask mandate – is a nightmare scenario.
“Bars are particularly dangerous,” said Catherine Troisi, PhD, an infectious disease epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston. “Because not only do they tend to be crowded, but you know, a lot of times, they’re loud, and so you have to shout and that increases the spread of the virus. You’re spewing out the virus.”
Those in other states, including spring break hot spots in Texas and California, are closely watching the turnout in Florida.
‘It’s very frustrating’
Michael Daignault, an emergency physician in Los Angeles, now dreads those times of year known for gathering with friends or family. The happiness that usually surrounds Christmas or Thanksgiving was instead replaced with a fear of a spike in patients – and more deaths and hospitalizations.
“Last year was so traumatic,” he said, noting that out of the potential waves caused by holidays, spring break is the event “that probably gives me the most fear just because I mean I’m already seeing the pictures that are coming out of Florida. I mean, there’s not a mask to be seen.”
Daignault, who also works as the chief medical adviser for Reliant Health Services, said he felt frustrated as he and other health care workers have barely had a moment to breathe or “celebrate the small successes” the country has seen with cases dropping and vaccinations increasing.
“I just can’t believe that less than a month after the winter surge finally subsided, that we’re potentially dealing with another one,” he said. “I don’t know what it’s going to take for people to learn their lesson. It’s very frustrating.”
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Daignault, like other health care workers, is watching the flood of travelers and hoping another spike doesn’t happen – something that likely won’t be clear until weeks after the break, when students travel back home and potentially spread the virus to relatives and others.
Last year, spring break came toward the beginning of the pandemic before some states, including Florida, had ordered people to stay home to contain the virus. After alarming images spread on social media of college students in Florida drinking, dancing and getting up close without masks, spring break became one of the first big casualties of the pandemic as the U.S. began strict lockdowns.
While young people are less apt to experience the worst of the disease, they can get infected and spread COVID-19 to others. Some partygoers last year mocked transmission of the virus, depicting themselves as invincible to the disease when they flocked to Florida for their spring break retreat.
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“If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying,” Brady Sluder said in a TV interview in Miami that gained widespread notoriety. “We’re just out here having a good time. Whatever happens, happens.” He later apologized.
Things have changed this year.
More than 135 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and 105.7 million have been administered, according to the CDC. At this point last year, a vaccine had not even been created.
The numbers of infections have continued to slow, something experts say could be because of a combination of successful mitigation strategies, less testing and more vaccinations. At this point last year, the full extent of the virus wasn’t clear and cases were beginning to grow significantly. The U.S. now has more than 29.4 million confirmed coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic and more than 534,000 people have died, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
But slowing cases and a rise in vaccines is also mixed with new worries: New variants have spread across the U.S., mutated versions of the virus that are more transmissible. The vaccines could be less effective against the variants.
Pockets of the beach were crowded in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on Thursday, March 4, 2021 as Spring Break is starting to ramp up on Fort Lauderdale beach and nearby bars.
“That’s why it’s a race between vaccinating peoples and the variants,” Troisi said. “As the number of cases start to go up, there’s just going to be more and more chance for variants to spread and new ones to arise.”
On top of that, some states across the country, many of which have seen cases drop, have announced relaxing prevention efforts aiming to reopen their economies. For some states, including Texas, that has included rolling back mask mandates put in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The mix comes at a crucial moment in the country’s fight against COVID-19.
“We just have to be on guard for a few more months,” said David Lake, vice chancellor for health affairs and chief medical officer at the University of Texas System. “I think things are going to wind down hopefully, relatively soon. And as we start next year, it will be much more like what 2019 look like versus 2020.”
Contributing: Susannah Bryan, South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS; Nathan Cobb, The News Herald; John Bacon, USA TODAY; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Spring break and COVID-19: Experts worry about crowded beaches