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Coronavirus: The day everything in Florida changed

Grand Prix, MLB, NBA — the last 24 hours has been a whirlwind of cancellations, postponements and acceptance that the disease will change our lives.

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Routine left us suddenly.

It disappeared with a buzz in our pocket, and then another, and then another because in the 24 hours when coronavirus erased America’s plans, everything was BREAKING.

Travel from Europe went first, or at least some of it, President Donald Trump’s flat voice belying the unfolding drama from the White House. Then came the National Basketball Association season, suspended indefinitely, foretold by an empty court in Oklahoma City where the announcer was strangely subdued.

“Fans,” he said, “due to unforeseen circumstances, the game tonight has been postponed.”

Unforeseen circumstances turned out to be COVID-19, the flu-like disease at the center of a global pandemic, now spreading in the United States and forcing organizers to call off the big plans that bring people together. For the next few weeks at least, together is going to be too risky. Better to stay out of spitting distance from coughing and sneezing neighbors.

March Madness in Tampa was going to happen without fans, and now won’t at all. Multiple schools in the Tampa Bay area have closed. The National Hockey League will take a break. Spring Training was suspended, a Florida tradition packed up just as quickly as it came. Opening Day was pushed back at least two weeks. The jets will not roar at Tampa Bay AirFest, but the IndyCars will race at the Firestone Grand Prix in St. Petersburg — with no admirers to stand and holler as the rumble reaches their chests. Golfers at the Valspar Championship were going to play without onlookers, free of worry about shouting on their backswings, then the tournament was nixed altogether.

The next few weeks, in sum, are canceled. Whatever isn’t likely will go on without an audience. This is what doctors call social distancing, a cumbersome term for what is more like a ripping away of the tablecloth on which we set our lives.

“I am recommending to local municipalities and private entities to strongly consider limiting or postponing mass gatherings in the state of Florida,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a hospital in Miami.

He ran through the numbers, which change by the day. Two people have died, both in their 70s, in Santa Rosa and Lee counties. Forty five people have been infected here, most having either traveled or been in touch with someone who did. Nearly 150 tests are pending, with more cases certain to come.

DeSantis was all dark-suit-red-tie-slicked-hair calm, presenting the same staid tone he had all of the last week and a half, trying, like Trump, to reassure that the risk to the general public is low. But Thursday was clearly different.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, gestures as he speaks during a news conference alongside Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, left, Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nunez, second from right, and County Commissioner Esteban Bovo, right, at Jackson Memorial Hospital, Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Miami.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, gestures as he speaks during a news conference alongside Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, left, Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nunez, second from right, and County Commissioner Esteban Bovo, right, at Jackson Memorial Hospital, Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Miami. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]

The cascade of delays, postponements and cancellations began in earnest a day before. State universities in Florida heeded orders to move classes online, scrapping in-person lectures. Nursing homes began to block, or at least heavily restrict, visitors.

Then came Tom Hanks, announcing he was sick in Australia, and NBA announcers with no games to call.

That’s when people started paying attention. Google searches rose in Tampa Bay for basic information that had been missed, or ignored, or was unclear as collective concern spread slowly. Denial had persisted even as Italy was shut down and the global case total ticked over 100,000. With coronavirus there were — and still are — so many unknowns. How could anyone keep track?

People pressed their concern into their keyboards, querying “coronavirus testing,” “current coronavirus numbers,” “coronavirus Trump,” “coronavirus update for Florida.”

Before late Wednesday, change had come slowly. Publix was bereft of hand sanitizer, and a big music festival was called off in Miami, but tourists in Orlando kept donning mouse ears at Walt Disney World and lawmakers didn’t shy from shaking hands and patting backs in Tallahassee. People slathered on sunscreen for crowded afternoons at the ballpark, traded business cards in glassy convention centers and sweated in leather as they rolled into Daytona Bike Week.

The state stripped those events of any innocence Wednesday night, when health officials announced a visitor to an emergency medical services conference in Tampa and another man who had planned to go to the annual motorcycle festival had tested positive for coronavirus.

After that, people woke up.

Thursday on Wall Street, stocks torpedoed more than on any single day in 32 years, seeding anxiety about a new recession. The travel industry saw layoffs and everywhere workers wondered if they could manage to take sick leave, or if the economy could withstand the virus.

Disney decided to close.

Officials in St. Petersburg, Hillsborough and Pasco declared local states of emergency.

Farnell Middle School and Tampa Prep closed in Hillsborough County over concerns about coronavirus exposure, along with Bishop Larkin Catholic School in Pasco. Kenny Chesney and Cher pushed back concerts in Tampa. So did the band America, because on Thursday, of course America was postponed.

Cigar City Brewing canceled its annual Hunahpu’s Day, which celebrates the release of a rare imperial stout.

In Tampa, Mayor Jane Castor announced the Hillsborough River would not be dyed green this weekend for the St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Maybe the city will hold the festivities in June instead.

“Clearly, bringing people together is the least responsible thing we can do at this point,” she said.

Amid the frenzy to clear calendars, the state announced another case: A 68-year-old man in Seminole County had tested positive.

The Department of Health sent out an alert, another drop in a torrent of information flowing to thousands of phones and television screens across Florida — so many people, now further apart, wondering the same thing.

What’s next?

The Rays dugout at Charlotte Sports Park could remain empty until next season after Thursday's announcement that spring training had been suspended indefinitely out of concern for the coronavirus.
The Rays dugout at Charlotte Sports Park could remain empty until next season after Thursday's announcement that spring training had been suspended indefinitely out of concern for the coronavirus. [ John Romano ]

Times staff writers Josh Solomon, Matt Baker, Charlie Frago, Marc Topkin, Joey Knight, Diana C. Nearhos, Sharon Kennedy Wynne, Jay Cridlin, Marlene Sokol, Romy Ellenbogen, Megan Reeves, Claire McNeill, C.T. Bowen, Jeffrey S. Solochek, Paul Guzzo, Emily L. Mahoney, Lawrence Mower, Kavitha Surana, Douglas R. Clifford, Carolyn Fox, Jamal Thalji and Chris Tisch contributed.

• • •

Tampa Bay Times coronavirus guide

Q&A: The latest and all your questions answered.

PROTECT YOURSELF: Household cleaners can kill the virus on most surfaces, including your phone screen.

BE PREPARED: Guidelines for essentials to keep in your home should you have to stay inside.

STOCK UP YOUR PANTRY: Foods that should always be in your kitchen, for emergencies and everyday life.

FACE MASKS: They offer some protection, but studies debate their effectiveness.

WORKPLACE RISK: A list of five things employers could be doing to help curb the spread of the disease.

READER BEWARE: Look out for bad information as false claims are spreading online.

OTHER CORONAVIRUS WEBSITES:

CDC

Florida Department of Health

We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on coronavirus in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.

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