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Restaurants and bars across downtown St. Petersburg had prepared for what was meant to be a banner week.
The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg draws thousands of people to downtown every year, easily filling up restaurants and bars. For many, this weekend was the kickoff of spring break and an excuse to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day a few days early. But then the coronavirus came, canceling everything.
As the coronavirus, known technically as COVID-19, continues to spread, health experts have recommended “social distancing” to slow the virus. The U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention defines it as not going to mass gatherings and keeping a 6-foot distance from other people when possible. On Sunday evening, the agency went further, recommending halting gatherings of more than 50 people across the United States for the next eight weeks.
But people couldn’t resist being outside in St. Petersburg on Sunday. Some went for brunch on Beach Drive. Others enjoyed the sunny, warm weather at a local brewery.
Valet drivers elbow-bumped instead of giving high-fives. A bartender joked about how the virus “wasn’t a big deal” with two customers as he leaned next to a half-full jug of hand sanitizer. A mother at Green Bench Brewing Company said she would head home only when and if the brewery got “too busy.”
Ferg’s Sports Bar and Grill played women’s Ultimate Fighting Championship mixed martial arts reruns to a disinterested lunchtime crowd of about 15 people.
Lisa Welch sat at the bartop at Ferg’s next to her husband and friends. She said she felt like social isolation was a good step and seemed to be working well for Italy.
“I think that we’re working toward it here,” Welch, 28, said. “I feel like the cases aren’t as bad.”
In a documented coronavirus case in South Korea, one patient could be tied to 80 percent of the later cases in the country, according to Reuters. Other countries, and now some American cities, have set curfews and shuttered non-essential businesses like bars and restaurants. All these measures are attempts to stop people who may not even realize they’re sick from spreading the virus further.
So far in the United States, the growth of coronavirus has been exponential, according to the Washington Post. Health experts recommend preventative measures, like social distancing and isolating at home, to slow the spread.
At 3 Daughters Brewing, three friends and a 3-month-old puppy sat outside at a bench. They were initially the only people out on the patio.
Kevin Anderson, 32, said they all work in the service industry and have been hit by the event cancellations. Unlike other jobs, they can’t work from home. And if people don’t show up to tip, they don’t make as much.
“You really can’t change people’s minds on this kind of stuff,” Anderson said, no matter how often they clean and disinfect the restaurant.
Linda Golden, 72, and Betsy Ross, 73, were visiting from Michigan. The two enjoyed mimosas and brunch at Parkshore Grill, surrounded by other tables, but said they were being careful.
“I can’t imagine either of us staying in the house until, what, August?” Ross said.
Even though they knew the virus could be more dangerous for seniors, Ross said she and Golden don’t feel nervous because they’re taking precautions. Plus, she said, they “don’t feel that old.”
At Red Star Rock Bar in Tampa, Dylan Garcia tried to enjoy what he said was likely to be his last outing.
“We figure this is the last good weekend Tampa Bay is going to see for the near future, so we just got out just to enjoy it," Garcia said. "There’s no telling what’s coming.”
The same went for Steven Muncie, 27, at Green Bench in St. Pete. He said his afternoon beer with his friends was a final celebration before a week or two stuck inside. Muncie said the marketing company he works for in Sarasota is having employees work from home starting Monday.
“I don’t think people will take it seriously until they’re forced to,” he said about social distancing. Since bars and restaurants are still open, there is still an allure to go out.
His friend, Nikhail Gogia, sipped beer in the shade and said he’d be fine going out on the weekends because he wouldn’t be “rubbing my hands on stuff.”
“I feel like limited exposure is fine,” he said.
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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus guide
EVENT CANCELLATIONS: Get the latest updates on events planned in the Tampa Bay area in the coming weeks.
STOCK UP YOUR PANTRY: Foods that should always be in your kitchen, for emergencies and everyday life.
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