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Dear Tampa Bay: Social distancing doesn’t mean socializing while staying 6 feet apart

Experts say people gathering together during this pandemic are “playing with fire.”
The scene at North Shore Park in St. Petersburg on Tuesday as people continued to gather, some at a distance.
The scene at North Shore Park in St. Petersburg on Tuesday as people continued to gather, some at a distance. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Mar. 25, 2020
Updated Mar. 25, 2020

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ST. PETERSBURG − In an effort to save lives across the planet, a large swath of humanity, including much of this nation, is barred from leaving home for anything but food, medicine or essential work.

Citizens of the United Kingdom get one form of exercise per day, close to home, alone or with people they live with. No outdoor exercise is allowed in Italy’s Lombardy region. People must carry permits explaining why they’re even on the street.

In France or in China a drone might spot you if you’re out past curfew for any reason. In Vancouver it could mean a $1,000 fine. Dozens in Spain have been arrested for such violations. Around much of the globe, including America’s largest cities, you can’t visit a friend or relative — even a young healthy one — without breaking the rules, or at the least, the guidelines for slowing the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Tampa Bay Monday, dozens of men gathered at St. Petersburg’s North Shore Park in St. Petersburg for an intense game of soccer, shirts versus skins. They were there again Tuesday evening. The nearby tennis courts were lively. Friends met up and sat side-by-side on blankets and benches to watch the pelicans.

There was a crowded reception at an estate home in Coffeepot Bayou Saturday night. Old Northeast resident Katharine Diehl was so shocked, she had to stop and take a photo. Not far from there, people played beach volleyball at Vinoy Park — until the nets were removed.

Gandy Beach was full. So were playgrounds in St. Pete. So were the basketball courts at Lurie Park in Pinellas Park. Restaurants were take-out only, but people ate it together at tables on the sidewalk along Central Avenue on Monday. One person in Hillsborough County called police Saturday to complain their neighbors were having a party with children and shooting off fireworks.

A few of the men who played soccer at North Shore park in St. Petersburg on Monday.
A few of the men who played soccer at North Shore park in St. Petersburg on Monday. [ CHRISTOPHER SPATA | Tampa Bay Times ]

In an online neighbors group for Tarpon Springs, a woman posted about “cocktails on the court.” In South Tampa, it was a movie on the lawn. In Maximo Moorings, 40 people showed up at a neighbor’s yard for what was advertised on Facebook as the Social Distancing Acoustic Driveway Happy Hour. In Seminole Heights, it was another front yard concert, but with an accordion, and lyric sheets passed out so everyone could sing along.

“It was families, elderly folks, people with little kids running around,” said St. Petersburg’s Darren Doughty, who played songs by Kenny Rogers, Coldplay and the Beatles. “We all kept our distance at least 6 feet away. I think music is the common language we all speak and a way to break the monotony of this negative cycle we’re all in. ”

Humans have an innate and necessary desire to connect with each other, and are finding sometimes charming ways to keep doing so in a pandemic. But public health experts, doctors and the Florida Department of Health told the Tampa Bay Times that those tactics are risky, misguided and not in line with the social distancing needed to ensure American hospitals aren’t overwhelmed with critically ill patients.

Social distancing means “no visitors and don’t visit others,” wrote Maggie Hall, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, in an email. “Don’t go out unless absolutely necessary. Necessary outings would be going out to get food or medicine, not group activities.”

Jagdish Khubchandani, professor of health science at Ball State University, said that given the studies on how long COVID-19 can stay in the air and on surfaces, visiting or meeting up with anyone you don’t live with is “playing with fire.” So are group sports like tennis, soccer and basketball.

"That is definitely not social distancing,” said Margarita Cancio, a physician specializing in infectious disease who is treating several patients with COVID-19 at Tampa General Hospital. “Think about the horrible price people who work in bars and restaurants are paying right now by being closed. We are causing so much pain on so many people because we have to stop the spread, and then you have people just ignoring everything? Can we at least be respectful of those people who lost their jobs, by doing our part?”

Children shouldn’t be mingling with kids from outside their own home, she said. Just because a person has no symptoms does not prevent them from spreading the virus to someone who could die from it, like a parent or grandparent, she said. Florida has been experiencing community spread for a week — new infections in people who don’t know where they got it.

Jay Wolfson, Senior Associate Dean for Health Policy at the University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine, said the driveway concerts may be okay if people bring wipes, wear masks, stay far away and don’t travel to get there, but he still called it “downright foolish.”

“Nobody is immune or exempt. How many people would be willing to take a six-round revolver, or a 100-round revolver, or a 1,000 round revolver with only one bullet in it and take a chance of pulling the trigger to their heads?,” he said, referring to the odds of dying from COVID-19 if the death rate is 16 percent, 1 percent or 0.1 percent. “Behaviors are going to have to change, and Americans are going to have to relearn discipline, which many have forgotten or never had.

“This is a test of character and social/personal responsibility. Are Americans up to it, or are they too lazy and selfish to really care? The numbers of infections and deaths over the next weeks will reflect our character.”

Marissa Levine, a physician and director of the Center for Leadership in Public Health Practice at Morsani College of Medicine, empathized with the need to stay connected to friends and loved ones for emotional health. That’s why she prefers the term “physical distancing” instead of “emotional distancing.”

“Ask yourself if you could you have that contact virtually somehow," she said. Apps like Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype and FaceTime have become popular ways to socialize virtually.

Because, she said, even those who gather and believe they’re being extra safe can slip up.

“It’s appropriate to be skeptical of whether people are really keeping as much distance as they intend to when they do these things," she said. "I’m a doctor, and I still find it personally hard not to touch my face. We do things without realizing it.”

As the sun went down Tuesday, a group of more than 20 men and women crowded together, laying on the grass near the sea wall on the St. Petersburg waterfront, slapping hands, tossing a football, listening to music on a portable speaker.

“Let’s get some food!,” yelled a woman. “After-party at my house! After-party at my house!,” yelled a guy.

They weren’t safe, experts said, but they weren’t breaking state, city or county rules. That changes Thursday at 11:27 a.m. when Pinellas County’s “safer at home” order begins. It’s the first such order in the Tampa Bay area.

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