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Joy and fear as Tampa Bay begins lifting coronavirus restrictions

Stay-at-home orders in late March united people in many ways. Now, divisions are arising as people head back outside.

When Joey Catalano dipped his toes in the sand outside the Post Card Inn, he said, it was like Charlie Bucket seeing Willy Wonka’s Factory for the first time — pure joy and excitement.

“We planned this the moment we heard we could get back out."

Catalano, 28, of St. Petersburg, joined people across the Tampa Bay area in seeking relief from the coronavirus restrictions at the beaches, stores and restaurants that reopened Monday.

Catalano longed for St. Pete Beach, questioning why it closed in the first place. He met a group of four friends, found parking easily, and said hi to a few sheriff’s deputies as he laid down a blanket.

No sense of apprehension over coronavirus here, just sun on his skin and clear views of the Gulf.

Brian Wilson, on the other hand, gets frustrated when he sees photos on Twitter of people clumped together along Pinellas beaches, as if COVID-19 is nothing to worry about.

“I see that many people are still hanging out with friends and family members like it’s a regular time,” said Wilson, 24, who lives in Tampa Heights. “That scares me because more people are going to get hurt, and we’re prolonging an already bad situation.”

Related: The Tampa Bay area is slowly reopening business. Here are highlights.

The stay-at-home orders issued in late March to quell the spread of the novel coronavirus united Tampa Bay in many ways these past six weeks.

People developed a shared language — “social distancing,” “flattening the curve," “in this together." Neighbors, unified in the search for elusive toilet paper and sanitizing wipes, posted on NextDoor when a nearby store restocked.

Cabin fever settled in, with few reprieves — no Tampa Bay Lightning playoff games, no date nights at the movies, no long afternoons basking at the beach.

Still, the decision by Gov. Ron DeSantis to allow people to return to restaurants, stores and parks on Monday sent fissures through the sense of community. People tried to decide for themselves what felt safe and what seemed foolish.

What seemed like a deep release for some triggered anxiety for others.

“You can go stir crazy if you just stay inside,” said Andy Vernatte, 74, who went fishing at the Upper Tampa Bay Trail on Monday morning.

At his age, he said, he’s seen a lot of change. He hopes the governor opens everything up by June. Meantime, he hopes people enjoy nature. He spotted two manatees swimming Monday morning, but few others were there to share the experience.

“I don’t think it’ll be like this for too much longer. I hope not.”

Marcella Gridley, 59, misses going to restaurants and visiting with friends, but she’s in no hurry to return to pre-pandemic times. She feels less safe today than she did a month ago.

“I believe that if I catch the virus, it would kill me,” said Gridley, who has asthma and worries about her parents, each of whom suffer from lung problems.

Some relatives resented it when she told them she might skip a family cruise in early March. Now, they understand better. And her 19-year-old daughter thought Gridley was trying to ruin her life with all her coronavirus caution, only realizing the real danger when a friend from Italy couldn’t go home for spring break.

Sonia Hass, 60, continued stepping out in April, skeptical of the numbers and the advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. The Safety Harbor woman went to work, ordered takeout and visited John’s Pass Village.

She was relieved Monday when her time outside felt normal again.

“I understand officials are trying to keep community safe, but some officials went too far,” Hass said. “I don’t like my freedom restricted.”

She was particularly angry when the pool in her 55 and older community was shut down.

“We are not children and know how to take safety precautions."

Related: Restaurants around Tampa Bay reopened Monday. Here's what it looked like.

Friends Andrea Nommik and Nicki Marsden said they felt safe shopping at Tyrone Square Mall as reopened Monday with precautions in place. At Skechers, where Nommik bought a couple of pairs of sandals, customers were required to wear masks before entering.

Along with the sandals, Nommik left the mall with a bit of optimism about the pandemic.

“It feels like there’s light at the end of the tunnel," she said.

Rick Crosby, who owns Riverview Florist off U.S. 301 in Riverview, welcomed the chance to reopen.

“We all needed it because many people have no other income than their businesses," said Crosby, 62. “This is what my wife and I live on, and my daughter Kayla who has an eight-month-old baby.”

Mother’s Day, typically one of the busiest days of the year for florists, is quickly approaching. Crosby and his family were energized when they received more than 25 orders in the first four hours of the day.

“It is a good sign for all of us,” Crosby said.

Tee Rodriguez of St Pete Beach understands why many welcomed reopening day. But until she sees case counts decline for two weeks straight, she said, she’s terrified of what could happen if the virus continues to spread.

“I’m anxious," said Rodriguez, 57. "The sheer number of deaths that are happening every day — and all we do is count them as numbers and not human life. It’s heartbreaking.”

Times staff writers Divya Kumar, Tony Marrero and Juan Carlos Chavez contributed to this report.

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