A week after she went dress shopping, 18-year-old Charlea Bing heard the news: Prom had been canceled.
She would lose more traditions, like grad bash and senior skip day, as the pandemic kept schools shuttered.
She really just wanted prom.
“It was like such a big moment for the class of 2020 that we didn’t get," Bing said.
At the beginning of May, Bing found out there might be a way to have that memory after all. She’s on a team of teen volunteers helping one woman make it happen.
Tiana Marshall, 44, is organizing a dance for up to 2,200 Hillsborough high school students. Marshall, the executive director and founder of women’s empowerment nonprofit Tiana’s Tea, is calling the event Operation: Take Back Prom 2020.
The dance is open to seniors from 32 high schools, and is scheduled for June 27 at the Hilton Tampa Downtown hotel. There will be a theme — “travel around the world” — and a live DJ, photo booths and food. In the first week since the event was announced, Marshall has already sold about 200 tickets.
“What I’m believing is by June 27, because we have flattened the curve here in Tampa, we’ll continue on that path where COVID-19 will no longer rob us or our students of anything," Marshall said.
This isn’t the first in-person event planned for Hillsborough students despite the coronavirus pandemic. Tampa’s Berkeley Prep is hosting a graduation ceremony on May 31 for its seniors. Hillsborough County Schools are hoping to have 27 graduations at the Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall between July 13 and 22.
But public health officials aren’t sold on large gatherings yet.
“This invasion is not over. We cannot be cavalier,” wrote Dr. Jay Wolfson, a public health expert at USF, in an email to the Times. “This is a DANCE — not a controlled, socially distanced arrangement. Young, excited, energetic, hormonally charged men and women will be getting together, closely together, dancing...for the first time in months.”
Hillsborough School Board member Tamara Shamburger is part of the group helping to execute Operation: Take Back Prom. Tasks include contacting Hillsborough principals, suggesting vendors and making recommendations. She said she was involved as a friend of Marshall, not on behalf of Hillsborough County Schools.
“This is not a school district event, certainly just a community event, but we definitely want to make sure that it’s fun and enjoyable for all,” said Shamburger, who is running for re-election as the District 5 representative against three other candidates.
Shamburger said she is not on the active planning committee.
"But I certainly support them in any way that I possibly can, of course, you know, without any conflict.”
Marshall said Shamburger recommended contacting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for safety guidance. A representative told Marshall he did not have projections for social distancing over month from now and advised checking the website for school recommendations.
Marshall contacted principals from 32 Hillsborough schools to request a faculty member and student government representative from each to check in students. She hopes to have a minimum of 64 volunteers — wearing masks and gloves — to help with check in, plus at least 15 student resource officers to provide security and 10 nurses to take temperatures at the door.
Other safety precautions include selling tickets online to limit contact and using hand washing stations. Finger foods like shrimp cocktail and egg rolls may be passed out on disposable plates. Students will be encouraged to wear masks.
“One of the great things about face masks is that people have made them fashionable,” Marshall said. “So you can always get one that coordinates with your dress or your tux.”
There will not be modifications to the dance floor to space out students. Marshall wants the event to look and feel like a prom not "tainted by the coronavirus.”
“I developed a plan for precaution and prevention rather than social distancing," she said. “When you’re doing a dance... it’s kind of hard to social distance.”
It’s been such a long time since Bing has seen her friends that she said she wouldn’t be able to help herself from hugging them. She told her mom she’d wear a mask when photos weren’t being taken, but she plans to get down on the dance floor.
“I’m just looking to have fun,” Bing said. “If I’m told that the event is safe and that I’m allowed to be there, I’m just gonna go all out for the night and then I’ll disinfect and pray and hope for the best.”
Dr. Marissa Levine, professor of public health and family medicine at USF, said the event might not be possible if Hillsborough County is still limiting gatherings to 10 people. But even if it is allowed, people should be cautious.
“I understand that everyone is interested in getting together after being separated for so long, but I think all that we’ve gained will be for naught if we don’t try to make a new normal,” Levine said.
Wolfson called the event a “curiously risky initiative in the midst of the COVID crisis still causing disease and death in our community.”
Between 20 and 40 percent of people with the disease are asymptomatic, yet still contagious, Wolfson said. The worst case scenario could be an infected student or worker bringing the disease and spreading it to others, who carry it back to their parents and grandparents.
“Most credible scientists and physicians agree that the end of summer/early fall will experience a second wave of this strain, a possible mutation, coupled with the onset of the flu season and possible fallout from whatever hurricane experiences we may have at the same time," he said. "This will certainly not help to reduce the risk of possible new cases.”
All students must sign a waiver assuming risk associated with the event. A parent or legal guardian must sign if the student is under 18.
Marshall is working with vendors under the assumption that coronavirus could cause the event to be cancelled. On Wednesday, Hilton Tampa Downtown director of sales and marketing Michelle Serra said the hotel was working with Marshall and holding the space for the event, though a contract had not been drawn up.
Marshall had a few weeks to sell tickets before paying a deposit for the hotel and the DJ.
“It’s a fluid situation and it would be terrific if we could pull it off for the community,” Serra said. “While she’s promoting it locally, we are of course closely monitoring the progression of a Phase 2 and Phase 3.”
The Times made multiple attempts to contact the hotel’s general manager, Raul Aguilera, to confirm the status of Marshall’s event before publishing the story Thursday. On Friday, Aguilera said the hotel ballroom wouldn’t have been able to accommodate the amount of guests planned for Marshall’s event, even before the pandemic. According to him, the hotel is strictly following all CDC guidelines and can’t draw up a contract for an event larger than 10 people at this time.
“I don’t understand how you would sell things without having a contract for the venue,” he said. “I think it was premature on her part.”
Marshall has a backup plan that could include a virtual prom. But she’s hoping that isn’t necessary.
“Especially for girls, it’s only second to your wedding," she said. “Prom is the biggest night of your life.”
Wolfson advised parents to make a responsible decision for the health of their children and others.
“COVID is armed and dangerous and is still walking the streets of our community,” he said. “We do not have a vaccine. We do not have a proven treatment. We do not have herd immunity. All we have is common sense. Exercise it.”
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