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The long, lonely days of summer

Living this way is exhausting — each of us constantly weighing safety versus freedom.
Visitors walk through and shop at the new Marketplace area of the St. Petersburg Pier District. The new Pier opened even as coronavirus cases were rising.
Visitors walk through and shop at the new Marketplace area of the St. Petersburg Pier District. The new Pier opened even as coronavirus cases were rising. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Jul. 15, 2020
Updated Jul. 15, 2020

Early on, like it or not, we stopped moving. Signs went up in people’s yards about how we’re all in it together, and how this, too, shall pass. Despite the platitudes, the coronavirus has not been an equal-opportunity killer — but there was a sense that we’d endure together, apart. The curve could be flattened.

In a very American fashion, victory laps came early. Memorial Day beers were cracked. And now, everyday life in Florida looks like a fuzzy rerun of “life before,” with a dash of creeping dystopia.

Businessmen take lunch breaks in pale blue masks, their ties floating in the breeze. A busker with a righteous white beard croons Brown Eyed Girl while families with face coverings duck by, heading toward the gleaming new St. Pete Pier. Reservations are required; masks suggested. Nearby, at the Yacht Club, behind the barricades with the laminated Welcome Back sign, sits the bust of a woman — like a ship’s figurehead — on which someone has fitted a mask.

The Sunshine City has become the City of Signs. Paperwork has been taped to windows, tacked next to menus, written on sandwich boards. OPEN FOR LUNCH. SUPPORT LOCAL. No shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service. SANITIZED FOR YOUR PROTECTION. Some list the symptoms: Cough. Fever. Loss of taste or smell. “We wear masks for our safety and would appreciate you wearing one for ours as well,” a door sign at Pacific Counter says. At Central Cigars, where two lanky men lean on a high-top table and puff, the marquee reads: WE ARE STILL SMOKIN.

Elsewhere, signs of the times are spelled out in stacked red patio chairs (Cider Press Cafe) and butcher paper darkening the windows (Iberian Rooster). At the Garage on Central Avenue, rainbow-painted steps are knotted off with strips of caution tape.

While some in Florida revel at open-air restaurants, many still live in a halfway hibernation. Some businesses have closed by choice, risking shutdown to spare their employees, who then must contend with the state’s broken unemployment system.

“I opened a restaurant because I wanted to feed people, not because I wanted to figure out whether they live or die,” Iberian Rooster owner Russell Andrade told the Times last week.

Every day, we’re left to make our own choices. Every day, we judge those around us making different calculations.

In most of our counties, leaders have decided we’re supposed to wear masks inside shops and restaurants. But we won’t be penalized, maybe just kicked out. Or maybe we’ll be fined, or cited, or stopped at the door. Or maybe criminally charged — wait, Hillsborough County backtracked on that one. But that’s only if the business is enforcing the rule. And that’s only if someone is making sure the business enforces the rule. And many places have lists of exemptions, some for teenagers, some for toddlers, some for people exercising and worshippers who want to sing.

The numbers scroll by: More than 15,000 new cases on Sunday in Florida. Hospital beds dwindling, deaths rising, people angry about this failure or that. Openings, closings, warnings, contradictions.

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“Nothing done in public health can be done without full cooperation of the public,” says University of South Florida expert Dr. Marissa Levine.

The president, pushing for schools to reopen, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s safety plans are impractical and extreme.

“I think we’ve stabilized where we’re at,” the governor said recently, as hospitalizations and deaths mounted.

Tests are coming back slower as labs feel the strain again, and nearly 20 percent are coming back positive — far above the World Health Organization’s 5 percent guideline for reopening communities.

Whatever we call this phase of the pandemic, it feels markedly lonelier.

Some trade stir-craziness for the good of the collective. They keep the lights low, so as not to run up the electric bill now that nearly every hour is spent at home. From couches, on another night spent scrolling, they look at photos of the swarmed Pier on opening day and wonder, “But why right now?”

The days slip by as they did in March, April, May and June. On walks, people steer clear of the stray neighbor. At the grocery store, many keep to themselves, knowing every gallon of milk could be a tradeoff. They read the obituaries.

Living this way is exhausting — each of us constantly tabulating safety versus freedom. Exhausting to spend summer Saturdays in stuffy apartments. Exhausting to weigh the lure of a dine-in meal versus another night of leftovers and dirty dishes — so many dishes.

We all want to move on. We miss friends. We miss how it felt to inhabit a life outside four walls.

More exhausting, though, is the prospect of this mess of confusion and fear stretching out any longer than it must.