TARPON SPRINGS — Mary Johnson spent 20 minutes or so browsing the aisles of the Spongeorama Sponge Factory on Tuesday afternoon. She paused and felt the wool sponges and dallied over the Christmas ornament display, eventually deciding on a shell-covered hurricane vase and a sign telling the “Legend of the sand dollar.”
For a moment, it looked like a typical February day spent sightseeing in a local tourism hotspot. But seen through a wider lens, the coronavirus pandemic was still present as mask-clad tourists roamed the sponge docks.
The pandemic has put the 73-year-old Johnson’s life on pause in many ways. Travel restrictions kept her from her brother’s funeral in Maine. She spends most of her time with the same group of residents of Camp Inn, the manufactured-home community where she lives in Frostproof.
Now that she’s vaccinated, things are changing a bit. She’s looking forward to traveling to New Hampshire to visit her kids and not having to wear a mask.
“We’re getting back to normal a little bit, but not normal, normal,” Johnson said. “We’re still very cautious.”
The vaccine’s arrival doesn’t mean a complete return to old routines for Florida’s seniors. But it’s a significant step in a slow trudge toward something resembling life pre-coronavirus.
Johnson and other vaccinated seniors are going on bus trips across the state again. Some are attending church and volunteering. Others are still mainly staying at home.
As of Thursday, 1,921,029 Florida residents 65 and older had received shots, according to the Florida Department of Health. But experts still recommend that vaccinated people limit their exposure to crowds and double mask to protect themselves from new virus variants.
Small World Tours and Cruises in Haines City hosted Johnson’s tour and has added air purifiers to all of its buses to keep travelers safe, said Holly Carter, sales and marketing manager for the company.
Patrons must wear masks on the buses, and tours are capped at 42 people instead of 56 to allow for extra spacing, Carter said. Seniors have said they appreciate the efforts and more are booking tours for the rest of the year.
Small World hosts about 25 bus day-trips for seniors in a normal February, Carter said. This February, it has six.
The tour business dried up when the coronavirus hit the United States last March, she said. But, as soon as Florida’s seniors began to get vaccinated, “my phone started ringing off the hook with senior citizens who now feel confident to travel,” she said.
“They’re just excited to get out of the house and go with their friends somewhere and spend the day outside,” Carter said. “They feel safer now that they’ve got their shot.”
Tampa Bay seniors also are returning to their faith services and their fellow parishioners. On Ash Wednesday morning, Janet and Michael Griffin attended their first mass in months at St. John Vianney Catholic Church in St. Pete Beach.
Janet Griffin, 84, has been watching Mass online every week. The couple’s niece brought them communion at home twice a week for much of the pandemic, she said.
The pair was vaccinated at a hospital in Michigan before coming to Florida for the spring, she said, adding, “We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t.”
“I feel guilty,” Griffin said, of returning to their routine. “I know our kids are worried about us, and I guess you’re really not supposed to travel.”
The vaccine’s efficacy rate also allows working seniors to feel a bit safer. Norman Bonar, a South Tampa resident whose job is to find water leaks in homes and other structures along Florida’s Gulf coast, was avoiding jobs at nursing homes for most of the pandemic to keep his exposure down.
Instead, he mostly took jobs at businesses and homes. After he got his first shot a week or so ago, Bonar took a job at a Pinellas County nursing home.
“I think that’s the one thing that’s changed since getting the vaccine,” he said. “I thought I’ll take this and see how it goes.”
The staff took his temperature at the door, he said, and he felt comfortable. Even so, Bonar will keep most of his routine intact to stay safe — not eating at restaurants as much, packing his own snacks, and wiping down his hands and belongings frequently.
But not all area seniors are ready to fully resume their lives.
“We will be relieved to know we are protected against becoming seriously ill,” said Lynn Terhar of Largo. But she and her husband don’t plan to alter their routines much after receiving their second shots on Feb. 15.
Terhar, 69, wants to continue visiting her 92-year-old father in Naples and needs to limit her exposure to others for his safety.
The Largo-based couple will still wear masks and avoid crowds. They won’t dine indoors and will order most of their groceries online.
“The one change is that, in two weeks, when experts say the vaccine will be 95 percent effective, I will get my first haircut since last March,” Terhar said. Her husband has been cutting it in the meantime.
“And it shows,” she said.