With a black mask pulled under his chin, 22-year-old Ace Beck weaved through spring breakers on busy Ocean Drive without any concern for catching COVID-19 — or unwittingly passing it on to somebody else.
The Alabama A&M junior, who spent Thursday afternoon in Miami Beach having fun and flirting with girls, said the big crowds didn’t worry him. For one, he said he believed the tropical climate in South Florida would keep the virus at bay. And he didn’t expect to run into any medically vulnerable seniors during spring break on South Beach.
“There’s no way that a girl can cough and I get it, it’s too hot,” Beck said, later adding: “Granny shouldn’t be out here anyways. It’s too many people.”
Just as public health officials and city leaders feared, South Beach has become inundated with bare-faced, care-free spring breakers over the last month. The virus is still spreading, but young party-goers from all parts of the U.S. are mingling without observing social distancing, and mostly without masks.
That threatens to prolong the pandemic at a time when daily cases are gradually decreasing statewide and bigger sections of the population are getting vaccinated, said University of Florida infectious disease professor Dr. J. Glenn Morris, Jr.
“We are getting closer to the end,” Morris told the Miami Herald. “Now is not the time to catch COVID.”
The city of Miami Beach — which one year ago used all its power to chase away spring breakers as the pandemic emerged — has tried to encourage mask wearing. A local order requires masks in public.
But officials are battling against the city’s well-earned reputation as a place for sun-soaked entertainment and, to some extent, the state’s own governor, who has repeatedly said that young people have little to worry about from the novel coronavirus. Having long ago blocked cities from fining people for not wearing masks, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order this week unilaterally forgiving unpaid fees related to local COVID-19 orders.
Hamstrung, the city has resorted to ramping up its mask-distribution efforts after seeing a “widespread amount of visitors not wearing facial coverings,” a city spokeswoman said. So far this spring break, police have distributed more than 1,700 masks to people not wearing them. Beginning this weekend, more city employees will begin handing masks out in South Beach.
In the last month, the city has also closed down two businesses — a tattoo shop and a restaurant — for flouting local rules that employees and guests wear facial coverings and socially distance.
“There is an enormous amount of people and not enough masks,” Mayor Dan Gelber said in an interview this week. “I say mask use is the exception more than the rule at this point.”
Florida’s warm weather and relatively lax COVID rules have made Miami Beach an inviting destination for young people who have felt bottled up during the year-long pandemic. With March expected to bring the largest crowds South Beach has seen in more than a year, sidewalk cafes, bars and hookah lounges now fill up on the weekends — increasing the likelihood that tourists will spread COVID-19 in Miami-Dade or catch it on vacation and carry it back home. Florida leads the nation in confirmed cases of the variant coronavirus strain B.1.1.7.
Acacia Gambone, a nursing student from Massachusetts, arrived in South Beach on Thursday for a short vacation with some friends. For Gambone, a rising junior at Mount Wachusett Community College, the trip was her first time leaving western Massachusetts since the pandemic began.
“We don’t leave the house where we live,” she said.
Despite the excitement of South Beach, Gambone was struck by the lack of masks among tourists. Back home, people will make a “fuss” if you wear your mask the wrong way, she said.
“It’s weird for us,” she said as she shared an over-sized strawberry mojito with her friend at a sidewalk cafe on Ocean Drive. “You could walk in this restaurant without a mask on and it’s OK.”
Greg Mathis, a 59-year-old Dallas, Texas, resident who was in town this week with his family, said he was concerned by the lack of masks but felt safe walking in the open air or dining at a distance from others. Still, he said, “you never know” if someone you’re walking near is sick, so he wears his mask virtually at all times.
“It’s concerning because people on average are not taking it seriously,” he said. “It’s not good.”
For hospitality workers, who might interact with dozens, if not hundreds, of customers in a shift, the recent influx of visitors comes with risks. But the crowds have also been a welcome sign that the economic downturn that the pandemic wrought is ending.
Wilson Sanchez, a manager at The Locust Bar and Restaurant on Ocean Drive, said Thursday that it was “amazing” to have crowds return to South Beach after the pandemic cut spring break short last year.
And while many visitors to the world-famous strip don’t wear facial coverings, Sanchez said his restaurant requires customers wear masks to enter. So far, he said, there have been no problems with compliance.
“I can’t control anything outside of our restaurant, but in here, yes,” he said.
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