Tampa Bay life carries on amid record COVID-19 infections

More people are infected than ever, yet things look surprisingly normal.
Fans cheer at Amalie Arena on Thursday as the Tampa Bay Lightning take on the Vancouver Canucks.
Fans cheer at Amalie Arena on Thursday as the Tampa Bay Lightning take on the Vancouver Canucks. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 16, 2022|Updated Jan. 16, 2022

Aden Yacobi considered himself more cautious than most for much of the pandemic. He kept to a safe, tiny bubble of friends, did not see older family members and wore a mask even when it wasn’t required.

Then came the vaccine the Clearwater resident had been waiting for.

“As soon as I hit two weeks after my second dose,” said Yacobi, a 21-year-old student, “I basically dropped everything and returned to life as normal.”

Now he shops, travels and plays bar trivia, always maskless unless it’s required. He’s not scared of a breakthrough infection and said that, like many of his friends, he feels that catching COVID-19 might be inevitable.

“So why wait to start living life?”

It’s a widespread sentiment. We’re at a phase of the pandemic when, with few forced restrictions, it’s up to everyone to set their own boundaries. Epidemiologists told the Tampa Bay Times they wish we’d be a bit stricter with ourselves right now. It’s still possible and worthwhile to avoid infection.

At no time during the pandemic have more Floridians been infected with COVID-19 than in the past week, when the average number of newly reported cases surpassed 60,000 a day.

That’s nearly six times as many infections as the peak of the first wave in July 2020, a time when restaurants were restricted to half capacity, bars were shuttered and the Tampa Bay Rays would soon begin a season playing in front of cardboard cutouts.

Things are vastly different now. Treatments are better. We have a clearer sense of how the virus spreads, and the omicron variant seems to be at least somewhat milder overall. Masks are available (though data shows usage has gone down). Most importantly, we have widespread vaccines that are generally effective at preventing serious illness.

But with the vaccines proving less effective at stopping the current wildfire of infections, and the remaining risk of serious illness or death even among the healthy, you might expect to see public life scaling back. Instead, Tampa Bay may look more “normal” today than it has at any point since March 2020.

The Lightning beat the Canucks at Tampa’s Amalie Arena in front of 19,092 fans Thursday. International Plaza has been full of shoppers. Brunch on St. Petersburg’s Beach Drive appears as slammed as ever.

The view as people stroll along Central Avenue looking east between the 200 and 300 block on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022 in St. Petersburg.
The view as people stroll along Central Avenue looking east between the 200 and 300 block on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Same for late nights in Ybor City, weddings, concerts and debutante balls. Management at Ruth Eckerd Hall, Pinellas County’s largest performing arts venue, said there’s been no omicron effect on ticket sales or requests for refunds, even though Jersey Boys had just last week postponed a show there after several of the Jersey Boys caught COVID. Even Gasparilla, Tampa’s massive pirate-themed parade and festival, is set to return Jan. 29.

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Work life remains disrupted, but while many companies still have not returned to the office, many workers went back months ago.

“We’ve seen (omicron) has had relatively little impact on people’s comfort level ... it’s even a little less drastic than delta last summer,” said Sarah Shevenock with the intelligence company Morning Consult, which has been polling American consumers weekly on their comfort levels for nearly two years.

Their latest survey data shows that as of last Thursday, 58, 56, and 44 percent of Americans were comfortable dining indoors, shopping at a mall or going to the movies, respectively. That’s a drop of only a few percentage points since mid-November, despite a nearly 4,000 percent increase in infections.

Current attitudes are likely driven by a few things, including pandemic fatigue, said Cindy Prins, a clinical associate professor of epidemiology and assistant dean at the University of Florida College of Public Health.

“We’d hit a point recently where we have vaccines and treatments, and we were seeing cases decrease, and so I think people had expectations that they’d be able to do whatever they wanted this winter,” Prins said. “That wasn’t the case.”

Prins and other epidemiologists told the Times that public perception that omicron is a “mild” variant is driving behavior. While it is true that the young, healthy and vaccinated are at a relatively low risk of hospitalization, serious illness can still happen. Your risk may be higher if you were vaccinated early on and have not received a booster.

“There’s no easy predictor of who’s going to get sick with omicron,” Prins said. “We don’t always understand why some people get very sick or die.”

Related: Masks? Tests? Is it really milder? Everything you need to know about omicron

When the Times first interviewed then-30-year-old marketing company owner Matthew Parks in 2020, restaurants had recently reopened, but he and his wife were waiting another 60 days before partaking themselves, out of an abundance of caution.

On Wednesday, Parks said he’s “comfortable with pretty much everything” now, despite there being far more infections. “I go out five or six days a week.”

Parks declined to say if he’d been vaccinated, but said he’d had COVID-19 recently and experienced symptoms similar to a cold, which he treated “with a more holistic route, with juice cleanses and things like that.”

Patrons walk along South Howard Avenue visiting bars and nightclubs on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022 in Tampa.
Patrons walk along South Howard Avenue visiting bars and nightclubs on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

That behavior contrasts with those who are scaling back on socializing and events because of omicron.

St. Petersburg’s Georges Lefevre, who is 42 and vaccinated, was at the St. Pete Pier to celebrate New Year’s Eve but said he wouldn’t do that now. “And I probably won’t hang out with people who tend to do things like that, for now.” He briefly stopped wearing a mask indoors last year, but reversed course as soon as delta surged.

Riverview resident Kirk Hazlett, 75, said he and his wife have remained mostly isolated since March 2020. He was teaching public relations part-time at the University of Tampa when classes went remote and has so far declined to return despite his love for the classroom. Other than age, they do not have health issues that put them at high risk.

“We did not broaden our horizons after getting vaccinated,” Hazlett said. “We leave to go grocery shopping once a week. Maybe we’re being excessive about it, but until I’m assured everyone is marching by the same instructions, nothing has changed for us.”

One thing people struggle with, said Jill Roberts, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of South Florida, is looking beyond themselves.

“If they’re vaxxed and healthy, there’s no reason people can’t go out in the world and enjoy themselves,” Roberts said, “but I would hope people are aware that there are people around them, in places like the grocery store, for whom that’s not true.

“That’s why if I go out, I wear a mask. You have to think, is the person next to you immunocompromised? Do they have a 3-year-old at home who can’t get vaccinated? Are they a health-care worker who could give it to a patient who’s in cancer treatment?”

Hospitals, she noted, are once again inundated with patients, and at the same time that many health staffers can’t work due to testing positive. Florida was averaging 31 deaths per day last week. Roberts said those numbers are expected to climb.

Epidemiologists don’t realistically expect sports leagues to shut down, or businesses to make big changes again but suggested individuals consider wearing quality masks, sticking to dining outdoors and waiting until late February when cases again are down, to have a party or go to an event.

“A spread this hot and fast won’t last long, it will burn itself out,” Roberts said. “By March of this year, we probably won’t be discussing omicron much more.”

And lastly, Roberts said, anyone who thinks that catching COVID-19 at some point is inevitable, so they might as well stop trying to avoid it, is wildly misguided. Just because the current vaccine has not prevented transmission, she said, does not mean that will be the case for future vaccines once the science advances.

“It’s still possible that you could never get COVID,” she said.