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In Florida, people seize the day, knowing that the world is changing by the minute

‘Am I worried? Yes and no. I’m trying not to worry. Yet.’
Lybbie Garcia, 75, enjoys extra room during her exercise class at Gulfport Multipurpose Senior Center on Thursday. "Usually, there are about 80 people here, and you can hardly move your elbows." [JOHN PENDYGRAFT  |  Times]
Lybbie Garcia, 75, enjoys extra room during her exercise class at Gulfport Multipurpose Senior Center on Thursday. "Usually, there are about 80 people here, and you can hardly move your elbows." [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]

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There has been a lot more room to do aerobics at the Gulfport Senior Center this week.

About 80 people usually pack the multi-purpose room, elbowing each other as they exercise. But only 31 showed up for Thursday’s afternoon class. They spread out, two arms’ lengths apart.

Lybbie Garcia, 75, and her best friend, Sheri Lau, 75, were front-row center, sweating and smiling as they worked out to ’70s light rock. Many of their friends were scared to come to class, frightened they would be exposed to the coronavirus.

But Garcia, a snowbird from Colorado, insisted she wasn’t worried. “This is life. We have to do things,” she said after class. “If we concentrate so much on what’s going on in the world, well, it just becomes too much.”

“I just try to stay happy,” Lau said, pulling out her cell phone. She showed her friend a photo of a dolphin she had taken off her dock that morning. “This place is paradise. We have to enjoy what we have and try to relax.”

In other rooms at the Senior Center, a dozen couples were playing bridge at round tables. Women were painting in a watercolor class. And a man with a paper mask slumped in a wheelchair, watching the stock market fall on TV.

Rachel Cataldo, who oversees the center, hasn’t cancelled any events yet. But she’s getting hourly emails from the Area Agency on Aging, updating her about precautions and pending closures. At the front desk, she added a placard with hand-washing instructions and a jug of Purell. She doesn’t want to close the doors -- for so many of these people, the center is a second home.

“They’re saying we could all end up stuck in our houses, eating canned food. I think it could be a very sad state of affairs,” Angela Boothman, 78, said after aerobics. “Many of these people don’t drive. They take the bus here to socialize. Their friends are here. Are they going to be homebound and alone? For how long?”

Boothman’s daughter mailed her 400 alcohol wipes, a 1,000-piece puzzle and a set of hand weights, so if the class shuts down, she can still work out at home. But she plans on coming to the center as long as it’s open.

***

Outside, in the small town on Boca Ciega Bay, people were pushing strollers, walking dogs, browsing fliers in the windows of Forever Florida Real Estate. Sailboats bobbed in the silver saltwater. Children chased seagulls on the beach.

The sun was shining. A briny breeze was ruffling the palm trees.

It seemed impossible that, on such a perfect day, a deadly pandemic was sweeping the globe.

But like so many cities across the world, Gulfport was changing plans. Leaders had just cancelled a weekend clean-up at Clam Bayou. And postponed the Health and Wellness Expo, which was supposed to be held at the Casino.

The city announcement said, “public health is everyone’s responsibility.”

***

Dick and Ron Warner weren’t sure what to do. Weeks ago, the brothers from Michigan, ages 77 and 72, had driven two days from their homes, with their wives, to winter in Florida. Like they have for years.

They were supposed to stay until April.

Now, they don’t know if they should leave the tiny condos they rented on Treasure Island and drive back early.

“If we’re going to get stuck inside, if we can’t get out to enjoy the weather or the beach, we might as well just go back where we have all the comforts of home,” Ron said Thursday afternoon, as they nursed Bud Lights at Neptune Grill.

“If we’re going, we should leave in the next 72 hours, before they shut everything down,” said Dick. “We still gotta cross state lines. We can’t take anything for granted.”

“I’m worried about stopping, staying in a motel,” Ron said. “It’s bad now, and it’s only going to get worse.”

They talked about all the college basketball tournaments being cancelled, about the NBA and NHL shutting down their seasons. They wondered, would baseball be next? If they get stuck inside, what will they watch?

“You don’t like to see it, but you got no choice. Nobody’s got a choice. They have to err on the side of caution,” Dick said. “It’s the right thing to do. Goodness gracious, we haven’t seen anything like this in our lifetime.”

He finished his beer, ordered another round. “And we have no idea how this is going to end. That’s what scares me.”

***

Across from the Gulfport pier, O’Maddy’s Bar and Grille was packed. A line of people snaked across the sidewalk, waiting for outside tables. Others ducked in the door to squirt hand sanitizer from the new dispenser.

Gregory and Jenny Peay, 35, were on spring break from New Jersey with their four school-age kids. They had raced go-karts in Orlando, ridden on an airboat, splashed at a water park. That morning, Gregory’s uncle had taken them out on his 20-foot boat.

After lunch, before dessert, they made the kids get more Purell.

“There’s no hand sanitizer left in New Jersey. No toilet paper. No Lysol,” Jenny said. “The schools are making packets for the kids to take home next week, in case they cancel classes.

“Am I worried?” she asked. “Yes and no. I’m trying not to worry. Yet.”

Locals at O’Maddy’s already were making adjustments: Bumping elbows instead of shaking hands, sneezing into their shoulders, declining to share food or drinks.

“As long as the tourists stay away, we’ll be okay,” said Gulfport resident Nancy Kretz, who is of “an age where I should worry.” She’s keeping away from strangers, only talking to folks she knows.

Her friend Bill Trudell, 55, said he had to make the ultimate sacrifice, to stay safe. “I’m a draft beer guy. Always have been. But now you gotta worry: Are they really getting those glasses clean?” he asked.

So on Thursday, he ordered his PBR in a can.

Contact Lane DeGregory at ldegregory@tampabay.com. Follow @LaneDeGregory.

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