Elizabeth Djinis - Times Correspondent
Don’t judge Florida by its worst behavior | Editorial notebook
When pictures of a crowded Clearwater Beach in the time of coronavirus went viral, Floridians were forced to defend themselves, editorial writer Elizabeth Djinis writes.
Clearwater Beach pictured on March 18, at left, and March 24, at right.
Clearwater Beach pictured on March 18, at left, and March 24, at right. [ DOUGLAS CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published April 10, 2020

It was the footage heard around the world.

On March 16, while many of us were just settling into our work-from-home routines or gently telling our elderly family members it could be months until we saw them, tourists and residents gathered at Clearwater Beach. Videos from that day showed the beach crowded with people, large groups wading into the water or sunbathing.

The beach is “PACKED today despite ‘social distancing’ recommendations,” read a tweet from WFLA.

Immediately, the Internet erupted into what felt like a collective uproar — and understandably so.

“We’re in trouble,” one person wrote.

Lock the Florida border down ASAP,” said another.

And finally: “This virus taught me that we aren’t all born with brains."

Adjust those comments for the generally incendiary language that comes with being online, and there’s still a clear overarching sentiment: Floridians don’t get it. They never have. And these pictures show their downfall.

Even Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri was sick of seeing the situation on national news, days after the beach scene had run its course.

“That attitude with this exacerbated the situation and probably influenced some decisions to be made that probably didn’t need to get made,” he told the Times.

As the days and weeks passed, the photos of the crowded beach should have faded away as the situation changed. But a tweet from New York Times podcast host Michael Barbaro brought it all back last week, following a chart that showed what parts of the country had stopped traveling more than two miles and when. Of course, parts of Florida, as well as southern states like Mississippi, Louisiana and North Carolina, were some of the last to go.

A tweet from The New York Times' Michael Barbaro
A tweet from The New York Times' Michael Barbaro [ Twitter ]

“In a word....the South,” Barbaro said in a tweet, which he later deleted.

It’s the tone I resent more than the statement. What is frustrating is how different those generalizations are from current reality.

My friends thoughtfully organize group Zoom calls, checking in because, well, checking in means so much more now. My boyfriend and I try to plan our meals for the week so we can minimize our time at the grocery store. Once there, we immediately wonder if any chest tightness we feel is anxiety or coronavirus looming in the background, like it always is.

Local businesses are struggling to stay safe and stay in business, whether it’s setting up thoughtful, contactless delivery at coffee shops or offering deals on Instagram stories and free delivery from local boutiques.

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The demeanor of anyone I encounter outdoors has changed. Recently, I let an elderly couple pass by me from a safe distance on the sidewalk. They smiled knowingly, surrendering to our new reality. “Strange times,” they said.

My own demeanor has changed. I feel my heart start racing the second I see more than three people clustered on the sidewalk. I hate that I watch their mouths move and wonder if there are invisible droplets spouting from them. But I do.

I know Florida is at risk, because of its elderly population, influx of tourists and because we were one of the last big states to have a stay-at-home order.

But I also know that there are good people here who are trying.

So when we look at pictures of Clearwater Beach, we must remember that they are precisely that: snapshots of one moment in time and one group of people. But that moment is long past, and it is not a representation of an entire state.

Elizabeth Djinis is a member of the Tampa Bay Times editorial board.