1. Long Reads

March Madness: Over the course of a crazy and confusing month, normal disappeared

The changes came quick - and slow - and transformed spring in Tampa Bay.

In those last days before everything changed, spring breakers had begun blanketing the beaches, baseball was back in swing and snowbirds partied on packed cruise ships.

The sky above Tampa Bay was clear and blue. The salty air, room temperature. Balmy breezes rustled the palm trees.

A convenience store manager in Gulfport ran low on sodas and snacks, blaming it on all those college students. A bar owner in St. Petersburg hosted a live band and sold 375 beers to the crowd on the outdoor patio. In Tampa, a senior at the University of South Florida planned a graduation party with her fiance.

At Hollywood Studios in Orlando, an Ohio mother squirted sanitizer into her daughters’ hands as they waited in line for the Slinky Dog Dash roller coaster. In Tallahassee, an ER doctor working as a legislator wrapped up his last meeting of the House Health & Human Services Committee. In Fort Myers, a business owner took her 82-year-old mother to brunch at a crowded country club.

Few could have imagined that soon, we all would be quarantined, schooling our kids at home, scared to visit our elderly parents, locked out of bars and restaurants, left wondering how many people were going to die.

It all happened in a month.

March 2

That Monday, Gov. Ron DeSantis stepped before reporters at the Department of Health laboratory in Tampa. State and local officials clustered around him, stone-faced.

DeSantis had sent out a press release at 9:39 the night before, declaring a public health emergency. Coronvavirus, which had been documented in a 55-year-old Chinese woman as early as Nov. 17 and taken the lives of 3,000 worldwide, had arrived in Florida.

Ron DeSantis speaks about confirmed coronavirus cases in Hillsborough and Manatee counties during a press conference on March 2. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

A young woman in Tampa who had travelled to northern Italy had tested positive, the governor said. And a man in his 60s in Manatee County, who had no known contacts with anyone overseas, also had the virus.

Reporters peppered DeSantis and his surgeon general, Scott Rivkees, with questions.

“Can you tell me why it took five days to test the patient in Manatee County?”

“Doctor, you knew about this 24 hours before it was announced?”

“Are you concerned? And how likely is it that there’s going to be more cases of coronavirus moving forward in the next couple days?”

DeSantis stepped in as Rivkees moved back. He said the state anticipated more positive tests. That the health department was being proactive. They were contacting others who may have interacted with the two patients.

Dr. Tazia Stagg, who has a master’s degree in public health, watched the press conference on TV, at home in Tampa. She had written a letter to the governor when DeSantis appointed Rivkees last April, expressing concern that he lacked experience in public health and epidemiology. She recalled how Rivkees had said he would find experts to help him.

Now she saw him struggle to answer reporters. But she didn’t question when he and DeSantis said the risk to the public was low.

March 3

At Epcot in Orlando, Tim and Brandy Laakso warned Kaylee, 7, and Melody, 5, yet again not to touch anything as they filed past hundreds of people waiting to get on the boat ride Frozen Ever After.

Afterward, the Ohio family emerged into the sunshine, and Brandy squirted hand sanitizer yet again into each child’s hands.

The couple, both engineers at Honda, had planned a four-day trip — their first to Disney with the girls —months earlier. They’d been to Hollywood Studios and were still planning to visit Magic Kingdom.

“We made extra precautions,” said Brandy, who carried the wipes and sanitizer.

Tim Laakso and his 5-year-old daughter, Melody, wait in line at the Slinky Dog Dash at Hollywood Studios earlier this month. [ Courtesy of Laakso family ]

In Florida, the coronavirus seemed far away.

It had, by now, spread to 70 countries. A nursing home in Kirkland, Wash., had reported a cluster of deaths. New York and Rhode Island had confirmed their first cases. “We’re talking very small numbers in the United States,” President Trump told the nation.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr arrived at the Sun City Center Community Hall for the “Keeping Seniors Safe Summit.” Safe from elder fraud. Five hundred people attended.

One of the biggest music weekends of the year was coming up in Tampa Bay. Wild Splash in Clearwater, featuring rappers Roddy Ricch and DaBaby, was sold out. The Okeechobee Festival, the Gasparilla Music Festival, the Quinceňeara Expo in Tampa and the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City were expected to draw thousands.

In front of the Donald Duck topiary at Epcot, Tim Laasko snapped pictures of his girls dressed in Little Mermaid costumes.

March 4

In the Tampa Bay Rays dugout at Port Charlotte, bench coach Matt Quatraro noticed the players weren’t slapping hands as much. But there were still some high-fives and a lot of elbow-tapping when they scored the first run against the Toronto Blue Jays.

Many players carried their own pens to autograph balls. And the team had provided each player with hand sanitizer. On Amazon, two 8-ounce bottles of Purell were selling for $99.

Some players were wondering how long it would take the coronavirus to get a foothold in America. More than 94,000 cases had been reported around the world.

The previous day, at a spring training game in Tampa, Yankees pitcher Zack Britton licked his hand to get a better grip on the baseball. He worried that the ball might transmit the virus.

“I don’t know how it spreads,” Britton, a reliever, had said. “But if it spreads by touching the same thing, then yeah, we’re going to have issues.”

Health officials were urging everyone to avoid unnecessary contact and maintain space. In the close quarters of the dugout, Quatraro said that was impossible.

March 5

Julia Nemeth-Harn of Nokomis had worked herself up over the unknowns.

The Sarasota County Health Department had notified her two days before that she’d been on a flight with someone who had the coronavirus. Finally, the public health nurse called, confirming that Nemeth-Harn had sat two seats over and one row in front of the first woman to test positive in Florida. They had flown first class on a Delta flight from New York.

“Why didn’t you call me back?” Nemeth-Harn asked.

“I’m sorry,” she recalled the nurse saying, “but there are only two of us trying to take care of this whole county.”

“Only two?”

Nemeth-Harn asked if she could get tested. But with no symptoms, she was told she was not eligible.

Her mind raced, thinking about all the places she’d been: with her elderly mother in Fort Myers, with a friend who was about to have surgery, at work, the gym, yoga.

All around her, the world was shutting down, piece by piece.

Italy had closed schools and universities. Saudia Arabia had banned citizens from the pilgrimage to Mecca. In the U.S., the release of the latest James Bond movie, No Time To Die, had been put off until November.

Nemeth-Harn stopped going to work and decided she could no longer visit her mother.

How would she know, without a test, if she was a carrier?

March 9

In Tallahassee, the speaker of the House of Representatives stopped discussion on an education bill and asked everyone to clear the chamber.

Five members of the House had been to conferences outside the state where someone tested positive for COVID-19. It fell to Rep. Cary Pigman, an emergency room doctor to quarantine the men, pulling them off the floor, where they had already been casting votes.

By then, the Florida Department of Health had announced the virus was now in eight counties — that it knew of — and had caused two deaths. The agency issued a hasty travel advisory requiring anyone who had been abroad to self-isolate for 14 days. Hours later, the advisory was rewritten. Only those travelling from China, South Korea, Iran and Italy needed to isolate.

In the empty House chamber, Pigman and several custodians donned gowns, masks and black gloves, then grabbed Clorox and began wiping down desks, blue leather chairs and microphones.

State workers and Rep. Cary Pigman, who is a doctor, disinfect desks on the House floor. [ EMILY L. MAHONEY | Tampa Bay Times ]

Soon, Rivkees arrived with his staff. They took the temperatures of the quarantined representatives, asked lots of questions.

Pigman revealed the results on the House floor.

“All the members I escorted out are at very low risk,” he announced to colleagues. “I can’t say zero risk because none of us are at zero risk.” Without symptoms, he said, the men could return.

The legislators clapped as the quarantined members arrived back in the chamber, knocking elbows.

March 11

Bobby Sanchez, a freelance videographer, was working at a professional wrestling show in Orlando when he heard through his headphones that the NBA had suspended the rest of the season. There went his Magic money. He was supposed to shoot a Lightning game that week, more wrestling over the weekend and a Yankees spring training game on Sunday.

For Sanchez, March is usually his busiest month. He’d been scheduled to work 41 of the next 45 days.

This time of year, he doesn’t often see his wife and 2-year-old daughter, except when they come to Rays games. Little Sydney was excited for the season. “She loves the crowds,” Sanchez said.

Videographer Bobby Sanchez, with his wife, Elayna, and daughter, Sydney, was booked to film pro sports through March and April, but now that sports are cancelled, his income is also gone. [ Courtesy of Bobby Sanchez ]

But the next day, Major League Baseball canceled the rest of spring training and postponed Opening Day. The NHL shut down its season. The NCAA stopped March Madness.

“By the weekend, everything went away,” Sanchez said.

For him, sports are a hobby, a passion and a job. He could never have imagined a world without them.

“I’d heard there was a virus in China. But I never thought it would come to this in this country.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, an infectious disease expert on the federal Coronavirus Task Force, had just named Florida one of four states with “community spread” of the disease -- putting the state at elevated risk. DeSantis disagreed.

On the day Sanchez’s work disappeared, 11 new cases of coronavirus were announced across the state, including three in Tampa Bay. Nursing homes started barring visitors. Priests emptied fonts of holy water.

Dozens of artists postponed concerts: Kenny Chesney, Cher, Martin Lawrence, Josh Groban, America. At the Straz Center and Tampa Theater, stages went dark.

The stock market dropped 20 percent, ending an 11-year rally.

Sanchez put away his camera. He wondered what he would do with himself. Maybe now, he’d have time to help his toddler potty train.

March 14

Tampa Police Sgt. Ed Croissant was off that Saturday, at his daughter’s Sweet 16 party, when one of his officers phoned. Four members of the squad had responded to a 911 call and performed CPR on an elderly man who later died.

The man had been congested, gotten a bad cough, then a fever.

The next day, Croissant called the coroner, who sent pictures of the man’s lungs. He’d had viral pneumonia -- which could be a sign of the coronavirus. Croissant quarantined his officers. “Enjoy two weeks on the city,” he told them. “I’ll be in touch every day.”

Croissant’s wife is a nurse on the coronavirus ward at Tampa General. They both wear masks and gloves all day, strip down at their door, wash their work clothes, bleach the floors. He says he isn’t worried about getting sick. “If your number is up, it’s up.”

But he acknowledges that there is no protocol for this new threat.

“We run into fires, we run into gunfire, we’re used to running into the known. But this is the unknown now,” he said. “We can’t see this, taste it, smell it. The enemy is shifting position. We’re at war.”

March 16

Business had been slow over the weekend at The Ale and the Witch. With the Grand Prix finally canceled and people starting to get scared of crowds, only half as many hippies showed up for Uncle John’s Band at the St. Petersburg bar.

Owner Brett Andress had taken out half the tables in the courtyard to keep people apart and set up two outdoor beer stands -- cans only. The bartenders wore gloves.

“I put a little rope at the front door and sat there making sure only a few people were inside at once,” Andress said.

He had booked bands almost every night for the next three months.

That Sunday, he brought in $2,200 -- less than half the usual amount.

The next day, he told his 12 employees he was closing. He untwisted hoses from the 30 taps -- and poured $7,000 of craft beer down the drain. Untapped kegs went into the refrigerator. “They’ll be fine for 30 days,” Andress said. Stout has the highest alcohol content, so it lasts the longest. IPAs might not survive a shut down.

No one had ordered him to lock his doors, but he saw it coming.

The governor had just announced that the state now knew of 100 infected people in Florida. Cruises were suspended until April 10. The Tampa City Council canceled meetings for the next month. Jury trials were postponed.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said no more than 50 people could gather. The next day, that number dropped to 10. In the thick of the Democratic primary, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders canceled Florida rallies.

At his home that night, Andress started texting all the bands he had booked, giving them the bad news. Then he asked each one: “Can you livestream? I’ll put up a virtual tip jar.”

Brett Andress, owner of the Ale and Witch, enjoys a beer outside his house last week. He has been live-streaming bands who would've played at his bar and watching them from his living room. [ Courtesy of Brett Andress ]

March 17

They were driving to the store when her phone dinged. An email from the president of the University of South Florida. “That can’t be good,” Taylor Greenway told her fiance.

Greenway, 22, is a senior majoring in political science. She wants to be a lawyer. She got engaged at Christmas, and lives with her fiance near the Tampa campus.

DJ Von Frank and Taylor Greenway, seniors at the University of South Florida, in their engagement photo. The couple had planned to take a cruise for their spring break. When they found out graduation was canceled, Taylor cried. [ Courtesy of Taylor Greenway ]

She was on spring break that week. They had booked a cruise with another couple, but it was later canceled.

DeSantis had just ordered that the rest of their semester classes be taught online. And though it was St. Patrick’s Day, Tampa Bay was forcing all bars to close at 5 p.m.

On social media, college students were posting selfies from the beaches of Miami and Daytona, bragging they were too young to get infected and didn’t care if they did. Criticism rolled in from across the country. People kept begging the governor: Shut down the state.

Greenway was starting to panic. So she and her fiance donned green T-shirts for the holiday and went to Target, which was out of pasta. To Publix, which was out of toilet paper. Then Winn-Dixie.

In the parking lot, she read the email aloud: “Dear USF community, there is nothing more important than the health and wellness of our community …”

Greenway paused, scanning the next paragraph. Then she started to cry. “Spring 2020 commencement scheduled for May is postponed until further notice.”

She couldn’t catch her breath. They’d already planned the party -- 30 relatives were coming to cheer. They already had their caps and gowns. “We’ve worked so hard,” she said. “Now we won’t get to walk?”

Her fiance hugged her, tried to cheer her up. “We can walk across the living room.”

March 20

Matthew McGee wondered what he should make for dinner. The beef stroganoff he’d concocted the night before had turned out okay. The shepherd’s pie the night before that had been delicious.

“Maybe a roast chicken?” he asked his partner, who shares his Tampa home. McGee is 44 and had never roasted a chicken.

Until the last week, he had hardly ever cooked. He couldn’t remember the last Friday he had eaten dinner at home.

Tampa actor Matthew McGee, right, at home with his partner, George Ebanks, and their dogs, Brian, a Westie, and Averi, a chocolate lab. McGee, 44, was rehearsing for a new show when theaters shut down across Tampa Bay. He can't remember the last time he spent a whole weekend at home -- and he'd never roasted a chicken. [ Courtesy of Matthew McGee ]

McGee is an actor and arts administrator. For more than two decades, he has spent most evenings, and every weekend, in a theater.

That night, he was supposed to be starring in The People Downstairs at American Stage, playing the romantic lead. He had been so looking forward to the role. But on opening night, his cast was told the show could not go on.

Everything, it seemed, was shifting and shuttering. Hospitals put elective surgeries on hold. Empty cruise ships anchored near the Skyway Bridge. Area restaurants had to close, except for take-out and delivery. The only good news? Tom Brady had just signed to quarterback the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

That Friday, while McGee was roasting his chicken, Pinellas County shut down all 35 miles of its beaches, and sent deputies to patrol the sand.

“I have anxiety issues anyway. This is hard,” McGee told his partner. He’s scared to watch the news, but desperate to know what’s going on.

He’s frightened for other actors; many don’t have savings or insurance. And what about the audiences? Instead of performing his comedy duo in a theater, he’s live-streaming, because folks need a laugh. “Our mission in the arts is to bring people together,” he said. “Now we need that more than ever.”

March 26

The last tattoo Cole Lyons did was of Medusa, her snaky locks spilling over a young woman’s hand.

Lyons had owned Ink Therapy Tattoos on U.S. 19 for seven years. Both his parents were tattoo artists, his mom works in N.Y. She had been telling him about the virus, how many people were getting sick. He knew it was coming.

Lyons had appointments booked through April and was set to make $500 a day.

That morning, when he had gotten to his shop, he found a yellow notice from the sheriff’s department tacked to his door. Pinellas had issued a “Safer at Home” order. “All persons not part of the same family unit must remain at least 6 feet apart.”

He had to lock his doors -- or lose his license. So did massage parlors, nail salons, strip clubs. And hairdressers, like his wife, Renae. That same day, she closed her salon.

That afternoon, they did the math. They could make it to June, then would run out of reserves. In addition to paying rent at home, they both still had to pay rent on their shops. “We gotta call the property manager and let them know we’re both out of business,” Lyons told her.

Renae and Cole Lyons of St. Petersburg with their daughters Clara, 3 months old, and Lanna, 3. Renee had to shut her hair salon down and Cole had to close his tattoo shop. They both had customers booked until May. [ Courtesy of Lyons family ]

The Olympics had just been canceled, even though the games weren’t until July. The U.S. now had more coronavirus cases than China, if you believe the Chinese government. Prince Charles had tested positive.

In Florida, unemployment was exploding: 74,021 people had signed up in the last week. Others couldn’t get the website to work.

That night, Lyons talked about going back to working construction, moving to upstate New York, buying 3 acres. He made a plan in case DeSantis closed the borders: He would go to a marina, load his family onto a boat, find the key -- “they’re always hidden near the ignition” -- and make a watery escape. He told his wife, “All those bullets I bought will come in handy.”

March 29

At the Gulfport Shell, assistant manager Shakil Siddiquee built a wall out of cases of Corona to keep customers away from the coffee and soda fountain. An employee wearing gloves has to hand things over. “How much cream? Do you want ice? Chocolate or glazed?”

He only lets three people into the convenience mart at a time and has taped Xs on the floor, 6 feet apart. He has stacked plastic bins in front of the cash register, so no one can lean close and cough on the clerk. In the 16 years he’s run the shop, he’s never had to ration cigarettes -- until this day. Customers were trying to buy five cartons at a time, in case the state shuts down sales.

The day before, more than 900 Florida health care workers had petitioned the governor to issue a shelter in place order. The number of confirmed cases was doubling every three days.

Across Tampa Bay, people were lining up at testing sites. But laboratories were so backlogged, some waited more than a week to get results. Brewery workers were making hand sanitizer. People who had never threaded a needle were finding patterns online, teaching themselves to sew fabric masks.

President Trump had just told everyone to stay home for another 30 days and signed a $2 trillion stimulus bill, the largest emergency spending in history.

“The main thing I worry about is how long,” Siddiquee said. “No one knows.”

Assistant Manager Shak Siddiquee, 35, poses inside Gulfport Shell Wednesday, April 1, 2020. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

At first, he admits, he didn’t see the signs. Snacks and sodas always slide off the shelves at spring break. Then his store ran out of Lysol and sponges. “It was toilet paper that finally made me notice,” he said.

Soon, his suppliers were out of eggs, milk and bacon.

He considered cutting hours on his 24-hour drive-through, but it’s the only one around. “If you work the late shift at a hospital, if you’re a policeman or paramedic, if you’re coming home and everything’s closed -- I want to be here,” Siddiquee said.

The drive-through usually sees a few cars each hour. In the last month, lines have stretched to 20 vehicles -- round the clock.

That Sunday, a man at the window wanted Budweiser longnecks, 305s and Pine Sol. The clerk shook his head. “I have nothing you’re asking for.”

March 30

On the last Monday of the longest month of his life, Gulfport Mayor Sam Henderson stood in front of City Hall and recorded another YouTube message to reassure residents. He’s been doing several a week.

“Boaters are now supposed to stay 50 feet apart,” he said, quoting a proclamation from the state Fish and Wildlife Commission. And the governor is shutting down short-term rentals. “But we’re still here for you,” Henderson said. Town workers are collecting garbage, keeping water running, protecting people from fires and theft.

He encouraged neighbors to get outside. It was a gorgeous afternoon.

Business at Tampa International Airport had dropped by 90 percent. In Hillsborough County, the sheriff said he would charge a pastor for holding church on Sunday. The Tampa Bay Times announced that it planned to stop printing a newspaper all but two days a week. Every day, more celebrities were dying: playwright Terrence McNally, country star Joe Diffie, songwriter Alan Merrill.

Gulfport’s mayor was worried about his town’s most famous singer, John Prine, who had contracted the virus. He was afraid small shops and restaurants wouldn’t re-open. He was frightened for the first responders. He was watching the pier. “Too many people hanging out there,” he said. “But we can’t be confrontational. We have to be kind.”

The city decided not to turn off anyone’s water if they can’t pay the bill. Volunteers started calling single seniors shut in at home, just to talk. And free town buses are still taking people to doctors’ appointments, Walgreens and the grocery.

Every evening, Henderson walks through town and waves to the bicyclists, skateboarders and people walking their dogs. He misses shaking hands.

April 1

The Tampa officers who gave the dying man CPR are now back to work. None showed symptoms of the coronavirus, Croissant said.

In the two weeks they were gone, department policies changed. Operators now ask 911 callers if they have a fever or cough. Instead of four officers going to a scene, they send two. And police no longer respond to fender benders, thefts without suspects or cases of fraud. With businesses and bars closed, the crime rate has gone down, Croissant said. But as the lock-down drags on, domestic violence calls are on the rise.

Nemeth-Harn, who sat on the plane near a Florida woman who tested positive, went to get take-out for the first time this past week. She had no symptoms and still hasn’t been tested, but her husband was craving an Impossible Burger.

She held the Burger King bag and pulled the items out, while he washed his hands. She opened the wrappers and he pulled out the burgers, then she washed her hands. They laughed at their intense choreography.

“I would say I’m still worried because I don’t know if I don’t have it,” she said.

Rep. Pigman left another emergency room shift at AdventHealth in Lake Placid and drove home to Okeechobee. Highlands County is rural, but there were cases of COVID-19, including one death. He pulled into his driveway and grabbed the brown paper bag with his N95 mask, which had his name “Cary” written on it in black Sharpie. He stripped in his garage, showered inside, then said hello to his wife and kids. He turned on the oven to 170 degrees and baked his mask to kill the virus, so he could wear it another day.

On Wednesday, as a new month dawned and Florida closed in on 8,000 cases and 100 deaths from the coronavirus, DeSantis finally locked down the state, effective Friday.

No one knows what this month will bring.

Times staffers Zachary T. Sampson, Sharon Wynne, Romy Ellenbogen, Tony Marrero, Marc Topkin, Anastasia Dawson and Eduardo A. Encina contributed to this report.

Contact Leonora Lapeter Anton at Follow @WriterLeonora.

Contact Lane DeGregory at Follow @Lane DeGregory.

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