MIAMI — The crowded grocery stores, empty shelves and barren streets of South Florida in the dawning days of the coronavirus pandemic felt unsettlingly familiar: They resembled the rush of preparations and then the tense silence that precede a hurricane.
Maybe the tough residents of a state used to dealing with unpredictable forces of nature would have an edge in handling the deadly coronavirus. In theory, the people of Florida know a thing or two about how to follow orders during an emergency and stay at home.
Oh, were we naive.
The virus has entrenched itself in communities from Pensacola to Key West, killing more than 7,000 Floridians. For four consecutive days last week, the daily number of fatalities broke state records. Florida’s 257 deaths Friday accounted for nearly one-fifth of all of the deaths attributed to COVID-19 that day in the United States.
With the scourge of virus death came Tropical Storm Isaias to stalk the Atlantic Coast. The calendar had barely turned to August — too early, in a normal year, to worry much about storms. But this annus horribilis would not have it any other way.
A public health crisis. An economic calamity, with more than 1 million Floridians out of work and an unemployment payment system that was one of the slowest in the country. And now an early debut of hurricane season to remind the state that the inevitable convergence of the pandemic and the weather is likely to play out again, and perhaps much more seriously than this relatively mild storm, before this nightmare season ends.
“It’s just kind of been the way 2020’s gone so far,” said Howard Tipton, the administrator for St. Lucie County, on Florida’s Treasure Coast. “But we roll with it, right? We don’t get to determine the cards that we’re dealt.”
Tropical Storm Isaias (which is written Isaías in Spanish and pronounced ees-ah-EE-ahs) threatens the entire East Coast all the way up to Maine, but it is the South that has seen a recent dramatic increase in new coronavirus cases. Health officials in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina have warned that hospitals could be strained beyond capacity with the flood of new patients.
Meantime, emergency management officials have drawn up special plans to deal with people fleeing or displaced by storms. To avoid virus exposure in shelters, the first choice is for coastal residents in homes vulnerable to flooding to stay with relatives or friends farther inland, being careful to wear masks and remain socially distant.
“Because of COVID, we feel that you are safer at home,” said Bill Johnson, the emergency management director for Palm Beach County. “Shelters should be considered your last resort.”
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)Summer in Florida, with its routine thunderstorms, sweaty nights and unforgiving mosquitoes, is not for the faint of heart. (At least 11 suspected cases of coronavirus in the Florida Keys last month turned out to be mosquito-borne dengue fever.) Sometimes it feels as if the season’s only rewards are royal poinciana blooms, ripened mangoes and fewer tourists.
This summer has been made harder by the virus, which brought a sense of despair and helplessness that seemed especially acute in the days leading up to Tropical Storm Isaias. The storm goes away. The virus has not.
“It’s really stretching our limits,” said Kevin Cho, 31, a Florida National Guard captain and a nurse practitioner who treats COVID-19 patients in the intensive care units of several Miami public hospitals. Among them have been a doctor, who died, and a fellow nurse, who lived.
Many poor people contracting the disease “are losing their jobs, and now they’re faced with a hurricane,” he added. “How could they prepare for a hurricane when they have been exhausted of every resource they have? This hurricane is only going to make things worse.”
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)In Miami-Dade County, where the coronavirus has hit worse than anywhere else in Florida, the emergency operations center has been outfitted with plexiglass desk dividers and fans equipped with ultraviolet lights to try to kill the virus. Many employees who would normally be in the building worked from home, at least as long as their internet did not go out.
“It’s not as good as being here,” said Frank Rollason, the county’s emergency management director. “But right now, it’s better than being here.”
Some South Floridians hurried to supermarkets, gas stations and hardware stores to stock up on canned food, water bottles and plywood. But others, unfazed by the relatively weak and disorganized storm, did not bother. My building in a Miami suburb, which was not in the storm’s direct path, did not even bring in the patio furniture, and my potted plants remained on the balcony. One neighbor on my street put up window shutters.
“We usually would be assuming, ‘This is terrible,’ I think, except we’re already so busy assuming that COVID is terrible that we don’t have any room,” said humor writer Dave Barry, a fellow veteran of the Miami press corps whom I have known since we both worked at The Miami Herald. “We go through this every year, where we always overreact to it, and maybe this time we underreact to it. Or maybe this is just 2020 lulling us into: ‘OK, you guys think you had a hurricane. Now you can relax!’ Then the big hurricane comes.”
Local officials worried that the usual spike in alcohol sales before the storm would entice people to invite friends and relatives over.
Verdenia Baker, the Palm Beach County administrator, warned: “I know we’ve been cooped up. Now we have a storm. And some of us normally would have hurricane parties. This is not the time.”
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)Florida’s relentless coronavirus surge has been driven by a rapid economic reopening that exposed people to infection at bars and house parties. Contact tracers in Miami-Dade County have found that about 30% of people who tested positive for the virus were exposed by someone else in their household, the biggest source of infection after “don’t know.”
The huge growth in case numbers, which is finally starting to dip, came even though South Florida had locked down earlier and longer than the rest of the state. Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has not issued a statewide mask order, but Miami-Dade County imposed its first facial covering requirement back in April.
Dr. Mary Jo Trepka, chair of the epidemiology department at Florida International University, attributed the contagion in part to Miami’s larger-than-average household sizes and higher poverty rates, as well as to uneven mask use. The prevalence of the virus is declining so slowly that it might take until December to get down to a 5% positivity rate, she estimated.
“It’s really important that we don’t open the tap in any way,” she said of the possibility of further reopening. “I hope we’re not going to be having exposures related to that — or to any of the future hurricanes we might face over the next couple of months.”
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)Florida’s shockingly high coronavirus case numbers came after it initially appeared that the state had weathered the first two months of the outbreak with success. Instead, after most counties returned to business and holidays prompted people to hold gatherings, the infections got out of control.
Gus Perez, 32, whom I met at a party last year, thinks he contracted the virus three weeks ago, over a weekend on which he hung out with a few friends and went to an outdoor event late one night at a brewery.
He wore a mask and was careful — his friend who had leukemia and his friend’s mother had both succumbed to the virus.
“I thought I was very on top of it, and it still got me,” he said.
The hospitals have not collapsed, but only because they have added scores of beds, straining doctors and nurses.
The Rev. Maria Anderson, 64, an interfaith Miami hospital chaplain, has been tending to exhausted medical workers treating COVID-19 patients and to family members allowed to visit their loved ones shortly before or after they die.
“I’ve actually lost track of time,” she said. “We’re in a timeline limbo. The end doesn’t seem to be in sight, and we have no hope that it will end.”
Anderson said that coming home to watch news coverage of political fighting over masks and the virus has been frustrating, underscoring the distance between the elected officials making decisions and the professionals toiling in hospitals every day.
“It’s such a huge moral disconnect that state and federal leaders have, and that’s what makes me angry,” she said. “I look up and say, ‘Sorry, God’ — but the anger is there.”
And now storm season may imperil the tenuous new normal that businesses have tried to forge as they confront the virus.
When Hurricane Irma lashed Florida in 2017, Mike Beltran kept Ariete, his restaurant in Miami’s Coconut Grove neighborhood, open until the last minute, cooking rice and black beans for customers. He then worked out of a borrowed food truck while the electricity was out.
This year, Beltran, 34, was so consumed by staying afloat amid the virus, which has forced him to close one of his three restaurants and lay off some of his staff, that he did not know about Tropical Storm Isaias until late Thursday.
“It’s like, ‘Oh, something else,’” he said. “I’m just waiting for the year to be over.”