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Coronavirus a threat to Florida's tourism, elderly population

His friend, Ava Nicole, sitting in the sand next to him, chimed in: “The media is really pumping up the fear.”

That kind of beach-life complacency has been coming up against what Florida health officials and government leaders say is a major threat to the nation’s third-largest state, where a quarter of the population is older than 60, and where many people have chronic illnesses that make them more vulnerable to the serious effects of the new pathogen. In the worst-case scenario, the state’s health system could be woefully overloaded.

“You have to fear everything,” Miami Mayor Francis X. Suarez said in an interview. “You fear widespread infections, you fear for the vulnerable and the elderly in your community, you fear the economic impact because if this is not contained in a short period of time. . . . It could be something that is crippling, not just to Miami, but the world.”

The coronavirus already is starting to have a major effect on the state’s largest industry — tourism — which brings in more than $86 billion a year and employs 1.5 million people. The cruise ship business is in crisis. American Airlines, one of the largest employers in South Florida, announced Tuesday that it will reduce domestic and international flights. The University of Florida has told professors to transition to online classes.

So far, 14 residents have fallen ill as a result of the coronavirus in Florida, according to the state health department, including five with no history of recent international travel. The state has recorded two deaths — one in southwestern Lee County, and one in Santa Rosa County in the panhandle.

On Tuesday, the Florida Department of Health reported that three of the coronavirus cases in Broward County have been linked to Port Everglades, where cruise ships dock along the Atlantic Coast in Fort Lauderdale. Officials said the three men worked for Metro Cruise Services, which provides greeting and other hospitality services at the port.

“The Florida Department of Health recommends all individuals experiencing symptoms who have recently traveled through Port Everglades to immediately contact their county health department or health care provider and self-isolate for 14 days,” the agency said. “The Department also recommends employees of Metro Cruise Services at Port Everglades with any association to these cases self-isolate at home.”

The company declined to comment.

Although there are no confirmed coronavirus cases in Miami-Dade County, Suarez said he has been preparing his city for several weeks and questions whether all local South Florida leaders are taking the threat seriously enough.

Miami, for example, has settled on a policy that calls for the cancellation of any gathering that is expected to draw 25,000 or more people. The policy has resulted in the cancellation of the mammoth Ultra Music Festival as well as the annual Calle Ocho Festival in Little Havana, where 250,000 people were expected.

“We know there is probably not enough testing going on to really measure what the infection rate is in our community and in our state,” Suarez said. “So, in our view, the economic impact of postponing festivals pales in comparison with the economic impact of having a large part of your population quarantined and unable to go to work.”

Suarez’s stance has been met skeptically by some other South Florida leaders. The beaches and spring festivals on South Beach, for example, are continuing. Carlos A. Gimenez, the mayor of Miami-Dade County, also has argued against the mass cancellation of events.

According to the state tourism bureau, Florida receives 130 million visitors annually, about 10 percent of whom come from outside of the United States. A study in 2017 estimated that Florida tourists spent $89 billion on lodging, food, entertainment, shopping and transportation.

Nathaniel Line, an associate professor at the Dedman School of Hospitality at Florida State University, said hotel managers are reporting widespread cancellations from convention business. The cancellation of five major conventions in Orlando during the past few days has resulted in a $280 million hit to the local economy, according to the Orange County Convention Center.

Line said the tourism industry is trying to evaluate whether its losses will extend into the summer. “Large markets that rely on air travel will be hit the hardest as people right now really do appear to be avoiding the high-density travel environments,” he said. “But the good news is, Florida does a tremendous drive-in market, and there is certainly a possibility that people who are canceling vacations typically associated with an airplane maybe change their vacations and drive into Florida.”

One area where residents seem especially wary is the Villages, a sprawling retiree community in central Florida where 120,000 residents are scattered across three counties. “They are all concerned, and I am too,” said Jim Richards, 77, the mayor of Lady Lake community in the Villages. “We are not going to travel too far from home and just stay as low as we can.”

Richards said local and state officials have been working to identify the locations of “isolation chambers” should someone need to be quarantined.

“There is awareness, but the concern is what if there is just that one person who got away,” Richards said. “That one person can infect 40, and then they all can infect another 40, and then everything just goes from there.”

Resident Joan Bernbach said her husband’s softball team was told not to do high-fives anymore.

Bernbach and a friend were on an Asian cruise when coronavirus cases in China started spiking in January and February. Nobody onboard tested positive for the virus, but the ship was denied entry in several countries, she said. When they finally returned home to the Villages, neighbors were welcoming.

“Nobody is avoiding us or anything,” Bernbach said. “I do have friends who are alarmed about the virus, but I don’t think there’s any way to completely safeguard this place.”

Kristen Knapp, a spokeswoman for the Florida Health Care Association, said nursing homes and assisted-care facilities have been working for weeks to try to manage the risks. There are about 700 nursing homes and 1,300 assisted-living facilities in Florida, serving about 160,000 people.

After deadly missteps during hurricanes, Knapp said the industry and state officials became better prepared for keeping the population safe. To protect nursing home patients, for example, the association now recommends that facilities tightly restrict visitors.

In Tallahassee, the Florida legislature took an emergency break Monday after five members said they had attended the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, where someone has since tested positive for covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. A cleaning crew dressed in protective gowns, masks and gloves scrubbed down the House chambers, and the representatives briefly put themselves in isolation.

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) announced a state of emergency a few hours later, elevating a state response that elected officials have criticized as slow and opaque. DeSantis said he would leave it up to local governments to decide how to handle school closures and the cancellation of public events.

“It’s going to be a bottom-up effort,” DeSantis said. “We’re going to be working with local communities, but certainly not going to be dictating the decisions.”

Both Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) have written letters critical of the state response and lack of information about the virus’s spread. Crist said he was told representatives of tourism-related industries have been lobbying behind the scenes to tamp down on coverage of the coronavirus outbreak in Florida.

“That’s the deeper problem, money over lives,” Crist said.

“The lack of publicly released information surrounding these cases is alarming and unfair to the missions of families across the nation who are worried about their well-being,” Scott wrote on Sunday to the two local Florida health departments where the deaths occurred and to several federal agencies.

Lee County officials say it is too early to tell whether tourism has been affected. County Commissioner Brian Hammond likened the coronavirus to a hurricane and the red tide and blue-green algae blooms that killed sea life and closed businesses in the state two years ago.

“Red tide and blue-green algae hit us really hard, but the tourists came back,” Hammond said.

Leslie Driver’s business, Island Living Tours, depends on visitors. She gives guided tours on Palm Beach, and she said she has seen the contradictory attitudes about the coronavirus play out in real time. She said seven tour groups from corporate clients have canceled in recent days, citing the virus as a concern.

“I think it was mostly a concern about flying here,” Driver said.

What she sees on Palm Beach is business as usual.

“The restaurants are packed, people are still shaking hands,” Driver said. “It’s a serious thing, but everybody here is putting on a happy face.”

Rozsa is a freelance journalist based in Florida.

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