In the four weeks between March 13 and April 13, coronavirus infections surged more in Florida’s Spring Break hot spots, including in Lee and Collier counties, than elsewhere in the state, an analysis by the Palm Beach Post has found.
Aside from Southwest Florida, the Post found especially large swells of infections in Miami-Dade, Broward and Volusia counties and smaller COVID-19 spikes following Spring Break in Orange (Orlando) and Sarasota.
Some public officials in these locales said Gov. Ron DeSantis shares some blame for the surge because he removed cities’ and counties’ ability to enforce their own anti-coronavirus rules. But Southwest Florida’s political leaders don’t share those sentiments.
“Governor Ron DeSantis has been a shining star, in the United States of America, among the governors who lead their states,” Lee County Commissioner Brian Hamman said.
Hamman said unlike on the east coast, Spring Break in Southwest Florida involves more traditional families rather than college students in search of the wildest party. And with a large percentage of Lee’s senior population vaccinated, the danger posed by crowded beaches and restaurants was much less this spring than it was in 2020.
“The biggest concern last year was that the spring breakers might spread it to people who would be vulnerable to have the worst outcome from it,” Hamman said.
“This year the spring breakers may have caught it, I’m not sure what exactly happened, but the fact that the senior population was vaccinated and protected really, I think, was the biggest difference between 2020 and 2021.”
Naples Mayor Teresa Heitmann said the jump in COVID-19 cases after Spring Break is “only natural because we have half of vaccinations and we have visitors come and maybe they’ve been vaccinated, maybe they haven’t. We have those who will never get a shot. So I think it’s just a natural progression. The good thing is that it’s not a trajectory that’s so high.”
Heitmann didn’t believe DeSantis’ moves had any impact on local policies. “Even though the mask mandate went away, people are still practicing their practices” such as social distancing, she said.
COVID-19 cases jumped in SW Florida schools
Infection rates also jumped in Southwest Florida schools following Spring Break. In both Lee and Collier counties, rises in school-related cases in late March followed the one-week spring vacation for both public school districts.
A News-Press/Naples Daily News analysis revealed that in the two weeks following spring vacation, Lee schools reported 290 new cases, nearly double the 146 added in the two weeks prior to spring vacation, which was March 15-19. A similar analysis of Collier County schools showed new cases there increased by 30% when comparing the same time periods.
Similarly, while new COVID-19 cases for all residents in both Lee and Collier trended down in March, infections started ticking up in both counties the final two weeks of the month.
Each county’s seven-day average case rate, which is the average of a day and the previous six days of reported COVID-19 cases, jumped during this time period, increasing 23% in Lee and 43% in Collier.
Rather than spring visitors ignoring COVID-19 best practices, Hamman attributed Lee’s recent case surge to virus fatigue.
“I think the general public is tired of this,” he said. “I think it also was a reflection of — people felt comfortable once the vaccines were out and they know those who are most vulnerable are protected from the worst outcomes. I don’t think there is a doctor or medical professional out there is who going to say you can prevent all people from getting ill.”
Lee County Commissioner Brian Hamman said he tested positive for COVID-19
Lee County Commissioner Brian Hamman shares his experience with COVID-19 in a Facebook video on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. “Please, do all that you personally can to slow down the spread,” he wrote on Facebook. “We’re doing well and we appreciate your prayers.”
Commissioner Brian Hamman, Fort Myers News-Press
Some blame relaxed rules for Spring Break surge
At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, DeSantis allowed localities to make and enforce anti-virus rules. Cities and counties mandated that their residents wear masks to prevent the spread of the airborne pathogen; limited how many people could be in an establishment at the same; allowed only businesses deemed essential to operate; limited businesses’ operating hours, and fined business owners and residents who broke the rules.
New infections statewide fell for months during quarantine. But months later, as DeSantis started allowing places to open back up, leading to waves of infections, he also began removing local governments’ abilities to enforce their rules.
DeSantis issued an executive order Sept. 25 preventing localities from fining people who violated COVID-19 rules while also stopping local governments from unilaterally restricting the number of people who can dine at restaurants.
Sanibel Mayor Holly Smith said the city examined its existing mask mandate following DeSantis’s order.
“We looked at it when he relaxed, saying you could not fine,” she said. “Ours was never intended to be a revenue stream, it was intended for education and we had the ability to mandate that.
“The mask mandate is still in place and it is completely supported by our business community and our residents. We are responding to what they feel is in their best interests.”
Are you wearing your mask to Publix?: Lee, Collier grocery shoppers carry conflicting views
Executive order: DeSantis orders local governments to cancel COVID fines
As Spring Break got into full swing, DeSantis on March 10 ordered local governments to cancel fines levied against businesses that violated anti-disease measures. And he has asked state lawmakers to pass legislation allowing him to overturn local mask mandates.
“For whatever reason this governor seems to think that it’s not our job to try and control the spread,” Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said. “He doesn’t talk about wearing masks or social distancing. He tells people everything’s open. He really projects out to the world that the disease is not an issue.”
The governor’s actions left Florida’s Spring Break hot spots without the necessary tools to prevent or dent the surge of infections they experienced, some officials said.
Where Spring Break cases jumped
Across Florida, 161,805 more people have been confirmed infected since March 13, or 75 cases for every 10,000 residents. But new cases have risen faster in some Spring Break destinations.
Miami-Dade County experienced the biggest swell by far, with health officials logging 37,216 new cases, meaning the virus infected 137 people for every 10,000 residents in the county. The county documented 33,307 in the four weeks leading up to March 13.
DeSantis opposes anti-coronavirus measures such as restricting business hours and capacity — he has described such rules as “lockdowns” — but that’s what one of Florida’s biggest Spring Break destinations had to do last month.
Videos showing crowds of maskless spring breakers partying and fighting in Miami Beach spread across social media and news reports in March.
“I don’t know what else we could have done but close everything down, which is what we did,” Gelber told POLITICO.
Representatives for DeSantis and Florida’s Health Department did not return requests for comment on this story, including the governor’s opinion on Miami Beach’s restrictions.
Giving out masks to spring breakers
There’s no question in Gelber’s mind that the city would have been better able to contain the Spring Break outbreak if it had the authority to enforce its anti-coronavirus rules, he said.
“We would have demanded that if you come to the city you must follow these rules,” Gelber said. Before DeSantis took away localities’ powers, Miami Beach issued about 1,000 citations to non-mask wearers, Gelber said, and closed businesses that broke rules. The city also gave out 6,800 masks to spring breakers.
“If we had a mask mandate that we could enforce and the governor was saying, ‘I’m all with you’ … there’s no question that cities like mine would have found greater compliance immediately,” Gelber said. “Instead they’re getting this message (from DeSantis) that masks are unnecessary and you don’t have to worry about the virus.”
Some of the increase could be COVID variants
Health officials as of April 7 confirmed 2,121 people in Florida caught the coronavirus variants. Broward County is home to 962 of them, or 45%. The viral strain found in the U.K., the B.1.1.7 variant, comprises most of the variants found in Florida.
The actual number of people infected with mutations is higher because specialized tests to detect them are done only when health officials suspect someone has been infected with a variant.
Broward County, home to Fort Lauderdale, has logged 21,210 new infections since March 13, or 109 for every 10,000 residents, the second-biggest increase among Florida Spring Break destinations that The Post examined.
Broward County Mayor Steve Geller blamed the new infections on DeSantis and the more contagious mutations of the virus. When DeSantis removed local governments’ ability to fine businesses for breaking local anti-coronavirus measures, there was nothing Broward County could do to contain the pathogen, Geller said.
“When you are the county with the largest number of variants in the state with the largest number of variants and you can’t enforce your order, that’s a problem,” Geller said. “I’m just frustrated that our (infection) numbers are going up as our vaccinations are going up.”
Fort Lauderdale did not impose a curfew. “We know the virus does not go to sleep at midnight,” Mayor Dean Trantalis told The Sun Sentinel in February. “It’s not as effective as people think.”
Broward County saw a big increase in COVID-19 cases. The county added 72% more infections between March 15 and Tuesday, compared with the first half of March.
The Spring Break COVID-19 surge is not contained only to South Florida’s two most populous counties.
Daytona’s Bike Week and Spring Break spike
The home of Daytona Beach, Volusia County, also attracted massive crowds who contaminated each other with COVID-19.
One ingredient Daytona had that Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach lacked: bikers.
The city hosted Bike Week March 5-14, an annual gathering of hundreds of thousands of motorcycle-lovers rivaling the yearly Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota, which started a COVID-19 outbreak last year.
America’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said he got “chills” after seeing Bike Week footage.
During a March 11 interview with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, Fauci reacted to a video of maskless bikers in Daytona Beach. “It gave me chills just looking at it,” he said. “When they finish with the rally, they’re going to go to bars, they’re going have fun, which is understandable. … But they are likely going to be pulling back from some of the prudent public health measures.”
When Maddow asked Fauci if Bike Week could spread infections the way Sturgis did, he said, “I think there’s a big possibility that’s exactly what would happen.”
That is exactly what happened.
Between Feb. 13 and March 13, infections spread more slowly in Volusia County compared with the rest of Florida. For every 10,000 residents in the county, health officials logged 47 infections compared with 70 per 10,000 residents statewide.
But the county added nearly twice as many infections since March 13. Health officials documented 4,518 new infections between that date and April 13, compared to 2,595 in the four weeks prior. That is 82 infections for every 10,000 residents since mid-March, on par with Orange County.
“The governor out drinking with bikers at Bike Week is not setting an example,” said Geller, the Broward County mayor.
City officials could not order businesses to do that because DeSantis removed their authority to do so, Mayor Derrick Henry said in a letter published Feb. 7 by The Daytona Beach News-Journal.
When DeSantis’ Sept. 25 order removed local governments’ ability to unilaterally restrict how many people can be in an establishment, Henry wrote, the only leverage the city had was to grant businesses permits for outdoor activities in exchange for them promising to limit indoor capacity.
“To those of you who question why things are safer now than in October to allow the permits, the answer is simple: They are not,” Henry wrote.
Reach Chris Persaud at email@example.com and Dan DeLuca at firstname.lastname@example.org. Brittany Carloni and Bill Smith contributed to this report.