Guest opinion: Dear Florida: Put star power in the public health playbook

Students who traveled to popular Florida spring break destinations in 2020 contributed more…

Guest opinion: Dear Florida: Put star power in the public health playbook 1
Guest opinion: Dear Florida: Put star power in the public health playbook 2

Last year, Florida’s sandy beaches and bustling bars were open for business. So was the coronavirus. Looking back, the state’s refusal to shut down the party to bring in tourism dollars cost thousands of lives.  

Now it’s tequila déjà vu.  Despite many colleges and universities eliminating or adjusting spring breaks from the University of Delaware to the University of Michigan, students (and many adults) are already out in full force across the state’s beaches. With Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ executive order preventing localities from enforcing mask mandates, and his new order wiping out unpaid fines, public health efforts have little teeth.

So Florida, now is the time to bring in the big guns. By guns, I mean Tom Brady and his right arm, which he can now use to throw masks across the land. Call in “The Rock” too. 

Dwayne Johnson is apparently one of the nicest men ever, a man who is not ashamed to play tea party with his daughter and well placed to encourage COVID etiquette among the in-crowd.  

We know that the time for action is now.  Last year, a study tracked how COVID-19 followed 2020 spring breakers back home, using their smartphones to track them and their virus from their party scenes. The study, College Student Travel Contributed to Local COVID-19 Spread had a database of 1,326 universities and 7.5 million university students across the United States. Students who traveled to popular Florida spring break destinations contributed more to the spread of the virus compared to the average student. We don’t want a repeat.

More: Will spring break crowds fuel another surge?

College students are among last on the vaccination roll-out unless classified as essential workers or have a health condition. To date, 28 percent of the US population have been vaccinated, reminding us that we are not at our goal of a 70 to 90 per cent target vaccination needed to acquire resistance to the virus, reaching herd immunity.

As a professor in Michigan, I watched my sister, Cheryl Vamos, an associate professor of public health at University of South Florida go through the first wave when it hit last year. I watched the video of the young man boasting “If I get Corona, I get Corona, it’s not going to stop me.” She described last year’s pandemic as “surreal” with so many unanswered questions, even as  spring breakers were allowed to let their party flags fly.  No one knew any better.

Now we do.  But last month the nation witnessed the mask-less Super Bowl festivities in Tampa. The outcome was Hillsborough County’s health department launching a national effort to track COVID-19 cases connected to other states and celebrations associated with the Super Bowl as a potential super-spreader.  The more this happens, the more work lands on public health officials.

In preparation for spring break 2021, Miami Beach voted on a 7-week plan to enforce COVID-19 measures such as mask use and social distancing, including ads with the slogan ‘Vacation Responsibly.’  On March 20, the city of Miami Beach declared a state of emergency, including a 8pm curfew in hopes to control unruly spring break crowds. Bring in reinforcements like star power to help reiterate everyday COVID-19 public health measures we should all know very well by now.

So far in Florida there have been more than 32,000 deaths, with the number of new cases over 5,000 and on the increase. My sister described public health as a “team sport,” but says that not everyone is giving it their best effort. “Behavior change can be hard and it’s even harder when people think they are not at risk,” she said.

Some people just don’t get it. Others have become desensitized, an effect referred to as psychic numbing – the more who die, the less we care. Experts at USF Health explained that people who normally wear masks may choose not to do so among crowds relating this behavior to a social phenomenon, image, inconvenience, and risk-taking.

Should state and public health officials encourage celebrities to use their platform, although private citizens, to help save countless lives, to combat the pandemic? During an ongoing global health crisis, yes.

As more spring breakers pour onto Florida beaches, now is the time for the state to call upon its new number one resource, Tom Brady. Invite Brady to be the voice to spread COVID-19 messages for his newly chosen state. This gives the football hero a second chance following his Super Bowl MVP speech, where he gave up the opportunity to send important public health messages to millions of people, such as ‘wear a mask.’ We have seen how he promotes a healthy lifestyle by drinking those fruit smoothies, but what’s more healthy than avoiding the plague?


Influencers — whether it’s a celebrity like Brady or the Rock, or sponsored campus social media stars like Baylor University twins Brooklyn and Bailey, or a community leader on the ground —  all can help. The hope is to be a role model, wearing masks in public, washing hands and staying socially distant – even after being vaccinated, even on the beach, even after a tequila or two. 

Sandra Vamos is an associate professor of public health at Western Michigan University.

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