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Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back: What South Floridians Are Saying About The Pandemic Now

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Mike Stocker
/
South Florida Sun Sentinel
The Las Olas Art Fair drew a crowd of mostly masked guests on October 17, 2020. The art fair is holding another show this weekend.

Florida has become the epicenter of the nation's recent surge in coronavirus cases. As of Sunday, 1 in 4 hospital beds in Florida had a COVID-19 patient in it. COVID-19 patients currently occupy about 44% of ICU beds in the state.

We recently asked our listeners and readers about the rising cases of COVID-19 in Florida and how they're feeling about the pandemic now. Here's what some of them shared with us:

Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back

The emergence of the highly transmissible delta variant has reignited fights over mask mandates, government restrictions and vaccination.

Of the 382 people who responded to WLRN's Instagram poll, 75% said they were worried about the pandemic now.

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How are you feeling about the pandemic now?

  • Worried: 75% / 287
  • Not Really Worried: 25% / 95

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Silvio Ortega, a rising junior at Florida International University, can normally handle stressful situations, but the length of the ongoing pandemic has flustered him. He is juggling, parenting, full-time school studying English and extra work hours at a coffee shop.

"I expected it, but I had some hope that it wouldn't — South Florida in a nutshell," he said. "South Florida, to me at least, is an area where it seems that we usually fall back two steps when we’ve gone forward three."

By the end of July, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties had reinstated their mask mandates in county buildings and strongly urged businesses to follow suit. Gov. Ron DeSantis' statewide executive order has prohibited mask mandates, driving towns and cities to take matters into their own hands.

Municipalities like Hallandale Beach in southern Broward County require mask wearing in city facilities. Because the city cannot issue a citywide mask mandate, said Hallandale Beach Commissioner Sabrina Javellana, it's up to individual businesses to decide.

Lavinia Cosenza, a former Fort Lauderdale resident who recently moved to Gainesville, believes everyone should still mask up. It's smaller and much different in Alachua County, she said, where she often observes people wearing masks inside businesses.

"South Florida is so transient, so I think people think less about the pandemic and more about the beach or the nightlife," Cosenza said. "It’s just two different worlds."

Mask On Or Mask Off?

The U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention has changed course more than once in response to an ever-changing coronavirus. Original recommendations around wearing facial coverings as a voluntary health measure were later revised. After more became known about the highly contagious delta variant, and new data revealed that fully vaccinated people could transmit the delta variant, the CDC reversed its previous guidelines. The federal agency's latest guidelines now recommend fully vaccinated Americans to mask up indoors where there is a high rate of transmission.

Miguel-Ángel Salazar, a Miami realtor, thought masks should be optional and only recommended, until he saw the uptick in new COVID-19 infections fueled by the far-more-contagious delta variant.

"At this point of the pandemic, I think masks should be mandatory in some instances, like close spaces, public spaces and schools," he told WLRN. "I think they should be optional and recommended in open spaces, terraces, cafés or anything outdoors."

When polled on Instagram on whether masks were mostly on or mostly off in public, 338 people selected the response, "Yes, often." Twenty seven percent, or 122 of the 460 people who responded, said they did not usually wear one.

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Do you use a mask when you go out in public?

  • Yes, Often: 73% / 338
  • Not Usually, 27% / 122

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"I've heard locals [say]: 'If I can get away with not wearing a mask then I won't. Vaccinated or not," said Stella Muñoz, 25, in Miami.

Back-To-School Woes

After a full year of remote learning, and the third school year impacted by the pandemic, the contentious mask debate has made school reopenings a challenge.

For some parents, like Lisbeth Heggerick in Boca Raton, the concern is the spread of the delta variant in classrooms. Her youngest child is not yet eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

"I'm worried about school protocols related to masks," she said. "They should be mandatory."

Only children 12 and older are eligible to receive a shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

Read More: Want To Get A COVID-19 Vaccine In South Florida? Here's Where And How To Do It

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Do you think a mask mandate should be established or reestablished in your area?

  • Yes / 79% 343
  • No / 21% 89

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A growing number of school districts are pushing back against Gov. DeSantis' rules that prohibit mask mandates on school property. In Broward County, the school board voted 8-1 to require facial coverings in classrooms, even as the DeSantis administration has threatened to dock funding from districts who refuse to comply. Meanwhile, a group of parents from across the state filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state's mask mandate ban. Arguments for the suit will be heard on Friday.

Juliett Cardona enrolled her child in Florida Virtual School this year.

"I simply don’t feel confident with the measures taken to keep our children safe from COVID," the Pembroke Pines parent. "The amount of cases and hospitalization our state is seeing on a daily basis requires more than what has been done."

On The Vaccine Front

A more widely available vaccine and lower rates of COVID-19 infections in early June signaled a return to the office for some workplaces. Others chose to operate on a hybrid schedule with some employees working remotely on a part-time basis.

Brittany Valera works as the Career Center lead coordinator in Coral Springs said remote work can reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus. And, she noted, save businesses money in protective equipment, sanitation products and electricity.

"I think if a business can run remotely, it still should," she said. "Yes, some places like bars and restaurants have opened and are being enjoyed by residents and tourists, but that sort of activity is optional. Going to work for many, is not."

State executive orders stand in the way of state-funded institutions, like Florida International University, from mandating vaccines. The university has launched a campaign urging students to get vaccinated.

Damaris Jimenez, a graduate student at FIU, appreciates the university's effort, but prefers limited in-person courses while COVID-19 cases are on the rise.

"It's disheartening to see people refuse the vaccine for those who are trying to do their part," she said.

National health experts say the emergency-authorized COVID-19 vaccines are protective against hospitalization and death. People who are fully vaccinated have a very low chance of getting ill, but the number of Floridians showing up for shots has been lagging.

Ricardo Maldonado, a medical scribe in Delray Beach, said his personal anecdotes from the emergency room and the ICU do not seem to have an effect on his unvaccinated friends.

"Most just do not want the vaccine because they think there is not enough 'information' out on it," he said. "Some believe they are young and healthy and do not need it, and others just don’t really think COVID-19 is a serious problem."

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Are you vaccinated?

  • Yes 92% / 436
  • No 8% / 36

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Ana Perez is a registered nurse in Miami-Dade County. She thinks the coronavirus will stick around.

"The 1918 pandemic only lasted a couple of years because the world wasn't as interconnected,” she said. “We haven't seen the worst of it yet. This new wave is going to be massive."

Navigating The Abnormal 

The latest phase in this pandemic has exhausted science teacher Daniele Leoce.

"I am anxious that the spread of the delta variant will bring us back to point A,” the Pompano Beach educator said. “And that the world and the way we interact with each other will never be the same again.”

A number of people close to Leoce have passed away from causes unrelated to COVID, but spent the last year of their lives in isolation.

"I don't want to put other people [in] danger, so I do fear judgement about wanting to just go on with my life, see the world, visit the people I love. But it's just true for me," she said. "Frankly, I'd rather die than spend more important years of my life isolated and missing experiences," she said.