Florida and other states across the Sunbelt are thinning out the deck chairs, turning over the bar stools and rushing to line up more hospital beds as they head into the height of the summer season amid a startling surge in confirmed cases of the coronavirus.
With newly reported infections running at around 40,000 a day in the United States, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, warned on Capitol Hill that the number could rocket to 100,000 if Americans don’t start following public health recommendations.
In the past few days, states such as Florida, Arizona, Texas, and California have reversed course, closing or otherwise clamping down on bars, shutting beaches, rolling back restaurant capacity, putting limits on crowds at pools, or taking other steps to curb a scourge that may be thriving because of such factors as air conditioning and resistance among people to wearing masks.
“Any time you have these reopenings, you’re depending on people do to the right things, to follow the rules. I think that’s where the weak spots come in,” said Dr. Cindy Prins, an epidemiologist at the University of Florida. She warned that things are likely to get worse before they get better.
New confirmed cases in Florida have spiked over the past week, especially in younger people, who may be more likely to survive COVID-19 but can spread it to the Sunshine State’s many vulnerable older people.
The state on Tuesday reported more than 6,000 new cases. More than 8,000 were recorded on each of three days late last week. Deaths have climbed past 3,500.
Floridians ages 15 to 34 now make up 31% of all cases, up from 25% in early June. Last week, more than 8,000 new cases were reported in that age group, compared with about 2,000 among people 55 to 64 years old.
Hospital intensive care units are starting to fill up in South Florida, with a steadily increasing number of patients requiring ventilators. Miami’s Baptist Hospital had only six of its 82 ICU beds available, officials said.
Arizona, another hot-weather state, called on hospitals to increase their number of beds for a surge of patients and to fully staff their facilities. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey shut down bars, movie theaters, and gyms and banned groups larger than 10 at swimming pools.
Air conditioning could be a factor among states across the South where new cases have been spiking because it recirculates air instead of bringing it fresh from outside, said Dr. Kristin Englund, an infectious-disease physician at Cleveland Clinic.
“I definitely think the air condition and the oppressive heat in the South is going to play a role in this,” she said.
The coronavirus has been blamed for over a half-million deaths worldwide, including about 130,000 in the U.S., where the number of new cases per day has soared over the past month, primarily in the South and West.
“I would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 a day if this does not turn around, and so I am very concerned,” Fauci warned.
Health officials say the next several weeks will be critical to Florida’s success, or failure, with the virus. The Fourth of July, the reopening of Walt Disney World on July 11, and the Republican National Convention in Jacksonville at the end of August all loom on the calendar, promising to draw crowds and the potential for person-to-person spread.
While cities like Miami, Fort Lauderdale, St. Petersburg, and Sarasota have mandated masks, some people in Florida have been resistant.
Zoe Mitchell wasn’t wearing a mask as she tucked into a salad in St. Petersburg. The 26-year-old bartender said that if people are worried, “they should stay home.”
In The Villages retirement community near Orlando, tension has developed among residents who wear masks and those who don’t. And the split has been along political lines.
Ira Friedman, who along with wife, Ellen, is active in the local Democratic Party, said that at first, he would just make an exaggerated cough to get his point across if he saw someone without a mask. But he said he has become more vocal about it as the number of cases has grown.
“Unfortunately, we don’t find that the Republicans are following the same protocols as we are,” his wife said.
6,000 new cases of coronavirus infection in Florida