Editor’s note: Since this story was written and sent to the printer on March 20, many things have changed. On the same day that Hillsborough County had its first coronavirus-related death on March 26, county leaders unanimously voted for a safer-at-home measure that goes into effect tonight at 10 p.m, a day after City of Tampa Mayor Jane Castor issued a stay-at-home order against the wishes of county administrator Mike Merrill.

All sides came together for Thursday’s decision, which urges residents not to go to work unless they are performing an essential service, not to visit friends and family unless its an emergency as well as maintaining a six-foot distance from others if you go out.

Trips to grocery stores, pharmacies and doctor appointments are allowed, as are outdoor activities like biking, jogging and walking your dog as long as social distancing is fulfilled.

Also, since this story was written, the number of cases of coronavirus in Florida has increased from more than 500 to nearly 2,500, and the number of deaths has nearly tripled from 10 to 29.

In Hillsborough County, there are 151 cases of coronavirus, and only 21 in Pasco County.

Be safe. — JCC

The shelves containing toilet paper, hand sanitizer and other necessities at area stores like Publix get emptied quicker than they are re-stocked, as fears grow about the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The novel coronavirus death toll has reached double figures in Florida, and the number of positive cases has surpassed 500.

That was on March 20, when we went to press with this issue.

What are those numbers today, as we land in your mailboxes?

Doubled? Tripled? Quadrupled?

Or worse?

Efforts to flatten the curve and prevent the spread are creating new dilemmas.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered schools to be closed, maybe for the rest of the academic year. Small businesses and restaurants are closed, some possibly forever. Many jobs are gone, and may not return.

“It is all happening so fast,” says Hunter’s Green resident Denise Maguire. “Every day we learn more.”

An ABC News/Ipsos poll released March 20 revealed that 72 percent, or nearly three out of every four Americans, now say their lives have been upended in some way by Covid-19.

The previous week, that number was only 26 percent.

And, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases for the National Institutes of Health, continues to say things are going to get worse before they get better.

Because testing has lagged, the full extent of the virus remains unclear. In New Tampa, BayCare Urgent Care on Bruce B. Downs (BBD) Blvd. opened a drive-through site (above) for coronavirus testing on March 18 (other sites by other providers also are open in the Tampa Bay area). 

Tents are set up behind the building, although only those who meet the strict criteria — fever and cough for at least a week, recently traveled internationally, or contact with someone infected — established by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) & Prevention and the Florida Department of Health are being tested.

Roughly 1,500 were tested at all seven drive-through sites set up by BayCare on the first day, and just under half of those who showed up were tested while the others did not meet the criteria and were turned away.

Social distancing is currently the best defense against coronavirus, according to the experts — which is why pictures of crowded Pinellas County beaches that have now been closed horrified many — and locally, people have been taking heed.

They also seem to preparing for the long haul — toilet paper, milk, eggs and hand sanitizer are among the items that have flown off the shelves at Publix, Winn-Dixie, Wal-Mart and others, as local stores hustle to keep the shelves stocked.

To combat hoarders, Publix and the Publix Pharmacy went as far as to set aside times (Tuesday and Wednesdays, 7 a.m.-8 a.m.) where only seniors (age 65 and over) could purchase needed items, since they are the most at-risk for the virus.

“Spring Break” Extended

Schools have taken drastic steps as well, closing until April 15, and it seems most likely they will not reopen by then, and that the 2019-20 school year will either have to be extended or completed online.

“The district is working very hard to come up with a plan providing as much support as they can,” says Hunter’s Green Elementary kindergarten teacher Roxi Coriell. “It’s been amazing to see the response from teachers across the nation. I’m in all these Facebook groups and everyone is sharing all these resources. We’re trying to wrap our brains around what resources are available and how to put them to use.”

In an email to parents on March 19, new Hillsborough Superintendent of Schools Addison Davis announced that for the 2019-20 school year, all state-administered assessments are canceled, school grades will not calculated and all school districts will be required to launch and successfully implement an eLearning Continuity Plan.

Davis also said the Florida Department of Education (DoE) is working with the CDC to determine graduation plans. Wharton and Freedom seniors have been scheduled to graduate May 26 and 28, respectively.

The Wawa on S.R. 54 in Wesley Chapel remains open but prohibits customers from gathering outside.

As the illness spread nationwide, Floridians were at first encouraged to keep the size of any groups or gatherings at 1,000, then 100, then 50 and finally 10, numbers that seemingly changed every day.

People have been encouraged — but not yet forced, in all cases — to work from home, creating a whole new set of circumstances to deal with and forcing many businesses and parents to adjust.

Restaurants have suffered the brunt of social distancing locally, and while a few remained open last week as we went to deadline, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced as we were finishing this issue that restaurants can only be open for take-out and delivery.

Restaurants in New Tampa (& across Florida), like Las Palmas Latin Grill, had to quickly convert to takeout & delivery only to comply with Gov. Ron DeSantis order on Mar. 20. (Photo: John C. Cotey)

At Glory Days Grill in New Tampa, managing partner Jorge Hernandez says he and others have been blindsided.

“It’s pretty insane how everything happened so quickly,” he said, adding that sales had been up at his location before heading into March.

According to Hernandez, in the span of a few weeks, his restaurant had lost 60-80 percent of its business. On a typical night, he would have 10-12 servers working the floor. Before DeSantis shut down dine-in service, he was down to two, and he thinks that may be one too many now.

He had to let 70 percent of his staff go, although he hopes to rehire all of them when business returns to normal.

“We are keeping everyone on benefits, donating food to employees, trying to do these things to keep our (work) family together,” Hernandez said. “But, it’s so difficult to see my staff’s faces. It hurts.”

Hernandez said that one day last week, nine of the 10 people in his restaurant were friends, neighbors or family there to support him and/or his staff. 

“It made me want to cry to see their support,” he said.

Like many restaurants in New Tampa, Glory Days is hoping curbside pick-up helps blunt the blows, but Hernandez knows it won’t be enough.

A little ways up the road, The Brunchery, which had only opened a few months ago, closed its doors for what management hoped would only be for two weeks.

“But, I think it will be longer than that,” owner Stanley Athan said.

Athan says that business had been slowly declining as the coronavirus news worsened, but on March 18, it dropped off the cliff, as fewer than a dozen tables were seated and he quickly made the decision to close.

As he drives around Tampa, he sees restaurant closures everywhere. And, those that aren’t already closed are only delaying the inevitable, he fears.

Athan also closed a restaurant he owns in Seattle, WA, which has been one of the coronavirus hotspots, last week. 

“This is unprecedented,” he said.

If he has to stay closed for six months, he’s not sure he will be able to re-open.

The New Tampa Regional Library (above) has closed, and larger businesses that draw crowds, like the recently opened Urban Air Adventure Park, also have suspended their operations — at least temporarily.

The entire Tampa Premium Outlets on S.R. 56 was already shut down, and many stores at the Shops of Wiregrass also followed suit.

TJX, the parent company of HomeGoods, TJ Maxx and Marshalls, announced it was temporarily closing all its stores.

 In accordance with social distancing, St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church suspended masses, while St. James United Methodist Church livestreamed services Sunday on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, with plans to continue to do so.

Family of Christ Christian School on BBD may be closed due to the governor’s orders, but its child development center was still open to provide important daycare to children of parents who continue to work.

“Unless someone says I have to, there’s just no way I could close,” said Jill Hammon, the school’s director for the past 13 years just before we went to press. “What I’m surprised about, though, is how many people had to pull out because they’re not getting paid…We’re just trying to keep it running the best we can, because if we shut down too much, it will be hard to be able to open again.”

Meanwhile, the New Tampa YMCA closed on March 17, but continued its spring break camps, which were already in progress. At press time, the Y planned to stay closed until March 29, then re-evaluate when or whether to resume operations. And, on March 23, the New Tampa Y started offering all-day school-age relief care for essential workers.

On social media, dozens and dozens of people are offering their support, as well as their supplies and services. Maguire posted on NextDoor.com that she was willing to help with any grocery or supply deliveries, and was thrilled to see she wasn’t the only one offering.

“The last time I went out, I noticed there were very few people on the road and nothing in grocery store,” she said. “It was one of the reasons I put that note out there to help. There’s plenty of people who can’t afford food, who aren’t working right now. Since I did that, I’ve seen a lot of other people put the same message out. It’s been wonderful to see the community coming together.” 

But, it will take more, she says: Listening to the experts, washing your hands and yes, social distancing. 

“It’s so important that we do these things,” she said. “It’s definitely going to be a challenge.”

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