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Students, businesses respond to COVID-19 surge

Despite his mom suffering from breast cancer and multiple sclerosis, Shea Dixon waited over a month to get an exemption to take his summer class online, showing the challenges of a COVID-19 surge in Florida without the University of Florida’s original pandemic policies.

“You’d think if the college really cared at all, they’d offer more online classes,” said the 19-year-old UF political science sophomore.

Average daily cases per 100,000 people in Florida rose nearly 90% from May 12 to June 28, when they peaked at nearly 53 per day, according to the Mayo Clinic. Cases have since remained at a high plateau, UF epidemiologist Cindy Prins said. On July 16, there were 32,291 cases per 100,000 people.

“This has been more of an extended plateau at the top of the wave,” Prins said.

On Tuesday, UF Health Shands Hospital had 131 COVID-19 patients, 88 of them COVID-19 positive, Emily Mavrakis, a writer for UF Health Communications, wrote in an email. Of those 88, 21 were in the intensive care unit and medicine intermediate care. The other 43 were non-infectious patients, who weren’t COVID-19 positive but were still hospitalized.

The Omicron subvariant BA.5, which seems more contagious and better at evading immunity, explains the surge, Prins said. But she said a lack of mask mandates and Florida’s 68% vaccination rate are also responsible.

“I’m also seeing a lot of people are out and about, and they’re not necessarily taking precautions anymore,” Prins said.

In response, on June 15, UF recommended masking indoors and on public transportation, offering masks in classrooms and libraries. Everyone was also reminded to stay updated with vaccinations and get tested if symptoms arise.

But UF hasn’t brought back its quarantine, virtual learning and testing accommodations.

UF ended on-campus quarantining on Aug. 6 and stopped offering online versions of every class. Moreover, UF ended campus testing on June 17, instead encouraging testing via at-home kits, pharmacies or physicians.

“University leadership will continue to monitor developments with COVID-19 and make changes to address the situation if needed,” Cynthia Roldán, UF’s director of strategic communications, wrote in an email.

Following UF’s lead, Southwest Recreation Center has recommended masking, said Marty Dempsey, senior associate director for facility operations. He said attendance numbers remain constant and the gym remains safe, as more people wear masks and many original COVID-19 measures remain.

“COVID or not, this is going to be the new protocol,” Dempsey said.

If a staff member gets sick, Dempsey said the facility has enough workers to cover.

“I have high hopes of optimism that we’ll still be able to provide this outlet for UF students,” he said.

Students like Dixon want to see UF implement improved COVID-19 policies. When Dixon was on campus during the Omicron surge in January and February, UF didn’t provide emergency housing, instead requesting students quarantine off campus. But without money for a hotel or means to drive or fly home, Dixon had no options if he got sick.

Kolton Powell, a 19-year-old UF information systems sophomore, also had no options when he got COVID-19 in January. He struggled to find a hotel, as he was under 21, and he was about 1,000 miles away from home. He wants to see UF reimplement the quarantine housing from Spring 2021.

“It was not a great feeling being kicked off campus with nowhere to go,” Powell said.

Even if UF can’t require testing, Kathleen Chan, a 20-year-old UF biology pre-med senior, suggested it provide the option.

“Once you start giving people the opportunity to have that option, they’re more inclined to do the right thing,” Chan said.

Like Dixon, Ian Salinas advised online options for all classes. The 23-year-old UF physics senior said an in-person class last semester didn’t have recorded lectures for sick students.

“We either had to come to class anyway and just hope that we wouldn’t get anyone else sick, or just miss out entirely on the lecture,” Salinas said.

Moreover, Dixon said UF should expect, not recommend, masking like it did when Omicron peaked.

“That at the very least implied a societal expectation to be wearing a mask,” he said.

But Gainesville businesses remain optimistic.

Joe Cirulli, owner of Gainesville Health & Fitness, isn’t worried. At the pandemic’s onset, staff added fans with ultraviolet lighting, along with air conditioning and cleaning systems. Cirulli said as a result, no cases have arisen at his club, waning fears.

“Two percent of the people may come in wearing a mask,” he said.

Cirulli praised Florida Gov.Ron DeSantis’ COVID-19 policies, noting that while his gym closed for two months, clubs in other states closed for seven to eight.

“People can only be terrified for a certain period of time,” he said. “Then finally they say, ‘okay, I gotta live my life.’”

Raina Harter, co-owner of FreeRide Surf & Skate Shop, also isn’t worried about her business. She provides masks and hand sanitizer to customers, who have been more cautious compared to three weeks ago.

“Most of the time, they are all wearing masks and keeping their distance from each other, even in a small place,” Harter said.

But despite cautious customers, Harter predicts a continued surge due to DeSantis’ example. The governor has prohibited mask and vaccine mandates and downplayed the COVID-19 threat.

“I don’t think people in Florida really have somebody in authority that makes them feel that [COVID-19] is as prevalent as it is,” Harter said.

However, Harter also attributes the surge to burnout from the long-lasting pandemic.

“And some of us have gotten sick again, and now we’re like, ‘oh yeah, this thing’s still happening, we should be a little bit more careful,’” she said.

Prins also understands the desire for normalcy. But while she predicts falling cases the next few weeks, people must pay attention to case numbers and prepare to take precautions.

“And really pay attention if you start hearing red flags about a new variant that is looking very, very serious,” she said. “You can’t ignore that.”

Joseph is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.