ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) – Florida and other states across the street from the Sunbelt thin the loungers, turn the bar stools, and rush to set up more hospital beds as they head into the height of the summer season amid a surprising wave of confirmed cases of the coronavirus.
With infections recently reported at around 40,000 a day in the U.S., Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, warned Tuesday that the number could rise to 100,000 if Americans don’t follow public health recommendations.
In recent days, states such as Florida, Arizona, Texas, and California have reversed course, closed or otherwise curtailed the bars, closed the beaches, cut back restaurant capacity, curtailed crowds at the pools, or took other steps to address a plague that may thrive because of factors such as air conditioning and resistance to wearing masks.
“Every time you have these reopenings, you depend on people to do the right things, to follow the rules. I think there are the weaknesses there, ”says Dr. Cindy Prins, epidemiologist at the University of Florida. She warned that things are likely to get worse before they get better.
Newly confirmed cases in Florida have skyrocketed in the past week, especially among younger people, who are likely to survive COVID-19 but may spread to the many vulnerable elderly residents of the Sunshine State.
The state reported more than 6,000 new cases on Tuesday. At the end of last week, more than 8,000 were registered on each of the three days. The number of deaths has risen above 3,500. Floridians aged 15 to 34 now make up 31% of all cases, up from 25% in early June. More than 8,000 new cases were reported in that age group last week, compared to about 2,000 in people aged 55 to 64 years old.
Hospital intensive care units are starting to fill up in South Florida, with a steadily increasing number of patients needing respirators. Miami Baptist Hospital had only six of the 82 ICU beds available, officials said.
Badly hit Arizona called on hospitals to increase their bed count for a wave of patients and to fully occupy their facilities. Republican Governor Doug Ducey closed bars, cinemas, and gyms, banning groups larger than 10 from swimming pools.
Air conditioning can be a factor in hot weather conditions where new cases have emerged because it recirculates air rather than bringing it in from the outside, Dr. Kristin Englund, an infectious disease doctor at Cleveland Clinic.
“I think the air conditioning and the oppressive heat in the south will play a role in this,” she said.
The coronavirus has been blamed for more than half a million deaths worldwide, including about 130,000 in the US, where the number of new cases per day has skyrocketed in the past month, mainly in the south and west.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we get to 100,000 a day if this doesn’t turn around, which is why I’m very concerned,” said Fauci on Capitol Hill.
Van Johnson, mayor of the tourism-dependent city of Savannah, Georgia, with a population of 145,000, announced that he must wear masks, with offenders subject to $ 500 fines.
Savannah becomes one of the first cities in Georgia to take such a step. Republican Governor Brian Kemp has largely banned local governments from imposing stricter rules than the state.
The new round of shutdowns across the country is likely to spark another spike in layoffs.
Nikki Forsberg said she relies on government loans to keep the Old Ironhorse Saloon, the only bar in the Texas Hill Country town of Blanco, afloat after it closed for two months in mid-March and closed again on Friday by order of the governor .
She said the money for some of her eight employees got so tight during the first shutdown that she said to go to the bar and take everything they needed – small money, toilet paper, even one of the fridges.
“It has become so desperate,” she said. “By the time we reopened, we’d cleared the bar of all non-alcoholic beverage inventory.”
Health officials say the next few 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 in late August are all on the agenda, promising to draw crowds and the potential for person-to-person distribution.
While cities like Miami, Fort Lauderdale, St. Petersburg, and Sarasota have imposed masks, some people in Florida have been resistant.
Zoe Mitchell was not wearing a mask while tucking into a salad in St. Petersburg. The 26-year-old bartender said that if people are concerned, they should “stay at home.”
In The Villages retirement community near Orlando, tension has arisen among residents who wear masks and those who don’t. And the split went along political lines.
Ira Friedman, who is active in the local Democratic Party with his wife Ellen, said he initially coughed excessively to make his point clear when he saw someone without a mask. But he said he has gotten louder about it as the number of cases has increased.
“Unfortunately, we don’t think Republicans follow the same protocols as we do,” said his wife.
Elsewhere around the world, the European Continent decided to reopen to visitors from 14 countries – but not from the United States. The European Union also maintained its ban on visitors from China and countries such as Russia, Brazil and India where infections are high.
“We must remain vigilant and keep our most vulnerable safe,” tweeted President Charles Michel of the European Council.
President Donald Trump suspended accession of most Europeans in March.
Americans are a large part of the European tourism industry, and summer is a key period. More than 15 million Americans travel to Europe every year, while about 10 million Europeans cross the Atlantic.
The news hit the struggling shopkeepers hoping for a summer boom.
“Americans were 50% of my clientele,” complained Paola Pellizzari, who owns a mask and jewelry store on the island of Saint-Louis in the heart of Paris and heads the business association. “We can’t replace that clientele with another.”
Across the English Channel, it is also the other way around in some places.
Britain has re-enacted a lockdown in Leicester, a city of 330,000 inhabitants, which officials said last week accounted for 10% of all new cases of coronavirus in the country. Shops closed their doors and schools were prepared to send children home.
“I first opened my shop last week and saw an immediate increase in orders, and now I am concerned that this change will drop to no orders,” said James West, who runs a design and printing company in Thurmaston, just outside of Leicester.
Cook reported from Brussels. Associated Press reporters from around the world contributed to this report.
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