Beach days were back, parking lots were filling up again, and once-dark hotel rooms were beginning to glow orange with guests. And a little after 9 p.m. on a cool and starry Friday night, ice cream sounded good.
From a distance, it looked like a normal weekend indulgence, the cap to a postcard sunset, as families pressed close to the window of Twistee Treat in St. Pete Beach. They stood in a long, floodlit line that curled into the parking lot around the building’s big vanilla swirl.
Many did not, however, remain six feet apart. And it was hard to lick a soft-serve cone while wearing a mask.
Further along Gulf Boulevard, past dark stretches with lingering VACANCY signs, came swells of people strolling through propped-open doors of beach bars and restaurants, conversation spilling into the street. On patios, under string lights, couples and friends sat distanced from other tables and clinked celebratory beers.
Taking in scenes of Tampa Bay coming back to life on the first weekend most of Florida started to reopen, the notion that the U.S. remains in the clutch of a pandemic felt far away. Florida had just marked its deadliest week since the coronavirus first took hold here. Accordingly, many people stayed home, watching the world go by from the porch. For others, this 85-degree weekend with its newly-loosened rules felt more like a victory lap.
It was instinctive. When Lisa Lewis and Carenthia Prince met in Ybor City Friday night, they reached for a hug. The two friends pulled up short just before making contact.
Lewis, 38, from Gibsonton, and Prince, a 36-year-old who lives in Ybor, met up for dinner on 7th Avenue, where street segments were blocked off in one of Tampa’s Café and Retail Zones. They wore masks and carried hand sanitizer, but said it felt great to be out.
Tables took up part of the roadway, and restaurant workers in masks spritzed chairs with cleaner across from parked police cruisers. A “responsible patron checklist” hung on poles at each block. Finally, storefronts were lighting up again. But Lewis was surprised to see so few masks.
“I just wish they would be a little more cautious,” she said.
To hug or not to hug differed by person. Some friends reunited in the streets with running embraces and cries of “I missed you!” Jennifer Cadry, 44, of Brandon, opted for air hugs. She lost her job as a bartender during the shutdown, and to pay the bills, Cadry fought her discomfort and signed up to drive for Uber Eats and shop for Instacart. To see restaurants and other businesses open was a balm.
“As long as people are responsible and restaurants are sanitizing, it lowers the risk to the point that I feel comfortable being out,” she said.
Ybor’s sights — and the slice of normalcy they provided— proved irresistible to some who’d stayed indoors for weeks. Denise Vidro, 38, and Martin Torres, 46, had gotten fresh air from time to time on his motorcycle, but on Friday, they sat at Nicahabana and enjoyed a cigar and a cup of coffee.
“We’re always together, but we haven’t seen friends,” Vidro said, as she looked over at a large group sitting outside Tequila Bar Taqueria, where there was a giant jug of hand sanitizer on the hostess stand. “Watching them feels good. It’s so good to see people again.”
Saturday morning arrived with hot, blue skies and postcard-puffy clouds, almost like a personal invitation to step outside.
In Spring Hill, Bruce Gresh embraced the status quo. He relaxed. He watched the birds flit about his yard. He felt grateful to be safe.
In Seminole Heights, 72-year-old Sharlene Lindsey did the same. Her front porch was perfect for watching her younger neighbors walk and run by. She was content to stay put.
For many, Saturday came and went without a sense of urgency. To reemerge now felt like a needless risk. If they ventured out, some opted for masks, or made a quick stop for takeout. Others sought quiet spaces, like Lassing Park in St. Petersburg, so empty that pet owners could let their dogs off leash to wander.
A couple walked along the shore with an old-faced golden retriever, talking about whether their friend would be able to have a birthday dinner. Two people kayaked side by side in the bay. A duo pedaled a red tandem bike on the sidewalk.
A new mother held her baby while her husband carefully aimed a camera at them, holding a small bushel of sunflowers to use as a prop. Luis Gonzalez, 29, said he and Erica Gonzalez, 30, wanted to take photos to commemorate her first Mother’s Day.
Their son Leo Gonzalez was born on February 3rd. A month later they started quarantining, weeks before the state made the order official.
The couple moved from New York last year to be closer to family. They were able to introduce Leo to family in the weeks before the coronavirus hit, but it was hard to not be able to share their baby with loved ones, who have only seen his round cheeks and wispy hair over video chat.
“The goal was to be near family and start a family,” Luis Gonzalez said. “The one thing we had looked forward to had to be kind of taken away.”
Having a newborn meant Erica was already being cautious, but now her biggest worry is that she or Luis could become sick, unable to care for Leo.
In the next few weeks, they’re thinking about expanding their quarantine circle a little wider, but aren’t in any rush to go out. These days, Luis has been working from home, in a desk pushed next to his son’s crib.
Long before noon on Saturday, traffic on the Pinellas Bayway was backed up to the toll booth by Eckerd College. For those drivers, the slog to the Gulf was just beginning.
They’d soon find Pass-a-Grille Beach packed to the brim. Literally.
Signs indicating the beach was full prevented drivers on Pass-a-Grille Way from turning toward the shore, while Pinellas County sheriff’s cars lined Gulf Way. Deputies stood at each beach access point. No entry.
North and south along the shoreline, the beach faded into a sea of umbrellas along the dunes. People walked the wet sand and slept in the sun. Signs staked in the sand outlined the new BEACH RULES. Kids played in the 77-degree water.
Getting to the beach Saturday was a must for 18-year-old Olivia Manno. The Plant High senior who just finished online classes Friday said she came to the beach in a group of nine to celebrate a friend’s 18th birthday.
She normally goes to the beach twice a week. It’s been 52 days since her last visit.
“As a Floridian, it’s hard not to go,” she said.
Nearby, Christine Valdes and her husband were enjoying lunch at the busy Paradise Grille beachside. Residents of St. Pete Beach, they rode their bikes south.
They said so long as they stuck to outdoor dining, they weren’t so concerned about contracting the virus.
“We’re not trying to go inside any of the restaurants,” said Valdes, 55. “Everybody seems to be respecting their distance.”
Across the street, the famed Hurricane Seafood Restaurant seated patrons outdoors only. Servers delivered plates in blue gloves, bare-faced.
At Brooklyn South on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, a sign on the door asked customers to limit themselves to only three or four inside at a time. And stop touching your face! The line edged out to the sidewalk, where a man lifted his mask to take a pull on his vape.
“It’s good to see you,” a regular said to the guy behind the register.
“It’s good to be seen.”
Picnic tables at Casita Taqueria on Central were crammed, a tight-knit queue pushing out the door. Friends shared baskets of chips under Corona-branded umbrellas. Out front, four teenage girls wrangled Coast bikes from the kiosk and set off.
Across the street, motorcyclists and dog-walkers stopped to pick up bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches and iced coffee from Bandit Coffee Co.’s contactless station.
Elsewhere along the downtown corridor, St. Pete came to life in a patchwork. An OPEN flag hung outside one antique shop while others remained shuttered, yellow sheriff’s warnings still posted in the windows. WELCOME BACK banners and spaced-out tables materialized next to eateries with cautious instructions taped to the door. A crystal shop was open, a rattan furniture shop was closed. A smoke shop was open, a vegan cafe was closed.
Masks were few. Sundresses and sunglasses were many. Along the waterfront parks, hammocks hung from palms. Joggers and sightseers paraded down the walkways, past a closed playground and empty pool. Were they keeping their distance? Many were. Others, it was hard to say. There was a feeling of sweet relief, as bicyclists pedaled along the water, handlebar streamers catching the breeze.
At many of Beach Drive’s upscale restaurants, servers wore black masks, leaning in to take orders. A downtown trolley passed, lit up with instruction: COVER UR FACE B4 U RIDE.
Next to an Italian ice cart was a sign for $1 masks.
Under normal circumstances, Regina Kaza, 27, of Tampa, and Chelsea Lettiero, 27, of Westchase, meet every other week for yoga and brunch. This time, it was just an iced coffee from Buddy Brew in Hyde Park and a perch on the fountain. But it was a pleasant reminder of routine.
Neither has been out much. Kaza isn’t ready to go to a restaurant, but being outside where she’s able to keep her distance is nice. Lettiero went to dinner at Mother’s Restaurant this week.
“I was hesitant to come out,” Kaza said. “I thought it would be busier.”
All the tables in the Village Center were full, but were spaced apart. The Clark family dug into Bartaco takeout. It may not be the beach, 43-year-old April Clark said, but her kids needed to get off of their electronics.
“This is a nice compromise.”
At Armature Works, people sprawled in the Adirondack chairs across the lawn. And at International Plaza, thousands of people roamed the tile floors, about half in masks. More than 20 shoppers queued six feet apart outside Forever 21, mask required, to be one of ten people browsing its sprawling racks. Louis Vuitton had the same policy, while stores such as H&M, Victoria’s Secret and Gap stayed closed.
Kids held parents’ hands, and could only stare as they passed the once-energetic play area that now sat dormant.
“It’s great to see everybody back,” said Max Moyer, 20, the owner of a shoe-cleaning business that sits between Morphe and Abercrombie Kids. “But it’s different for sure.”
For some, this weekend meant sanity. Sonia Hass got breakfast at Clear Sky Cafe in Dunedin. “We aren’t being reckless but not living in fear,” she said.
For others, it was ominous. Laura McCrary of Palm Harbor, logging onto Facebook and seeing the scene outside, simply felt sad. She feared the surge that might arise in a couple of weeks.
Stephanie Addis, 45, of St. Pete, tried to recreate her Friday tradition with her boyfriend, getting carryout pizza from Old Northeast Tavern. But after a few outings in a few days, the guilt grew. “It felt wrong,” she said.
Matt Cardillo of Tampa, watching it all play out online, tweeted: “It’s a party in the eye of a hurricane.”
In the Sterling Ranch neighborhood of Brandon, Melissa Clarke was trying to decide what to order for takeout. She and her husband had been hoping for dinner from the Columbia Restaurant, but it wasn’t open yet. She was content to wait.
Her 50-year-old husband is immunocompromised, she said, and hasn’t left home in nearly two months. Clarke, 49, steps out only to drop off their dog at the vet and run curbside errands. They get groceries delivered. A few times a day, they go on a walk and say hello to neighbors from afar. When someone comes close, they cross the street.
Watching people rush back into the world left Clarke and her husband concerned: Will we lose more people than is necessary?
“We understand that people are restless,” she said, “but to us it is life or death, and being a bit restless is worth saving lives.”
She misses drinks at 7venth Sun Brewery in Seminole Heights. She hates that so many beloved places are struggling. But takeout was still on the menu.
“We will give it more time,” she said.
Staff writers Divya Kumar, Zachary T. Sampson and Emily Mahoney contributed to this report.
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