Party-going Floridians seem undeterred despite surge in COVID-19 cases

Florida’s coronavirus cases are continuing to surge, racking up the second-highest number after California in the US.

On Tuesday, the state recorded another 191 deaths, which topped its record number of people to die in a single day with the virus.

But despite this, there have been reports of people throwing parties and appearing to ignore social distancing guidelines that would help to bring the high numbers down.

Sky News’ Cordelia Lynch visited one of Florida’s counties that has made headlines for big bashes thrown amid the pandemic.

People are said to be renting holiday homes and throwing parties there
Image:People are said to be renting holiday homes and throwing parties there

The images were hard to believe.

In the middle of a surge in COVID-19 cases, police helicopter cameras filmed big groups of people partying close together in the streets, drinking and dancing with abandon, cheek-by-jowl.

The footage from Osceola County quickly played out around the world. Suddenly articles about “COVID parties” started to emerge – or at least re-surface. There was speculation about people deliberately exposing themselves to the virus.

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That seemed fanciful then, and after spending a weekend in Florida where the “party that went viral” took place, it still does to me.

But what we did witness were large groups, seemingly unaware or undeterred by the state’s rule that gatherings should be no more than 10 people.

That is potentially still very risky behaviour. On patrol with Captain Alex Guevara, he explained that once hotels and theme parks in Orlando closed, they started noticing more people renting holiday homes.

“Hundreds of people come down to these houses and pretty much they get out of control,” he said.

He claims some people are profiting from it – charging $40, $50 or $60 a ticket and renting out multiple homes.

Police patrols of the neighbourhoods appear to be working
Image:Police patrols of the neighbourhoods appear to be working

Back at base, Sheriff Russ Gibson told me: “They’re not wearing face coverings. They’re intermingling with others.

“Some are falling down drunk. They don’t have any regard for anyone else.”

They do, though, have families, and when they return, they are potentially putting them in a vulnerable position.

The area the police are patrolling in Osceola County is full of gated communities – large houses with swimming pools and close to major attractions like Disney World.

What's causing Florida's surge in COVID-19 cases?

What’s causing Florida’s surge in COVID-19 cases?

We are out on a Friday night when the police launch a massive crackdown.

There are patrol cars in every neighbourhood, a helicopter drifting overhead and lots of traffic stops. It seems to be working. Captain Guevara says: “Because of police enforcement, four parties have been cancelled tonight.”

He says some are being advertised online and that they’ve got a group of officers tracking them. The gates to these neighbourhoods are manned by security officers. Lots of the owners of the properties live abroad. Some of the guards look frankly a bit relieved when a police car turns up and they can help direct officers to where there have been noise complaints.

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Osceola County Sheriff’s Department says there have been more than 670 since mid-March. By midnight, there are still lots of cars coming in. Tonight, most seem to be staying indoors amidst the big police presence.

Even though there are clearly large groups, there’s nothing the police can do. They’re not breaking the law. But they are potentially exposing themselves to a virus that is still very virulent in this part of the country.

The next day, we meet a group of young people here on holiday who say Floridians don’t like being constrained by rules and they fear the state re-opened too quickly.

There is a proud pursuit of individual freedom in America, a libertarian attitude that underscores so much of the way people live their lives.

The nation has been cooped up for months and they’re now being told it’s OK to get out there. The messaging at national and local level isn’t clear. The problem is, everyone draws their line at a different point.

Mark Gibson

Graduates in Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 1990. Move to Los Angeles California in 2004. Specialized in Internet journalism.

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