MIAMI—When it comes to living through a pandemic, Warren Colazzo is walking an increasingly absurd tightrope.
The 69-year-old Tampa strip-club mogul told The Daily Beast that he and his wife had COVID-19 in March when the coronavirus first began raging through Florida. He said he caught the virus at Thee Dollhouse, his exotic dancing palace—a venue he expected to welcome hordes of Super Bowl LV fans this weekend.
“It was a little outbreak,” Colazzo said of his own illness during a phone interview. “Five people got it, but we haven’t had anyone get sick in the last seven months.”
Colazzo added that he’s been so busy preparing for the big game festivities that he hasn’t had time to schedule an appointment to get the COVID-19 vaccine, which is available to people 65 and over in Florida.
After all, the hometown Buccaneers, led by future Hall of Famer Tom Brady, are playing for the Lombardi Trophy.
“With the Bucs playing in the Super Bowl, no one is thinking about COVID,” Colazzo said. “It’s an escape from what’s going on. The last three nights, I’ve met a lot of people from California and other lockdown states who came here just to party. They are not even here to watch the football game.”
But parties like that one are set to buck warnings from the nation’s top infectious disease expert—and could lay the groundwork for another surge, experts said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, told Americans during TV morning show appearances this week to treat Super Bowl parties like other major holiday gatherings such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.
In other words: Don’t mess around with the pandemic.
“You don’t want parties with people that you haven’t had much contact with, you just don’t know if they’re infected,” he told Good Morning America. “So as difficult as that is, at least this time around, just lay low and cool it.”
That kind of advice is largely ignored in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis has steadfastly refused to institute a statewide mask mandate, prevented local governments from enforcing mask rules, and has been adamant about never closing down businesses again, even as his state nears a 28,000 death toll.
In the Super Bowl host city of Tampa, a convergence of Buccaneers fans giddy that their team is the first franchise to play the big game on its home field, and out-of-towners desperate to escape the confines of more restricted states could spell disaster. Even though the NFL is permitting 25,000 spectators, the danger primarily exists in smaller venues outside Raymond James Stadium, where thousands more rowdy football fans will congregate, health experts warned.
“People attending the Super Bowl is not what I’m most concerned about,” University of South Florida epidemiologist Dr. Jason Salemi told The Daily Beast. “It’s how those in our community and visitors to our beautiful city decide to celebrate this amazing event. I would absolutely advise against crowded places, close-contact settings, and enclosed spaces.”
Dr. Jill Roberts, who also teaches epidemiology at the Tampa-based university, said her major concern was the possibility that international visitors, as well as those from other states, may be carrying new, more contagious strains of coronavirus and will exacerbate the community spread in the Tampa Bay region.
“These events have the potential to spread the new more infectious variants well beyond the state and should be avoided,” Roberts said. “Particularly worrisome is the possibility that venues will fill to capacity and not allow for any social distancing.”
Folks hell-bent on turning up at alcohol-fueled festivities that coincide with the big game seemed to confirm Roberts’ fears.
Greg Jones, a promoter from Charlotte, North Carolina, said he was definitely hoping the parties he was throwing at downtown nightclub The Kennedy SoHo reach “full capacity.”
In Tampa, bars and nightclubs can operate at 100 percent capacity if patrons can maintain a social distance of six feet. Customers and employees are all required to wear masks.
The Kennedy SoHo has space for roughly 400 people, Jones told The Daily Beast.
“There is going to be tons of people in Tampa,” Jones said, predicting that Fauci’s message would have minimal impact on Super Bowl revelers. “That’s not gonna restrict anything. Everyone is going out. It might even be better than an event I did at last year’s Super Bowl in Miami.”
Regardless, his Super Bowl parties will be under strict COVID-19 restrictions, Jones added. “No mask, no entry,” he said. “There are sanitizing stations going in and out of the bathrooms. And there are going to be personal bottles of sanitizer at each VIP table.”
Likewise, Colazzo said his venue has been operating with safety measures, but at full capacity, since Gov. DeSantis eased most COVID-19 restrictions in September.
Still, Colazzo, whose cabaret can hold up 300 people, said he’s not limiting the number of patrons for Super Bowl weekend.
“When you walk in, we take everybody’s temperature,” Colazzo said. “If you are not drinking or eating, you have to keep your mask on. That goes for the dancers too. They even have to wear masks on stage. I’ve also put extra doormen so when the line forms outside we can keep people six feet apart. If they act up outside, they won’t get inside.”
Tampa government and health officials are trying to minimize the impact of potential Super Bowl superspreader events. Ahead of the NFL’s biggest game of the season, Mayor Jane Castor signed an executive order requiring anyone walking outside in the city’s downtown and neighborhoods surrounding Raymond James Stadium to wear face coverings. The order, in effect until Feb. 13, states anyone cited for not wearing a mask could face a fine of up to $500.
Ashley Bellman, a spokeswoman for Castor, insisted the city was able to enforce the mask order even though it seems to conflict with DeSantis’ directive that no local jurisdiction can impose penalties against non-mask wearers. A spokesperson for DeSantis did not reply to email requests for comment.
The Florida health department’s office in Hillsborough County, where Tampa is located, is not in charge of enforcement measures, but has recently put out a couple of public advisories recommending people avoid get-togethers and instead hold virtual Super Bowl parties, according to spokesman Kevin Watler. The second advisory instructed people to mask up and to avoid large crowds and indoor spaces that don’t offer fresh air, he added.
But Roberts, the local epidemiologist, doesn’t think Castor’s mask order is having a meaningful impact, noting she’s already seen a “large number of photos and videos” showing attendees at Super Bowl-related events not wearing masks. “The order is not being enforced widely,” she said. “Unfortunately, enforcing such a measure on a large scale is unlikely without additional resources.”
More importantly, good time purveyors like Colazzo are not swayed by the ominous messaging from health experts.
“As human beings, we take chances everyday,” he said. “I don’t think anyone has a death wish, but I think a lot of people are very happy that they can go about their lives down here. It’s the perfect storm in Tampa.”