Boat Parties Are the New Way to Spread COVID-19 in Florida
Despite warnings from health experts about spreading the novel coronavirus—and overwhelmed hot zone ICUs—seafaring partiers won’t stop turning up.
MIAMI—Seven young women stood on the dock of the Sea Isles Marina near downtown Miami around one o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday. One, who said her first name was Lola and refused to provide a last name, placed her hand over her eyes to block out the blistering sun. Dressed in a black bikini with black sheer pants, Lola turned to one of her companions.
“We need to find pier number one,” she said. “That’s where the captain told me the boat is.”
Nearly every Sunday since the pandemic shut down bars and nightclubs in Miami-Dade, Lola and her pals have chartered a small yacht for an afternoon getaway on Biscayne Bay to commiserate, have drinks, and dance from the bow to the stern, she told The Daily Beast. “It’s the only thing we can do,” Lola said. “Restaurants are not even doing dine-in. So why not get on a boat?”
Lola and her crew are among hundreds, if not thousands, of boat enthusiasts who are taking to the sea to escape the confines of life under COVID-19 in a global epicenter of the deadly disease. Over the course of an hour, five groups—not massive ones, usually of five to 10 people—descended on Sea Isles Marina to board chartered vessels that cruise local waters from Sunny Isles Beach on the north end of Miami-Dade to Key Biscayne on the south end.
According to local boating enthusiasts, charter brokers, and marina operators, recreational boating is experiencing one of its busiest summer seasons in recent memory, along with a high number of boat parties where precautions such as wearing masks and social distancing are nearly impossible to enforce.
As a result, getting turnt up on the water is contributing to the alarming spike in COVID-19 cases in Miami-Dade, a top pandemic hot zone, health experts and frontline workers warned.
The number of COVID-19 patients admitted into local hospitals jumped from 1,656 on July 7 to 2,278 on July 20, according to Miami-Dade’s most recent COVID-19 update. During the same two-week period, the number of patients in ICU beds rose from 343 to 513. As of Monday, local COVID-19 ICU beds were at 130 percent capacity. Meanwhile, Miami-Dade reported 2,797 new cases on Monday, bringing its total to 87,035. The Florida Department of Health reported 14,337 new positive cases statewide, the 13th consecutive day of 10,000-plus new cases.
“Our data from the Florida Department of Health and intake questions at our ERs and hospitals strongly support that boat parties are contributing to the COVID-19 outbreak in Miami-Dade,” said Aileen Marty, a Florida International University infectious disease professor who has been advising county Mayor Carlos Gimenez.
As of Monday, the 14-day average for Miami-Dade’s positivity rate was 28 percent, suggesting a very high load in the Miami-Dade population, Marty explained. Thus, even small groups on a boat pose a danger of spreading the novel coronavirus. “It is quite possible that one of those three or four people getting on the boat (assuming they live in different households) is positive,” Marty said. “People from the same household can get on a boat, but you should not mix households in a small boat at this time.”
A Miami-area hospital ER nurse told The Daily Beast it was frustrating to find out boat parties are raging full steam ahead as hospitals hit capacity with emergency rooms and intensive care units overflowing with patients sick from COVID-19. “I think it’s irresponsible and dangerous,” said the nurse, who requested anonymity because her employer does not allow media interviews. “Seeing people on Facebook and out in the community partying with their friends on a boat is infuriating. It’s a slap in the face to health care workers and science in general.”
In Miami-Dade County, Gimenez instituted new boating regulations as part of the reopening in May. Those rules prohibit boats from rafting—the practice of roping a number of small vessels together so it is easier for people in separate boats to gather socially. Each boat can only have a maximum of 10 people, including the captain. And everyone on the boat must wear facial coverings and practice social distancing rules.
However, the local boating community has a bit of a rebellious streak, according to Mark Santiago, an avid local fisherman with a 20-foot boat. “Generally speaking, we boaters are trying to escape the whole restriction of indoor areas,” he said. “We generally believe we are not doing each other any harm. ‘There’s no corona in the water’ is a general statement I hear a lot. And Miami Latins are generally rule-breakers. You tell us don’t do it, we’re gonna do it.”
Last weekend, while fishing for snapper along the mangroves near Black Point Marina in southwest Miami-Dade, Santiago said he counted more than six vessels packed with people, drinking and dancing as if, well, it wasn’t the summer of COVID-19. “The minute people leave the marinas and hit open water, the masks are coming off and forget social distancing,” Santiago said. “You see eight people on a 20 foot boat raising hell. It’s impossible to social distance.”
While Biscayne Bay and surrounding waters are regularly patrolled by county police, Florida Fish and and Wildlife Conservation law enforcement officers, and the U.S. Coast Guard, there is not enough manpower to crackdown on every reckless boat party, Santiago added. “It’s a game of whack-a-mole,” he said. “There has been a concerted effort of telling people not to anchor and untie boats, but when the cops leave, people come back and tie up again.”
Santiago said he’s seen this scenario play out at several boat hangout spots like Beer Can Island, Elliot Key, and the Haulover sandbar. “Then you have the Trump boat rallies, where those people caravan to one location and blatantly disregard the rules,” he said. “They don’t get bothered as much as the bros in their speedboats pumping rave music.”
While he insisted he has stuck to fishing with his dad, Santiago said he doesn’t think he would decline an invite to a boat party himself. “I’d probably join them if they asked me to,” he said. “And I would probably not wear a mask and act like nothing is happening.”
Folks in the local boating industry have repeatedly noticed the disregard for COVID-19 regulations. Chuck Hansen, owner of Fast Response Towing, said he regularly sees recreational boaters going about their business as usual. “Everybody is ignoring it,” Hansen said. “You see chartered boats with people jammed packed together. People just don’t care.”
Aabad Melwani, operator of the Rickenbacker Marina in Key Biscayne, said his dock has experienced a surge in the number of boat launches in recent weeks, and that there was a natural appeal during a pandemic. “There is no other leisure activity where you can be completely isolated with your family,” Melwani said. “If an area gets crowded you can pick up your anchor and move. Plus, it’s good to be out in the sun.”
It shouldn’t be hard to enforce COVID-19 regulations on the water, Melwani added. “People are creatures of habit,” he said. “In Miami-Dade, there are few places on the water people can congregate. As long as people are not being idiots and having raves on boats, it is the safest activity.”
Yet, for boat brokers and party promoters like Ernesto White, the only way to make money is to target locals like Lola and her friends and the few tourists still brave enough to vacation in Miami. White, who owns an event company called AM to PM Miami, said he used to put together parties on large boats that attracted up to 100 people at a time. Each person paid roughly $100 for an all inclusive party. He can’t do that anymore, so now he’s booking charters for small parties of up to 10 people for four-hour excursions. His packages start at around $1,200, covering just the boat and the captain.
“The smallest boat is typically 36 feet,” White said. “Because of the price range, we typically get the maximum of 10 people. Everybody has friends who put their money together to rent the boat.”
White said he will supply masks to his customers if they don’t bring their own and he informs them about the restrictions against tying up with other boats and anchoring off the barrier islands. “The water patrols are looking to stop anyone who is not in compliance,” he said. “We can’t stop our customers from not following the rules. We are not the corona police.”
Marty, FIU’s infectious disease expert, said people who insist on partying on boats should at least adhere to wearing masks. “There is no problem wearing a mask on a boat—the problem is wearing a mask in the water,” she said. “There is no excuse not to wear a mask in the boat.”
Back at Sea Isles Marina, Lola insisted she and her friends took their COVID-19 precautions seriously, including bringing gloves and hand sanitizer for each person. She wore a mask, which she briefly removed to speak to The Daily Beast for a few minutes. As she and her friends boarded a small yacht called “Paid in Full,” Lola said they usually cruise to the Haulover sandbar. She said boats anchored there are usually spread apart and other boaters don’t try to interact with them.
“We will vibe out,” she said. “But it’s not like how it used to be where everybody was like, ‘Hey, let’s turn up.’ Boats keep their distance.”
But even with experts’ concerns that boating with people you don’t live with increases the risk of catching the coronavirus, Lola said she wasn’t worried about that.
“My friends are limited and we don’t hang out with other people,” Lola said. “We are cautious. I have kids, so I don’t want them to get it. There’s no COVID over here.”