MIAMI—Early Tuesday evening, a quartet of maskless, twentysomething beachgoers scanned the laminated menu near the outdoor seating area of Kantina, a Mexican restaurant on Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, Florida. The popular party strip was teeming with people looking to soak up booze and three-star cuisine amid a global pandemic that, at least until recently, appeared to be slowly ebbing away as vaccinations ramp up across the United States.
Still, Candelaria Mesa, the 23-year-old hostess manning the entrance to Kantina, told The Daily Beast now was the time for every food-service worker in Miami Beach to put their guard up. This week, she said, the first horde of Spring Breakers arrived in the city, posing a renewed threat that new COVID-19 cases would spike after more than a month of decline.
“I think Spring Break is going to be crazy and the cases are going to shoot up,” Mesa said through a black cloth mask. “People are out here partying and don’t take precautions seriously.”
The young woman explained that her co-workers were anxious to get the shots as party season set in.
“I know people here who are older than me and one who has asthma that want [the vaccine],” Mesa said. “And they should be able to get it.”
Likewise, Marco Gonzalez, a 46-year-old waiter at Smith and Wollensky steakhouse about 10 city blocks from Kantina, told The Daily Beast he would love to get the vaccine, but doesn’t know when he will be allowed to do so. Under the vaccination pecking order established by Gov. Ron DeSantis, food service, grocery store, and retail employees are in limbo—even as the state has no mask mandate and in fact prevents localities from enforcing their own.
“Absolutely, the vaccine should be available to us,” Gonzalez said. “We come into contact with hundreds of people a day. Most people at my restaurant have said they can’t wait to get the vaccine.”
Gonzalez said he felt relatively safe at work because Smith and Wollensky implemented stringent protocols to minimize coronavirus outbreaks among staff. But that’s not the case with every drinking and food establishment in South Beach, he added.
“I went to this bar the other night and it was COVID central,” Gonzalez said. “No one was wearing masks and it was packed to the hilt. I was like, ‘yeesh,’ and I got out of there.”
Earlier this week, Gov. DeSantis expanded the pool of who can get immunizations to law enforcement officers, firefighters, and school employees who are 50 and older. Previously, the governor zeroed in on getting frontline health-care workers and seniors 65 and older vaccinated. As of March 1, Florida has vaccinated 14 percent of the state’s 21 million people.
But the governor’s relentless approach to reopening Florida could intensify the spread of new coronavirus variants as college kids descend on the Sunshine State to let loose. During his State of the State speech in Tallahassee this week, DeSantis said he welcomes more visitors to Florida to keep the state economy’s humming along. That kind of thinking makes it even more imperative to give service industry workers their shots a lot sooner, according to infectious disease experts in Florida.
Spokespersons for DeSantis and the Florida Department of Health did not respond to requests for comment.
To be sure, the state is in a much better place than it was several weeks ago. Daily new COVID-19 cases have declined since late January. Since Feb. 1, the daily positivity rate has fluctuated between 5.2 percent and 7.4 percent. On Monday, Florida had a 5.6 percent daily positivity rate. During the same time period, Florida cracked 10,000 new cases a day only twice, on Feb. 1 and Feb. 5.
Florida is far from breaking through the pandemic, though. The influx of Spring Breakers, even though crowds are unlikely to be as intense as years past, is a looming threat, especially with the state leading the nation in the number of new, more contagious—and possibly deadlier—variant cases. According to the Miami Herald, University of Miami researchers found that the B.1.1.7 strain, or the U.K. variant, caused 25 percent of recent infections in nearly 500 samples taken from patients treated in Miami-area public hospitals. They also found samples of variants first sequenced in Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Aruba, Israel, and New York.
Vaccinating people who work in hospitality and retail is essential if Florida is going to allow out-of-state, college-aged tourists to turn up down here, Dr. Edwin Michael, a University of South Florida epidemiology professor, told The Daily Beast.
“You have to safeguard the industries that are serving those who come for Spring Break,” Michael said. “The problem has been that we don’t have enough vaccines, so the strategy has been to safeguard the older population.”
That is also the most politically favorable option for DeSantis. “Yes, politics definitely plays a role in this,” Michael said. “Young people don’t vote, while elderly people do. But if you are allowing people to come for Spring Break to have some economic activity, then you definitely have to begin vaccinating service economy workers as well.”
As Florida’s vaccine allotment continues to grow with the addition of the recently approved Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine, “the time has really come to start pushing vaccines to the 20- to 49-year-olds,” Michael added.
In a perfect world, the state would be supplying hospitality and retail workers with N95 and K95 masks until they become eligible for vaccines, Dr. Thomas Unnach, also a University of South Florida infectious disease professor, told The Daily Beast. “Spring Break will [create] a fairly high-risk environment, I think,” Unnach said. “Unfortunately, these masks are not readily available and we can’t provide them to every frontline worker. That is the dilemma we are facing now.”
In other words, Florida’s hospitality workers have to fend for themselves during Spring Break a year into a gruesome pandemic.
Adam Gersten, owner of Gramps, a popular bar in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood, said he’s held off on loosening restrictions at his watering hole—despite being allowed to do so—because he’s “very worried” about Spring Breakers charging into town.
“That’s why we haven’t relaxed protocol,” Gersten said. “When they leave and it’s rainy, hot, and shitty, we will take a look.”
Gramps is currently open for outdoor seating only with 50 percent capacity and patrons have to wear masks even when belting out tunes during the bar’s weekly karaoke night, Gersten said. If they had access to vaccines, it would give him and his crew peace of mind.
“It makes it that much safer to be around groups of people even in a tightly-controlled spot like ours,” Gersten said. “Also, the fact that restaurant, bar, and hospitality workers were to get vaccinated would project that there is momentum toward a workable new way of life that is leaps and bounds better than where we are at now.”
In explaining why he won’t shut down businesses again, DeSantis often cites the need to keep people employed and earning money. But if the governor wants to use service industry workers as political pawns, it’s only fair that the he prioritize them in the vaccination line, Gersten said.
“I think people who are considered essential—specifically those in hospitality, grocery stores, and high-volume places that he is touting as signs of his decisions to remain open were the right ones—deserve the vaccines,” Gersten said. “If you’re gonna use us for your political ambitions, pay us in vaccines.”