(CNN) – Veronica Pena says she has spent the past year carefully navigating the Covid 19 pandemic in the state of Florida, which has virtually no restrictions. The Miami Beach resident has stopped going to bars, gets tested regularly and has a circle of close friends who are as cautious as she is.
Now, as she waits to be vaccinated against the Covid 19 virus, Pena has imposed a new restriction on herself: she won’t venture near areas like South Beach, where spring breakers, often unscrupulous, flock in search of a carefree vacation – and an escape from the restrictions that still apply in other parts of the country.
“I don’t see anyone taking the slightest precaution,” Pena, 32, told CNN. “No one is wearing masks, no one is distancing themselves socially.”
Images from spring break in South Florida hardly suggest that a deadly virus is still plaguing the country. Last week, an average of about 54,600 new cases and more than 1,000 deaths related to the virus were reported each day in the United States, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Visitors from across the U.S. flocked to some of the state’s most popular beaches during the day and mingled at bars and restaurants at night. About 100 people were arrested in Miami Beach last weekend after police responded to an unruly crowd, according to local authorities.
On Saturday, Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew because the crowds in the city were “more than we can handle.”
“You see these images of people crowded into bars, for example, mostly indoors, with no masks, virtually no physical distancing,” said Cindy Prins, an epidemiologist at the University of Florida. “That creates an unfortunately ideal situation for covid transmission.”
And the crowds show no signs of abating, with the Miami Beach police chief saying visitors have been increasing in recent weeks – and the trend is expected to continue in April.
Ms. Pena isn’t just afraid of contracting the virus herself. Like local officials and experts, she says she fears the crowds will lead to more outbreaks and devastation in her community and across the country – something she experienced firsthand when she lost her grandmother to the virus in October.
“I’m afraid there will be more deaths, as I’ve witnessed and been a part of the Covid victims,” she says, “We’re losing people left and right because of negligence and carelessness.”
South Florida residents CNN spoke with expressed similar concern, adding that they understand the difficult decisions government officials must make as they try to balance the desire for a healthy economy with the safety of a community. However, several residents said they wished the state would welcome visitors in a safer manner, with stricter enforcement of rules if violations occur.
It’s not a good look
Emily Arcia, who lives in Miami, said that for months she left the house only when absolutely necessary, and only went for walks on the beach with her husband – and only after donning masks and gloves.
While she is fully vaccinated, her husband just received his first vaccine, and going outside – especially now – makes them both nervous.
“I live by the ocean, I live right next to a park, and it’s crowded,” says Arcia, 66. “I don’t even go down on Saturdays and Sundays because it’s too crowded.”
During times when Covid 19 cases were piling up in the community, she heard the emergency services sirens from her balcony – much more frequently than usual. She is concerned that this situation could happen again.
“I have no idea what can be done to prevent what I think will be a spike in cases,” she said, “I’m hoping that the number of vaccines that will be available will somehow compensate. But, you know, it doesn’t look good.”
And it’s not just the state that could suffer the consequences.
“It’s not just about what’s going to happen in Florida,” says emergency room physician Dr. Leana Wen. “It’s about what happens if people go back to where they came from and then become asymptomatic carriers who could transmit the virus to other vulnerable people.”
The return of spring vacationers, she says, could fuel outbreaks across the country.
About 12 percent of Florida’s population has been fully vaccinated, according to CDC data. In the United States, about 13 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.
Local leaders fear lost progress
Florida has reported more than 2 million infections and more than 32,700 deaths related to the virus since the pandemic began.
The city was one of the nation’s Covid 19 hotspots over the summer, with dozens of hospitals reporting no critical care beds available, and infections rose again after Governor Ron DeSantis lifted state restrictions on bars and restaurants in September. There was never a statewide mandate for masks, and the governor prevented local governments from implementing their own measures.
Local leaders across the state have chosen to adopt their own restrictions, including mandatory curfews and masks. But a few days ago, DeSantis signed an executive order rescinding all pandemic-related fines imposed by local governments between March 1, 2020, and March 10, 2021.
Some Florida officials say it’s been a long, hard road to getting Covid 19 numbers back on track, and they worry that careless vacationers – coupled with highly contagious variants currently circulating and a still low number of fully vaccinated residents – could derail that progress.
“We’ve invested a lot of time and energy in getting all the key indicators down,” Miami Mayor Francis Suarez told CNN on Thursday. “Obviously, spring break brings a flood of tourists and they can’t think as conscientiously as the people who stay here and deal with the late impacts.
Gelber, in Miami Beach, is also concerned. “There are too many people who come and just want to blow off steam in a way that’s not acceptable, and we have a pandemic that I think is really a central basis for the variant,” he said recently.
That variant – B.1.1.7 – already accounts for about 20 to 30 percent of all current infections in the country, and that number is growing, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, said Friday, adding that it is likely associated with an “increase in disease severity.” Other recent research suggests that the variant may also be linked to a higher risk of dying from covid-19.
According to the CDC, Florida is the state with the most reported cases of the variant.
And experts, including Wen, warned that if infection rates remain high as the country works to vaccinate more Americans, it’s more likely that the virus will continue to mutate and more worrisome variants will emerge, which could not only be more transmissible, but also pose a problem for vaccines.
“So as the community grows, these variants could evolve and that could really set us back,” Wen said