Coronavirus Florida: Vulcan greetings, holy water-free zones and political elbow bumps
Combining the classic 1963 surf song “Wipe Out” with $2,500 in cleaning supplies, Tequesta Village Manger Jeremy Allen may have harnessed perhaps the most creative weapon for fighting the deadly coronavirus.
At 8:30 a.m. every day, the opening drum roll of the Surfaris tune rumbles through the speaker system at Village Hall, the cue for dozens of Lysol-armed employees to wipe down their work stations — and maybe even dance to the song’s signature guitar solo.
“The first day, we used the Barney ‘Clean Up’ song. That didn’t go over too well. So we clicked on ‘Wipe Out.’ Everybody started laughing and having fun," said Allen, who launched the aptly named “WIPEOUT” program on Tuesday.
“As I said in our staff meeting Monday, everybody can spend five minutes doing this so you can go home healthy to your families and so our citizens can feel safe when they come to Village Hall."
The coronavirus hasn’t hit Palm Beach County yet. But concern about the looming threat is already infecting our everyday lives and interactions in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
Handshakes are being replaced by fistbumps, elbow bumps and even the Vulcan hand sign. Hand-sanitizer dispensers, usually found in public restrooms, are showing up on shop counters. Hair salons are posting signs asking customers to reschedule if they’re feeling flu symptoms.
“We haven’t done that in the past," Hair Harbor owner Carlos Cocuy said of the handwritten sign he posted Wednesday in his South Dixie Highway salon in West Palm Beach.
“In the past we have had people say ‘I stayed home (from work) because I’m sick’ and they’re coming in to get a haircut. Now it’s time to think about the dangers, and I am personally taking it more seriously. If we do have an issue, it’s going to really hurt business."
No one is panicking. But with five Florida residents testing positive and no end in sight to a global pandemic that has killed more than a dozen people in the United States, precautions are being taken in ways that are slightly altering social routines, business practices, and even rituals of worship.
At St. Ignatius Loyola Catholic Church in Palm Beach Gardens, parishioner Willy Guardiola was surprised to find the holy water chalice at the entrance to Mass Wednesday empty and dry.
“To walk into a Catholic church and not be able to make the sign of the cross with holy water is very strange, something we are not accustomed to," he said.
But he said he understands why the Diocese of Palm Beach this week recommended the disease-prevention precautions, including the temporary suspensions of the wine chalice shared by parishioners and the tradition of shaking hands, hugging or kissing during the communal sign of peace.
“When you are in a church, if you pay attention, listen to how many people are coughing and sneezing during that one hour, you go, ‘wow!’” said Guardiola, who attends Mass three times a week and attends a Tuesday prayer session.
“And when the priest says do the sign of peace and you’re supposed to shake hands with the person next to you, now it’s kind of weird. You’re just looking at the person and flashing peace signs."
Aaron Wormus flashed the Vulcan hand sign instead of an actual hand shake as he greeted friends Wednesday on Clematis Street in downtown West Palm Beach. “Live long and prosper," he said, borrowing the famous “Star Trek” line that’s also an appropriate inspirational reminder during the coronavirus scare.
An invitation to Thursday’s Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce breakfast at The Breakers included this boldfaced line: “Please greet your fellow guests with a hello instead of a handshake!”
“Before every breakfast, I send out a reminder email about complimentary parking," said Sandy Coto, a chamber official. “But with all the news coverage and not wanting to spread the cold and flu and, of course, the coronavirus, I thought we could all make sure we’re more cautious."
It’s still OK to shake hands, just as long as you “don’t stick your hand in your mouth right after you shake somebody’s hand," Palm Beach County Health Director Alina Alonso told the School Board Wednesday.
But not everyone shares her confidence. And that has presented some awkward moments for candidates on the campaign trail leading up to the March 17 elections.
“There's a pause now when you reach out to meet someone," said Chelsea Reed, who’s running for Palm Beach Gardens City Council. “It is definitely affecting interactions."
At a meet-and-greet Monday at Ballenisles, she said, “we all agreed to do elbow bumps” at the suggestion of a resident. “And I’m a hugger," Reed said with a laugh, “so it’s going to be difficult."
On Friday, at the beginning of a coronavirus roundtable in West Palm Beach, Sen. Rick Scott shook hands with Sen. Marco Rubio, prompting a reporter to question whether that was an appropriate greeting. Scott responded by reaching into his pocket for a bottle of hand sanitizer.
Palm Beach County Commissioner Gregg Weiss said he is washing his hands more frequently than he used to. But he is still shaking hands and offering hugs — even though Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Giminez said at a news conference Feb. 27: “A nod is better than a handshake or a kiss."
On a trip to Washington this week, Weiss had a private meeting with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson.
“And he shook my hand," Weiss said. “People are concerned, but nobody is panicking yet."
School officials already are looking ahead to the chances of the outbreak affecting graduation ceremonies later this spring. “We will be marching 12,000 students across the stage and shaking their hands," board Chairman Frank Barbieri said.
Graduation ceremonies won’t be canceled, Superintendent Donald Fennoy promised.
“But we may look at alternatives … in terms of shaking hands, not just for the students safety but just for all the staff," Fennoy said with a laugh. “I can’t afford all of us to be in quarantine at one time.”
In Wellington, several horse owners are considering changes to the way they travel to equestrian events this summer. Many have asked about renting RVs, instead of staying in hotels, as a way to avoid the coronavirus, said Gigi Stetler, owner of RV Sales of Broward.
“They felt they might be safer in their own little germ-free house on wheels,” said Stetler, who is active in the Wellington Equestrian Festival.
Will Davis, owner of the Northwood gift shop Day By Day in West Palm Beach, said he instinctively pulled his arm back as he said goodbye to a customer on Tuesday.
“I told him, ‘No disrespect to you, but I’d rather just fist bump,’" Davis recalled.
After hearing reports about the coronavirus threat, he installed a hand-sanitizer dispenser near the cash register on the shop’s countertop late last month.
“I figured let’s just have it out," he said. “We have to be vigilant and not so narrow-minded toward just the coronavirus.
Davis said he has always practiced proper hygiene. But since the coronavirus threat, he said he has gotten into the habit of singing the “Happy Birthday” song twice to himself while washing his hands with soap and water — as a way to meet the CDC’s 20-seconds recommendation for scrubbing hands.
“You see those signs in restaurant bathrooms, ‘All Employees must wash hands before returning to work,’" he said. “The signs should say ‘All people must wash hands before returning to the world.’ Cooties aren’t something we should share."
At Tequesta, many of the village’s 109 employees are at least enjoying a few minutes of fun every morning as they listen to an old surfing song while wiping down their desks, phones, computer keyboards, arm rests and even their staplers.
“Hopefully other towns will follow our initiative," said Allen, the village manager.
Aside from the $2,500 in cleaning supplies for its WIPEOUT program, the village also has ordered 250 small bottles of hand sanitizer, with the Tequesta logo, that will be given out to Village Hall visitors in a week or two.
“I don't want people to panic that the world is coming to an end or anything," Allen said. “I also don't want to get sick for a week or two."
Coronavirus: What you should do now
Don’t panic!Remember that 80 percent of the cases are mild. The most susceptible are people with weaker immune systems such as the elderly and those with diabetes.
The best thing to do: Make sure you wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds before eating, after going to the bathroom and after sneezing or coughing.
Do not run out and buy face masks. The CDC does not recommend people who are well wear masks. Masks are recommended for sick people to keep infected droplets out of the air, for health care workers and for people caring for a person who is ill.
Cover your mouth when you cough and stay home if you are sick.