Coronavirus: Pandemic’s youth embrace myths as cases skyrocket
JUPITER — A young woman heading into the Square Grouper, a restaurant in Jupiter, said she didn't want to discuss the coronavirus on this pristine June night.
She then had a second thought and turned, saying, “I think it’s a hoax, and I think it’s just the flu on steroids.”
She then giggled and walked into the restaurant without a mask covering her mouth and nose.
Welcome to the new face of COVID-19 in Florida as positive cases for the 20-somethings have absolutely exploded since the state reopened from its lockdown in the last month.
The weekly median age for those testing positive in the state has dropped from 65 in March to the mid-30s — an extraordinary development.
In two months’ time, the infections for Floridians between the ages of 15 and 24 went from about 2,000 to more than 14,000 — a 600% increase.
Those aged 25 to 34 didn’t fare much better. Their numbers went from just over 4,000 to more than 20,000 — an increase of 400%.
And although their percentage is small, 76 young Floridians have died from COVID-19.
But the thoughts on the virus of the young woman along the marina in Jupiter was not an outlier among her peers out and about this week.
Of course, there are members of generation Tik-Tok taking this pandemic seriously. They are at home and not congregating in restaurants that turn into nightclubs when everyone is asleep.
This is the same demographic who mobilized heroically for gun control in the wake of the mass shooting two years ago at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
They participated heavily in the recent Black Lives Matter and they just mobilized to sabotage President Donald Trump’s Oklahoma rally by requesting tickets and never showing up, contributing to a half-empty arena.
Clearly not every member of Gen Z believes in civic duty when it comes to COVID-19.
Repeatedly, young adults who spoke to The Palm Beach Post said the virus was a hoax, that facial coverings couldn’t stop the spread of the contagion and that it was no worse than the flu.
It is as if a large swath of this generation, born in 1995 or later, collectively bought into a myth about COVID-19 that eschews all warnings by public health officials.
At the Square Grouper on this Tuesday night, one would be hard-pressed to find a face mask as people dined in the glow of the Jupiter Lighthouse at the edge of the marina. One senior had one. It dangled from his ear.
The scene was repeated on Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach. At Boca Raton’s Town Center. And at Drive Shack in West Palm Beach.
Efforts to reach representatives for comment with The Square Grouper and Drive Shack through voice messages and e-mail were unsuccessful.
’No worse than the flu’
But it’s not just restaurants and entertainment venues where young adults can be found not using personal protective equipment or practicing social distancing.They are also all over Boca Raton knocking on doors, without masks, doing the hard sell on solar panels.
This is the same group that made headlines for partying hard during spring break as the country ground to a standstill at the start of the pandemic.
“It’s just a normal flu season — just a little worse,” said Justin Chapman, 21, outside the Drive Shack, a golf range/restaurant in West Palm Beach. “I’ve known people who’ve had it and it’s no worse than the flu.”
The Stuart resident said that donning facial coverings and practicing social distancing won’t stop the spread of the infection.
This sentiment was also repeated by other 20-somethings. One said it was “scientifically proven” that masks don’t stop the infection from spreading.
Such a position not only eschews the pleas of public health officials but also factual data: In the 11 states that mandate wearing masks in public — such as New York, Illinois, and Michigan — new cases have fallen by 25% over the past two weeks.
Many of these young adults didn’t want to give their name for publication. Some were outright hostile when approached on the subject. One had a Palm Beach Post reporter thrown out of Drive Shack for asking questions.
“It’s more of an older thing. The people who are young get it and it goes away,” a 21-year-old male said on Atlantic Avenue. “If you are 80 and you get the flu, you are going to end up dying anyway.”
A hoax designed by Democrats?
When asked what he thought about COVID cases surging in his age group, the young man said it was a hoax — just like the woman in Jupiter — and added that it was designed by Democrats to stop the economy to hurt Trump’s chances at reelection.
“The kids do have a spirit about them that makes them feel invincible — you remember the age,” said Delray Beach Mayor Shelly Petrolia.
“The thing they should be thinking about is not how it is going to affect them but how it is going to affect those people who they are coming into contact with: their parents, their grandparents.”
Petrolia acknowledged that younger people who contract COVID are most likely going to fight it off and may not even have any symptoms. “But some of them will die. That is the reality of the situation,” she said.
A 17-year-old Pasco County teen became the youngest Floridian to die of the disease just in the past week.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said this week that while there has “been a real explosion” in new cases among young people, the vast majority of them show no symptoms of the illness.
He says the increase of positive COVID cases in the demographic is due to testing now available to the general public, as opposed to only the ill or health care providers at the start of the pandemic.
A 29-year-old Palm Beach Gardens woman, who asked that her name not be used, said she feels she may have contracted the virus this month after going to a crowded outdoor restaurant in Jupiter.
Her symptoms included the sniffles and a scratchy throat. She never felt feverish. Still, she tested positive.
“I didn’t expect there to be that many people. I wouldn’t be surprised if other people there got sick because there were so many people without masks. It was crazy,” she said.
The youth movement on the COVID front in Florida is making national headlines. CNN reported Thursday on a 29-year-old from Broward County who caught the virus at a house party. He ended up hospitalized and nine other people at the party also caught the pathogen.
On Atlantic Avenue or nearby Pineapple Grove in Delray Beach, the difference on how the generations are approaching this novel coronavirus is very apparent, said Delray Beach Commissioner Adam Frankel.
“From my perspective as someone who works downtown and lives downtown, I certainly see firsthand younger people are not taking the CDC recommendations of distancing and wearing masks while the older population certainly is,” Frankel said.
A reckoning predicted
Not all Zoomers were willfully ignorant. Some said they didn’t think wearing a mask was that big of a deal.
Antonio Posterino of Boca Raton, 20, already graduated from college and is working in public relations, said, “I think a lot of people in my generation have been socially irresponsible, and I don't think people really get it.”
Posterino said there is going to be reckoning.
“Unfortunately, it is going to have to take them contracting the virus or somebody close to them to contract it for a wake-up call,” he said.
Dr. Alina Alonso, the county’s top health official, first sounded the alarm a week ago about the “new curve” resulting from the virus running rampant among young adults.
“Those individuals have been in the ICU and there have been deaths — so that is very important we keep that in mind,” she said.
Larry Bush, epidemiologist with Wellington Medical Center, said it’s irresponsible and immature for young adults not to wear masks and practice social distancing as prescribed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
He said the backlash against wearing masks, now mandatory in the county, reminds him of those who didn’t want to buckle their seat belts in the 1970s.
“We save lives today because we buckle up,” he said in a letter as president of the Palm Beach County Medical Society. “So, let’s work together to mask up and follow the proven and sensible CDC guidelines and help stem the spread of the virus.”
Many of these young adults are heading back to college in the fall, heading back to the bars that cater to their campuses, working as waiters or as valets or supermarket cashiers.
Restaurants that turn into nightclubs, without masks or distancing
Right now as Florida sets daily records for new cases, the YOLO crowd is looking to party like it’s pre-COVID times.
Palm Beach County Commissioner Gregg Weiss at Tuesday’s meeting played videos of restaurants here and in Orlando that turn into nightclubs.
The videos show throngs of young people gathered and drinking, yelling over loud music. None are wearing masks or social distancing.
“It’s very concerning,” he said. “We see the data that they are being infected and we are also getting reports that numbers of them are getting hospitalized.”
Residents have filed complaints with the state’s Department of Business Regulation that a number of restaurants turn into nightclubs after hours and violate their terms of operating in the time of COVID.
Weiss said it’s time to crack down on these businesses.
“People thought this was one and done. We got through the shutdown, and we started reopening and people thought it was over. It was gone,” he said. “We know that is not reality.”
When Alonso saw a DJ with a mask dangling from his earlobe at Tuesday’s County Commission meeting, she quipped: “Wearing a mask below your nose is kind of like putting the condom in the wrong place.”
She said it’s obvious people want to have a good time “and those are the people who are going to get the virus.”
Weiss said it is unknown what this nasty virus can do to a young person years from now.
Experts: Virus may not be fatal now ... but later?
Dr. Cheryl Holder, an associate professor at Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine at Florida International University, told NPR that the human papillomavirus virus was thought to be asymptomatic. Yet, decades later some of those infected with HPV ended up with cervical and penile cancers.
Another example, the virus that causes chickenpox in children can come back as shingles years and years later.
“So you can't really rest on the fact that a disease that is new, that we know very little about, is going to be so benign, that it's just a little cold — it's not,” she said.
Colby Burdette, 27, of Boca Raton was at Town Center Mall visiting the Apple Store. The young man with a pleasant demeanor had a bandanna around his neck to use as a mask but said he suffered from asthma and didn’t like using it.
He did know of someone who had COVID.
Like other members of Gen Z, he came back to the flu comparison.
“I look at it as something you can’t really avoid,” Burdette said. “If you look at history you see that it’s happened before with the Spanish Flu.”
The Spanish Flu of 1918 killed more than 50 million people worldwide.
Growth in national cases by age
Since Memorial Day:
0-17 years old: +144.4%
18-44 years old: +68.9%
45-64 years old: +47.4%
65-74 years old: +41.1%
75+ years old: +37.5%
Source: USA TODAY analysis of data from U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.