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3 years later: Covid lingers, but in Vero life has moved on

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of March 16, 2023)

This week marks three years since the abrupt closing of local bars and gyms over concerns that both types of indoor gathering places could spread the COVID virus, and though Vero bars and gyms are back open and thriving, unfortunately we are still trying to keep an eye on COVID-19 trends and statistics. 

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 illness were way down this week compared to last week, but we have no clear fix on what’s happening with new infections locally as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported receiving no case information for the week ending March 9 from the Florida Department of Health.

“There are five COVID-positive patients at Indian River Hospital this morning, none in ICU,” said Cleveland Clinic spokesperson Erin Miller on Monday. That is down by more than half from the 12 people hospitalized at the same time the previous week.

The number of Influenza cases causing hospitalization also has declined statewide this month, though for the past two weeks, serious cases of Respiratory Syncytial Virus (or RSV) have been increasing in Indian River County.

It’s believed RSV spreads the same way as COVID, and patients typically become ill two to eight days after exposure. People with RSV are contagious while they are symptomatic.

The American Lung Association says “most children contract RSV before age 2 simply because of contact with other children,” and that the viral illness is most dangerous to premature babies, those age 5 and younger, those born with congenital heart and lung disease, weakened immune systems or neuromuscular disorders.

Being in crowded places with people who may be infected or having exposure to other children or siblings who may be infected are common ways to pick up the virus.

Others who should be wary of RSV are “older adults suffering from lung or heart disease, such as asthma, congestive heart failure, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), people with immunodeficiency, such as organ transplant recipients, chemotherapy patients or HIV/AIDS patients.”

Bar patrons at Bobby’s on Ocean Drive in Central Beach, however, don’t seem to be afraid of catching COVID, flu or RSV while sipping their brews and cocktails. Manager Kristy Pomar said the bar’s regulars haven’t budged – except when the bar was ordered to close in 2020.

“It was not long at all as soon as the bar opened back up after those eight weeks we were closed that everyone came back,” Pomar said. “It’s full most of the time. I have a full bar right now on a Monday, there’s only one barstool open.”

Pomar, a 12-year Bobby’s employee, said the establishment kept all of its staff through the pandemic lockdowns and closings.

She attributes the patron and employee loyalty to  one thing. “It’s our owner, it’s been the same owner for 40 solid years and he runs a great business,” she said.

Nationwide, though, people are not lingering in indoor bars and restaurants like they did before the pandemic, according to a Washington Post report this past weekend. Nearly 40 percent of all restaurant traffic is takeout or drive-through. “About two thirds of adults surveyed said they were more likely to order food to-go than they were before the pandemic,” the Post report said.

The Post reported that nationwide, the number of people visiting a gym at least once per month was up 9.2 percent in January over January 2020 levels.

Numerous local residents who don’t live in a club community frequent Christi’s Fitness on Old Dixie Highway south of downtown Vero Beach for workouts and fitness classes.

General Manager Ron Gochee has worked in the fitness industry for 28 years, but lost his job in Wisconsin when the pandemic lockdowns hit and moved to Vero for better career prospects.

Just looking at the numbers for Christi’s, he says gym attendance has nearly crept its way back to pre-pandemic levels, as some protocols have become permanent.

“Everything was spaced out with more room between the equipment and it’s stayed that way. It hasn’t been put back, and it’s definitely increased everyone’s awareness of disinfection and made people more careful overall,” Gochee said.

Closed-quarter facilities like the kids’ center get less utilized now. “Our biggest drop-off has been parents of elementary school age children who used to come in and leave their children in the kids’ room. But our kids’ gymnastics program is doing better than ever.”

Christi’s hasn’t added outdoor programs or classes. “We really can’t because of the heat,” Gochee said.