THE VILLAGES, Fla. — For months, many of the residents at one of America’s biggest retirement communities went about their lives as if the coronavirus barely existed. They played bridge. They held dances. They went to house parties in souped-up golf carts that looked like miniature Jaguars and Rolls-Royces.
And for months they appeared to have avoided the worst of the pandemic. From March through mid-June, there were fewer than 100 cases in The Villages, a sprawling community in Central Florida where about 120,000 people mostly 55 and older live.
But now as cases spike across Florida, the virus appears to have caught up with the residents of The Villages.
Since the beginning of July, hospital admissions of residents from The Villages have quadrupled at University of Florida Health The Villages, the hospital’s critical care doctors said. As of last week, the hospital admitted 29 Villages residents, all of them with the virus, said Dr. Anil Gogineni, a pulmonologist and critical care doctor there. That was up from the single digits three weeks before.
In Sumter County, the biggest of three counties where most of The Villages is concentrated, the number of cases ballooned from 68 in the first week of June to more than 270 last week, according to the county’s Health Department.
The Villages is a sprawling palm-tree-lined complex so big it has three ZIP codes, 55 golf courses and multiple libraries and movie theaters, drawing affluent retirees from all over the country.
Now many residents are confronting their new reality. “It’s seeping in, no matter what,” Rob Hannon, 64, said as he sipped a beer, adding that “friends that would come down for years are saying, ‘We’re not going to go.’”
The golf course is still crowded, he said, as well as the hair salon where his wife, Michelle, 53, works. “The women are still coming in but they’re a little more anxious,” Rob Hannon said. “You can’t stop living. But you can stop being cavalier.”
In an email to residents last week, Jeffrey Lowenkron, the chief medical officer of The Villages, said cases were increasing and urged them to take “proactive steps to reduce the risk of disease transmission.”
“They should consider postponing participation in social events with more than 10 people, particularly those events held indoors,” he wrote. “The upward trend is accelerating.”
That The Villages had initially seemed to escape the worst of the virus had been a point of pride for Gov. Ron DeSantis. The governor, a Republican who has strong support from the community, brushed off concerns about the risks during a visit in April. “There were articles written saying, ‘Oh, The Villages is going to crash and burn,’” he said. “They have like a 2% or 2.5% infection rate.”
But when he returned early in July, the infection rate had jumped to 9%.
More than a third of the cases in the state, one of the worst hit in the nation, have been among people ages 15-34, particularly in big cities, according to the Florida Department of Health. There have been serious outbreaks since the beginning in jails, nursing homes and farms.
Now there are signs that the age of Floridians getting the virus is shifting. Jackson Health System, Miami-Dade County’s public hospital, said last week that 18% of its coronavirus patients were 80 or older. Two weeks before, that figure was 9%.
About 20% of Florida’s population is 65 or older, the highest percentage in the nation alongside Maine, and that age group has made up half of its coronavirus hospitalizations and over 80% of deaths. As of Saturday, more than 45,000 of the state’s 350,000-plus cases are among that age group.
The rise in cases among older residents most likely stems from the spread of the virus by young people who are not taking preventive measures like wearing masks, said Dr. Madiha Syed, an infectious-disease specialist who works at University of Florida Health.
“You see, they don’t wear their masks,” Syed sighed. “What do you do?”
But even as cases climb, doctors in The Villages say they are prepared for an increase in patients. The hospital has enough capacity and antiviral drugs, Gogineni said.
One area of concern, however, is the four nursing homes in the community, and a number of others on the outskirts that also cater to residents.
Early in the pandemic, DeSantis took an aggressive approach to nursing homes, and the state’s outbreaks were not as deadly as they were in places like New York. DeSantis banned visits to nursing homes, ordered them to not readmit residents unless they tested negative twice, and opened at least 14 coronavirus-only facilities.
That helped slow the spread, but now health officials are concerned that nursing homes will not be able to avoid a coming onslaught of cases.
Lady Lake Specialty Care, which sits just outside The Villages’ boundaries and cares for some of its residents, reported 47 cases last week, according to Greystone Healthcare Management.
In the latest effort by the Florida government, the Agency for Health Care Administration last week issued a pair of emergency rules mandating that every nursing home and assisted living facility in the state test staff members every two weeks. (The rules do not apply to long-term care facilities.)
DeSantis on Wednesday said that more than 120,000 staff members of nursing homes and assisted living facilities have been tested during the past week, about 2.8% of whom were positive. “We are actually happy with that,” he said. Still, he played down a recent outbreak at an unnamed long-term care facility in north-central Florida where 50 staff members had tested positive.
Even with the spike, many residents at The Villages say they are conflicted about the virus and what to do now.
Some steps have been taken to help slow infections. Crowds around the faux Spanish colonial buildings and fountains are smaller, theaters are closed and the bands have stopped playing.
Yet, residents still congregate every day without wearing masks. They turn up the volume on a radio and dance in the squares. They crowd bars where songs by Elvis Presley and Bobby Sherman play. There are picnics and water aerobics classes.
Jim Lomonaco, 67, a former law enforcement official, shrugged off the latest headlines.
“I’m not pushing my luck but I’m not overly concerned. If it’s here, it’s here by now — we don’t have walls,” he said on a recent day. Bursts of loud laughing were heard from other retirees clustered around tables at a nearby restaurant. A few feet away, dozens of others were practicing a dance.
Don Phillippi and his partner, Flo Collins, both 79, sat watching in their golf cart, which many in The Villages call a golf car.
Collins, a retired nurse, said the couple wore masks when grocery shopping, and mostly stayed indoors playing card games. “I’m a nurse, so I know,” she said.
The only time they socialize is when they celebrate a birthday with friends at a restaurant. “But we’ll have a private room,” Phillippi insisted. “And we take the temperature and all that kind of stuff. To make sure everybody is OK.”
Even if they have had the virus, most Villages residents are reluctant to talk about it.
One resident declined to be interviewed because he was embarrassed after getting infected at a party.
“People are being very secretive,” said Neil Craver, 66, who said he got the virus two weeks ago. “It’s like the plague and they don’t want to let anybody else know that they’re sick.”
Residents say they have not received any directions about informing the management if they get sick.
About two-thirds of the residents are Republicans, according to local party chairs, and like elsewhere, some precautions are drawn politically.
“You can tell who is a Democrat, who is a Republican by their masks,” said Chris Stanley, the leader of The Villages Democratic Club.
“It makes no sense to me that there is some sort of a magical umbrella keeping the virus at bay, particularly because people are having parties around, with houses that have six, five golf cars parked out front,” she said.
Amy Rose, a Villages resident, lost her husband, Chad, a lab technician at one of The Villages hospitals, to what she believes was the coronavirus. His death, however, was recorded as a heart attack.
She and her husband both had coronaviruslike symptoms in January after visiting Disney World when the virus raised little concern in the United States. In April, Rose, 47, who had a heart condition, suddenly collapsed after exercising.
Rose’s cardiologist told her the coronavirus had likely contributed to his heart attack by narrowing the arteries. “They said that because he had that history of a heart attack they didn’t do the autopsy. They just declared it.”
“His death was very violent,” she said, breaking down in tears. “It was awful.”