COVID-19 roared into the tri-county area in the spring and instilled incredible fear in Villagers and area residents. Not surprisingly, the fast-spreading pandemic was the No. 1 story of 2020 in The Villages.
Villagers lined up for COVID-19 testing in June at New Covenant Methodist Church in The Villages.
Elena Buell cleans tables in March at City Fire in Lake Sumter Landing. The staff at the popular eatery and its sister restaurant in Brownwood were adhering to strict cleaning schedules as fears of the Coronavirus spread throughout The Villages.
The fear became reality in March when The Villages pulled the plug on the St. Patrick’s Day celebration and shut down the town squares “indefinitely.” All movie theaters in The Villages also closed down after the Sumter County Health Department urged “public distancing” to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Villages restaurants immediately began taking multiple precautions to protect their customers as fears of the Coronavirus swept across the community. Staff members were busy constantly wiping down tables, counters, bars, doors and other high-touch areas as residents started to learn more about the horrors associated with the fast-spreading virus.
In March, Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a public health emergency after two Floridians tested “presumptively positive” for COVID-19. DeSantis argued that the risk of the Coronavirus in Florida remained low as 23 people had been tested and the state was awaiting test results on another 18.
Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a public health emergency in March after two Floridians tested ‘presumptively positive’ for COVID-19.
Schools closed, cancellations of local shows became the norm, the Florida Department of Health issued warnings for cruise ship passengers, bottles of hand sanitizer started disappearing from facilities in The Villages and toilet paper and paper towels quickly became nearly impossible to find in area grocery stores, which started operating on adjusted hours because of the pandemic. Area residents were encouraged to avoid large gatherings and Villages Honor Flight canceled spring trips to Washington, D.C. amid COVID-19 fears.
Villages medical providers sprang into action as the virus continued to grow. Premier Medical Associates launched a testing effort and DeSantis soon announced that eight people had died of the virus.
Coronavirus testing was under way in April at Premier Medical Associates in The Villages.
As the spread continued, many Villages restaurants started shutting down their dining rooms and the Leesburg Bikefest was canceled. And then the unthinkable happened – a Lady Lake woman was confirmed to be suffering from COVID-19 – the first known case reported in the local area.
Two Sumter County residents were then identified with the virus, one of whom tested positive at UF Health Leesburg Hospital. Businesses like the Starbucks at U.S. Hwy. 27/441 and Rolling Acres Road, Billy’s Café on U.S. Hwy. 27/441 and Kohl’s department stores temporarily closed their doors and St. Timothy Catholic Church canceled all of its Masses.
Testing for the COVID-19 virus and for future research on the disease got under way in March at The Villages Polo Fields.
A controversial Coronavirus testing site hosted by UF Health opened at The Villages Polo Fields. It originally was billed as for Villagers only but was quickly opened to all area residents once DeSantis visited the site and held a press conference there.
In April, Village of Winifred resident Carol Lynch died at UF Health The Villages Hospital. One of Lynch’s daughters, Shannon Lynch, said her mother tried desperately to get tested at the UF Health site at the polo fields to no avail. She also said she believed her mother acquired the virus in The Villages.
Village of Buttonwood resident Debbie Butler also died of COVID-19 in April. She was remembered and mourned by her friends, including fellow Buttonwood resident Viv Jackson, who paid tribute to Butler on a social media post.
Buttonwood resident Judith Maguire, right, with her friend and neighbor Debbie Butler.
At the end of April, DeSantis followed President Trump’s footsteps in praising The Villages for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic – despite groups gathering at Lake Sumter Landing and Sumter County sheriff’s deputies having to patrol the area to encourage social distancing.
In May, DeSantis altered allowed hair and nail salons, gyms to reopen after they had been shut down because of the pandemic. On June 3, DeSantis announced that Florida was moving into Phase Two of his reopening plan as the state was reporting 58,764 cases, 2,566 deaths and 10,525 people hospitalized.
Maskless Recreation Director John Rohan made a presentation in May before the AAC at Savannah Center.
Also in May, controversy erupted after The Villages relaxed its mask policy at recreation centers. The facilities went from requiring masks to requesting them, a policy decision that left many Villagers shaking their heads – especially when maskless Recreation Director John Rohan defied the policy during a presentation to the Amenity Authority Committee.
In July, Villagers formed a long line waiting for Coronavirus testing at Laurel Manor Recreation Center. A positive test triggered a deep cleaning at The Villages Charter School. And chain stores throughout the local area stepped up safety measures when DeSantis refused to make face coverings mandatory.
The exterior of the Van Patten House, the former home to Katie Belle’s.
The tumultuous times brought on by the pandemic took a heavy toll on Spanish Springs Town Square. In May, The Villages brass permanently closed beloved Katie Belle’s and promptly announced its desire to build apartments in the eatery that was the pride and joy of late Villages Developer H. Gary Morse and was named for late Villages Founder Harold S. Schwartz’s mother.
In September, TooJay’s Gourmet Deli also shut down, as did Demshar’s, whose owners, Villagers Dennis and Edie Demshar, had received between $150,000 to $350,000 in COVID-19 relief – money that was designated as a “forgivable” loan issued through the Small Business Administration. The money was obtained through Citizens First Bank.
President Trump steps off Marine One in October before speaking to a crowd of thousands at The Villages Polo Fields.
In October, Donald Trump Jr. canceled a book-signing event at Barnes & Noble after President Trump tested positive for the virus. Large crowds turned out at the town squares to hold prayer vigils for Trump as he was hospitalized. And on Oct. 23, the recovered president roared into The Villages for a rally at the polo fields in front of thousands of supporters – the majority of whom weren’t wearing masks.
Meanwhile, the number of new cases continued to rise at alarming rates across Florida and the tri-county area. At the end of April, Florida was reporting 33,193 cases, 1,218 deaths and 5,419 people hospitalized. In the tri-county area, those numbers were 568 cases, 28 deaths and 126 people requiring hospital care.
By the end of July, those numbers had increased to 470,386 COVID-19 cases across the state, with 6,966 deaths and 26,533 people hospitalized. The tri-county area was reporting 10,485 cases, 141 deaths and 773 people hospitalized.
Villagers lined up in July for COVID-19 testing at Laurel Manor Recreation Center.
By the end of November, 999,319 cumulative cases were being reported across the state, with 18,834 deaths and 54,867 hospitalized. In the tri-county area, those numbers showed 27,182 cases, 729 deaths and 2,321 people in local hospitals.
As 2020 finally came to a close, Florida was reporting 1,306,123 cases – a 2,122.7 percent increase since DeSantis announced Phase Two of his reopening plan in June. There had been 21,857 deaths and 62,508 people hospitalized. The tri-county area closed out the year with 37,603 cases, 877 deaths and 2,689 people hospitalized.
Now, Florida is dealing with how to get vaccines out to healthcare workers, first-responders, essential workers, seniors and other residents. Desperate Villagers expressed frustration this week about the lack of information about when vaccines would be made available to them. That anger was elevated when five high-profile Villagers with ties to the GOP – Diane Spencer, Steve Printz, Peter Moeller, Rich Cole and Doug Tharp – received the initial doses in a staged event overseen by DeSantis – one that certainly fueled Villagers’ desire to obtain the potentially lifesaving vaccine.
Marion County firefighters took part in COVID-19 testing earlier this year.
Earlier this week, Marion County announced a signup plan for residents 65 and older. Lake County also announced that it would begin issuing vaccines at Lake-Sumter State College in Leesburg and Cooper Memorial Library in Clermont. But Village of Silver Lake resident Kathy Strope said it was impossible to get through and sign up for the vaccine in Lake County.
Finally, Sumter County closed out the year by announcing that it would soon begin offering signup for the Moderna vaccine. The county announced Wednesday that it had received 2,500 doses of the vaccine – not nearly enough to vaccinate its more than 130,000 residents.
Dr. Sanford Zelnick
Sumter County Health Department Director Dr. Sanford Zelnick said an emphasis was being put on vaccinating medical personnel first. He said he’s hoping for a future mass vaccination event, and in a memo acknowledged that medical personnel giving the vaccinations will have to have been inoculated first.
“It will be necessary to vaccinate medical personnel who will not only be participating in that event but also are caring for COVID-19 patients in their medical practices on a daily basis,” Zelnick said.
He said his office will be working closely with The Villages Health to offer vaccinations to these medical practices.
“It is anticipated that a sizable vaccination force can be assembled by prioritizing vaccination this way, which will be augmented with additional support provided by Department of Health central office, in coordination with the Division of Emergency Management,” Zelnick said.