A Defining Time
Mason Gibbs, 18 months, is comforted by his mother, Kristi, as he is tested for COVID-19. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]
It respected no border, changed how we lived and left us feeling vulnerable. A year since COVID-19 gripped the world, its effects linger.
But we see the promise of better times ahead as vaccines continue to roll out in ever-increasing numbers.
As we hope for brighter days we take time to reflect on the year behind us and how it forever touched us.
We were united by fear, grief and uncertainty. But we braced against the fight, cried after our losses and celebrated the triumphs. As a community, nation and world, this was our era’s defining moment. And while the scourge is far from over, we never stopped blazing a trail to the future.
No segment has taken the brunt of COVID-19 harder than the healthcare field.
They were charged with treating and caring for people who carried a virus that many new little about a year ago.
“During the early part, the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) were giving recommendations at a rapid speed. It seemed like every hour there was a new initiative. They were learning and broadcasting what they were learning as fast as possible,” said Jennifer Teuton a nurse director at Ocala Regional Medical Center.
Teuton oversees the 59-bed COVID-19 unit at the hospital.
She said the hardest part of the experience was the initial lockdown of the hospitals, which barred family members from seeing patients, some terminally ill.
“When we had no visitors, it was very hard. We are healers, we are facilitators for family coming in and visiting. We really want that. It was really hard to watch patients that passed on visit with family via Facetime,” Teuton said. “That’s one thing that really sticks in my mind.”
It was a similar story for other hospital workers. Having dying patients isolated form loved ones hurt the most.
Dr. Ken Barrick, the director of emergency services at AdventHealth Ocala, said he tried to be as compassionate as he could, but it’s never the same as family.
“We’re physicians and provide treatment. We have family to provide comfort,” Barrick said. “I distinctly remember when patients couldn’t have visitors. That was really challenging. As a dad, as a husband, I don’t know how I would feel not being able to stand next to my loved one and hold their hand.”
Leigh Zeedyk, the lead respiratory therapist at AdventHealth Ocala, said watching patients get sicker and succumbing to the virus can be devastating.
“You get to know these patients. You work with them all day. To watch them progressively get worse is very taxing,” Zeedyk said. “I will never forget this year.”
While the world is learning to live with COVID-19, Tueton warns of complacency.
“I don’t know what the ultimate cure is. We can all hope and pray, but I don’t think we can put our guard down by any means. Each spike has taught us something new. We don’t put away the equipment we need; we wait and see,” she said.
Ocala Main Street Director Leighton Okus described it best: Survival mode.
For much of 2020, Ocala’s small businesses focused solely on keeping their heads above water.
Main Street, a non-profit organization focused on stimulating downtown Ocala, witnessed the struggle and failure of some businesses firsthand.
“We are always looking for ways to support the business and our community,” Okus said. “So, doing that through COVID-19 was super tough.”
For Buck Martin, the owner of the Tipsy Skipper – a tiki-themed cocktail bar in downtown – the pandemic hit at the worst possible moment.
The retro-themed bar opened on March 14, three days after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and three days before Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis shut down all bars and nightclubs because of the virus.
“Definitely lots of disappointment,” Martin said. “When we were finally in the stages of, ‘Hey, it’s finally here’, for that to be swept out from underneath us was like, what’s next?”
But no one knew what was next.
“You’re in the mindset of this could go on for another week, or it could go on for years,” Martin said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen.”
The state restriction on bars was lifted on June 5. That night, the bar sold out of its inventory and had to close shop while it restocked.
But the party didn’t last.
On June 26, the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation suspended on-premises consumption of alcohol at bars across the state after cases spiked.
The Tipsy Skipper and many other establishments resorted to selling to-go cocktails from June to September, when doors again opened.
Despite the struggles, Martin was one of the luckier ones.
“I think we’re doing excellent,” Martin said. “I wouldn’t change anything … We still have the challenges of any new bar.”
Not all were as lucky.
Feta Mediterranean Cuisine permanently closed its doors on July 3 after eight years of business on Southwest Broadway Street downtown.
“When Feta closed and when we lost some of our local businesses, that was hard,” Okus said, “knowing it was out of all of our control.”
Every business suffered. Some continue to suffer. Many movie theaters remain closed as owners weigh how to reopen while the movie industry releases precious few films to theaters.
But the streets of downtown are starting to get busy again. More people are starting to venture out to restaurants and other businesses.
Schools and sport
A year ago, as the pandemic grew, schools shut down. Students scrambled to adjust to school online. Teachers learned how to use Zoom, parents had to juggle their work and their children’s classes. High school student-athletes were devastated as their spring seasons came to an abrupt end.
A year later, students are back at Marion County schools and athletes returned to the fields and courts they call home. But it’s far from normal.
Students and teachers deal with quarantines if they have close contact with others who have confirmed cases of COVID-19. It creates a hectic situation at times. Teachers have had to juggle teaching both students in-person and virtually at the same time. It hasn’t always been easy, as the county forced 4,000 failing online students back into the classroom after the first nine weeks.
Last year, the shutdowns coincided with spring break. Students left and didn’t return.
“I think that we’re in a much better place than we were last year,” School Board member Eric Cummings said during a meeting on March 9. “Let’s not take it for granted that you have the opportunity to have a different type of spring break than we had last year.”
On the sports side, arguably no team was crushed by the onset of the pandemic and a lost season more than Belleview’s softball team. The Rattlers were 11-0 and the best team in the state, but the pandemic ended their quest for a state championship.
“It was like it was wiped off the face of the earth,” Belleview Athletic Director Phillip Small said.
He said it was devastating for the student-athletes.
“Because the whole time, like, I kept thinking back to my senior year and how much I soaked it up and how fun it was to compete with my buddies and play baseball with my buddies and I got to have a senior night … a lot of that stuff was taken away,” Small said. “My heart felt for those kids for a long, long time and still does.”
A year later, the Rattlers softball team sits at 10-3 and is the No. 9 team in Class 7A, according to the most recent Miracle Sports State Softball Rankings.
Despite the pandemic, Marion County teams have persevered and reeled off long runs in the state playoffs. Trinity Catholic’s volleyball team took home a state title, and Vanguard’s football team made it to the regional final in the fall. Forest’s boys’ basketball team made it to the final four of the state championships in Lakeland.
“The most important part is like I said, the kids get an opportunity to do their thing and compete and have some kind of normalcy,” Forest’s athletic director Donald Tucker said. “So, that’s been the biggest positive is that we’re still able to offer these things and give kids a chance to do the things they like to do.”
Additionally, the College of Central Florida’s athletics programs have flourished during the pandemic. The school’s baseball team was 21-7 and No. 8 in the country when the season was canceled a year ago. This year, the Patriots are even better, as the No. 5 team in the nation is 26-6.
The softball team is even better. The Pats are the No. 1 team in the country for the second year in a row and sit at 24-4 after being 30-1 in last year’s shortened season.
On March 11, 2020, Florida Supreme Court Justice Charles T. Canady entered the first order directing local and circuit courts to explore ways to monitor and mitigate the virus threat, while keeping the courts “open to the fullest extent” possible.
In the weeks that followed, as the national pandemic warnings sounded graver, the Supreme Court of Florida gave judges the ability to suspend, extend or otherwise change time deadlines .
Then Marion County jury trials came to a halt.
It was anyone’s guess how long the courts would be hobbled. By May, another Supreme Court order set forth guidelines for reopening. Central to the guidelines was the COVID-19 positivity rates. The order called for a two-week positivity rate of below 10% before trials could resume.
Courts functioned remotely as much as possible during this time to move things along, but still the backlog of cases continued to grow without jury trials.
The inmate population at the Marion County Jail hovered around 1,600 during this period, according to Paul Bloom, spokesman for the Marion County Sheriff’s Office.
Some judges adjusted bonds for non-violent misdemeanors in an attempt to keep the jail population under control.
It wasn’t until March 8 that the first jury trial, a DUI case, took place in Marion County.
While trials continue, the backlog of cases is great.
Getting through those cases will be “the hardest work,” said Fifth Judicial Circuit Administrative Judge Edward Scott.
Walter Forgie, a spokesman for the State Attorney’s Office, said that “In Marion County our caseloads have more than doubled since before the shutdown.”
No funding had been appropriated by the state or local government to give the courts more hands in addressing the backlog. In fact, the State Attorney and Public Defender’s offices were told to expect additional budget cuts.
Jury selection has also been an issue since trials resumed as potential jurors are excused based on COVID-19 issues.
“Fewer potential jurors in the courtrooms lead to longer jury selections. You don’t realize how much a mask can make it difficult to communicate until you’re talking across a room to a group of people,” said Public Defender Michael Graves.
Acknowledging the hard work ahead for judges, clerks, lawyers, and support staff as they move forward addressing the backlog, Graves reminds the public of their part to play, “Our court system is the one branch of government that requires citizen participation.
“The people of Marion County are answering the call,” Graves said. “We will do what needs to be done.”
Staff Writers Ainslie Lee, Brendan Farrell, Managing Editor Carlos Medina and Publisher Jennifer Murty contributed to this report.