COVID-19 one year later: March 2020 marked a month that forever changed Southwest Florida

Dan DeLuca
Fort Myers News-Press

One year ago, everything about daily life as we knew it started to change when the coronavirus arrived in Southwest Florida.

In a span of weeks, specialized terms such as social distancing, community spread, flattening the curve, and personal protective equipment became commonplace.

And the commonplace – attending a spring training game at JetBlue Park, cheering the floats at the Naples St. Patrick’s Day Parade, dining in a crowded restaurant, hugging your grandchildren – became wistful memories.

COVID-19 has exacted an immeasurable toll in the last 12 months. Some have paid a higher price than others. But no one has escaped untouched. Through February, there were a combined 88,020 COVID-19 cases and 1,331 reported deaths in Lee and Collier counties. 

Here is a timeline of how the coronavirus pandemic really started to take its toll on Southwest Florida during the month of March 2020.

Low quantities and shelves empty of cleaning supplies were seen at supermarkets across Florida last March amid concern over COVID-19.

March 1: The Florida Department of Health announced the first two presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 in the state. The first patient was identified as an adult Manatee County resident without a travel history and the second patient was an adult resident of Hillsborough County who had traveled to Italy. 

“Thanks to the extensive preparations and tireless work the Department’s staff has been undertaking since information regarding COVID-19 became available in early January, our county health departments, medical providers and all other partners in public health are well prepared to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Lieutenant Governor Jeannette Nunez said in the release.

March 6: The state health department confirmed the first two COVID-19 deaths in Florida. One was described as a “new individual in their seventies that tested presumptive positive” in Lee County following an international trip.

Meanwhile, shoppers stormed Southwest Florida stores in search of now hard-to-get products over health concerns from the coronavirus, much like they do when a hurricane threatens. As a result, Publix, Target, Costco and other major retailers began setting purchase limits on many of these items. Many chains also discontinued food sampling in their stores.

"We are helping our communities prepare by replenishing the stock of essential products such as Lysol wipes, hand sanitizer, bleach, water, canned goods and paper products," said Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for Publix.

March 7: Lee Health President and CEO Larry Antonucci said about 70 employees at Gulf Coast Medical Center were exposed to two Lee County patients who tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving at the hospital’s emergency room by ambulance on March 4. The next day, one of the patients, described then only as a female in her 70s, died.

The patients were eventually identified as Salvatore and Jermaine Ferro, a married couple from North Fort Myers who had celebrated their one-year anniversary with a February trip to the Dominican Republic. Salvatore spent five weeks in a coma and didn’t learn his wife had died until he awoke. Jermaine Ferro was the first Florida resident to die of COVID-19 in the state.

At the Lee Health press conference, Brian Hamman, chairman of the Lee County Commission, said the county was not activating the Emergency Operations Center. 

"We are a tourist destination,” he said. "We try to take appropriate precautions."

Statewide, there were 11 cases of COVID-19 among Florida residents. 

March 10: The state health department reported the first three COVID-19 cases among Collier County residents: a 73-year-old man, a 68-year-old woman, and a 64-year-old woman. All of the cases were travel-related as were the majority of Florida’s 21 cases to date.

March 12: Major League Baseball announced it was canceling the remainder of its spring training games and delaying the start of its regular season by two weeks. The Minnesota Twins, who were scheduled to host the Baltimore Orioles that evening at Hammond Stadium, canceled six home spring training games as a result of the cancellation and the Boston Red Sox canceled seven. 

Minnesota Twins pitcher Taylor Rogers said “the scariest part is the unknown. It’s like we are in a really extended rain delay.”

Major League Baseball would not start its regular season until more thna four months later.

That same afternoon, the NCAA Board of Governors canceled the Division I men’s and women’s 2020 basketball tournaments, as well as all remaining winter and spring NCAA championships. The decision came one day after it announced it planned to hold its basketball championship tournaments without fans.

For FGCU, that meant the women’s basketball team, set to host the ASUN Championship in four days, would not have a chance to capture its fourth straight conference title and NCAA Tournament berth.

“There are more important things in the world than basketball, and sometimes that smacks you in the face,” FGCU coach Karl Smesko said.

That evening, Walt Disney World announced it would close its Orlando resort through the end of the month. The Magic Kingdom would not reopen to the public until July 11 at limited capacity.

March 13: The Florida Everblades suspended the remainder of their season with 10 games left in the regular season. The Blades, who had the best record in the ECHL, were among the favorites to win the Kelly Cup.

“There’s a faint hope we can resurrect the season,” Everblades general manager and president Craig Brush said. “There are a lot of moving parts. It’s too early to really have a good diagnosis of what we’re dealing with.”

Two days later, the ECHL canceled the rest of its season, costing the Everblades a shot at their second league championship in franchise history.  

In the afternoon, the Florida Department of Education moved to close all public K-12 schools for an extended spring break due to the coronavirus. The decision effectively gave every school in the state an extra week of spring vacation. Lee students, who just started their break, would not return until March 30. Collier students, who were set to come back on March 17, had their return delayed to March 23.

Lee Superintendent Greg Adkins said the focus for the closure would be “ensuring that all of our schools have been cleaned deeply” while academic leaders worked on a plan to allow distance learning should the closures be extended.

“Right now at this time we’re hoping that this will be a short-term closure and then we can continue our education virtually for the short haul,” Adkins said.

John Gness, 77, was the second person in Lee County to die after contracting COVID-19.

March 15: The state health department announced Lee County’s second coronavirus-related death, a 77-year-old man. The victim was eventually identified as John Gness, a winter resident at the Crystal Lakes Manufactured Homes Community in Tice. Gness’ daughter said she had no idea how he contracted COVID-19 because “he was a homebody.” She did reveal, however, that he had recently visited Seminole Casino Immokalee to play video poker. “I remember that I yelled at him and told him to get his ass out of the casino,” she said.

Gness was the fourth confirmed COVID-19 death in Florida. That same day, the state surpassed 100 coronavirus cases, the vast majority of which were still travel-related.

March 16: With the availability of coronavirus testing still severely limited, Lee Health opened its first mobile test site and began using two commercial labs to more quickly determine who has contracted COVID-19. The appointment-only site collected samples from 30 people on its first day. In Naples, a similar site began outside NCH Baker Hospital Downtown. With testing capped at just 40 patients, an official with the Naples hospital started turning vehicles away just 15 minutes after it opened.

“It's about time and we need to have more tests available for everyone in the country who have symptoms,” Naples resident Florence Hall said. 

Collier County commissioners declared a state of emergency, which gave the county the power to take drastic actions to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.  Among the actions were canceling, postponing or limiting county programs with more than 50 participants and stopping non-essential meetings, such as advisory committees, planning commissions or neighborhood informational meetings.

A recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that groups should be limited to no more than 50 people in order to limit the spread of the coronavirus, drew the curtains on Southwest Florida’s theater scene. Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall, Artis-Naples, and a number of other venues announced they were suspending their scheduled performances, some through March, some until May. Most closures extended into the fall and beyond.  

The state Department of Health issued its first comprehensive COVID-19 daily report. There were 160 cases to date in Florida and five deaths. Of those, Collier County had seven cases and Lee had six cases and two deaths.

Bob Griswold, left, and Deirdre Griswold, right, walk out of their polling location after voting at the Bonita Springs Area Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. The couple chose to wear masks to vote as a precaution in response to COVID-19. "He has a lung problem, so I'm really concerned about him," Deirdre Griswold said.

March 17: Southwest Floridians turned out to vote on primary Election Day even as state and national authorities urged people to stay away from crowds amid the growing coronavirus pandemic. Neither Lee nor Collier reported major disruptions in voting, though hundreds of poll workers who had been expected to work during early voting and Election Day had dropped out due to concerns about the coronavirus. Despite the fears, close to 30,000 people in the counties voted in-person on Election Day.

"I wouldn't stop voting for nothing," Naples resident Nancy Smith said. "I live my life the way I live my life."

In a morning news conference, Gov. DeSantis announced a series of actions that would further upend Floridians’ daily lives. On one of the most profitable days of the year for bars and nightclubs – St. Patrick’s Day – DeSantis ordered them all to close for a period of 30 days, effective at 5 p.m. He also directed restaurants to reduce their capacity by 50%.

"These steps we're taking will reduce density, reduce crowds," DeSantis said, after conferring with the mayors of Miami Beach, Miami-Dade County, Fort Myers and Clearwater. "Our hope is these new restrictions will help that."

The announcement came less than 24 hours after Cape Coral and Naples government officials said their cities would not close any restaurants or businesses and would wait for further instruction from the CDC.

Lee commissioners declared a state of emergency, one day after their Collier counterparts. Some of the immediate effects included closing libraries, pools and recreation centers; automating toll collections on bridges; and limiting public access to county buildings and offices. 

Later that day, DeSantis issued another ruling that Florida’s K-12 school campuses would remain closed until at least April 15 but that schools would be starting online instruction on March 30. Also, he ordered the state’s colleges and universities to continue online-only classes for the rest of the spring semester and to cancel in-person graduation ceremonies.

March 18: The city of Naples closed its beaches and the Naples Pier while Collier County took the lesser step of closing parking at county beaches.

“We have great concern for our community that are elderly and high risk and we decided that was a prudent action for our community to close the beaches,” said Naples Fire Chief Pete DiMaria. “We also noticed there was very little social distancing on our beaches.”

One day later, Collier joined Naples in shutting off access to its public beaches.

Beachgoers walk along the shore near the Naples Pier on Friday, March 20, 2020. The city of Naples closed the Naples Pier and public beach accesses to limit the spread of coronavirus.

March 19: The troubling scenes of college kids partying on Fort Myers Beach prompted Lee County to also close its public beaches.

The spring break party is over, we need you to go home,” Commissioner Hamman said. “The behavior that has gone on, related to spring break, has absolutely violated what everybody else is trying to do with social distancing and it’s unacceptable.”

The order, effective at 6 p.m., closed county beaches and parking lots as well as the Fort Myers Beach Pier. Lee Tran service to Fort Myers Beach was also suspended.

March 20: Three days after Florida restaurants were told to reduce capacity by 50% and place tables at least six feet apart, Gov. DeSantis issued an order that closed all restaurant dining rooms and limited them to take-out and delivery service only. The order also suspended on-site alcohol sales, which essentially closed bars.

The move resulted in hundreds of layoffs in Southwest Florida as owners pondered their economic survival.

"I honestly have no idea what's next," said Jovana Batkovic, owner of Nice Guys in Cape Coral. 

In another executive order, DeSantis ordered gyms and fitness centers to close at least until May 8, the same direction given to restaurants and bars.

The Seminole Casino Hotel Immokalee closed, one week after John Gness, a part-time Fort Myers resident, visited the casino and died of COVID-19.

The Immokalee venue was among six Seminole casinos in Florida that shut its doors. 

Less than three weeks after identifying its first coronavirus cases, Florida surpassed 500. Collier County had 25 cases and Lee had 14.

March 22: Lee Health and NCH Healthcare System, Southwest Florida’s largest hospital operators, issued a public plea for blood donations as well as gowns, masks, and cleaning supplies.  More than 180 of their employees were quarantined because of possible exposure to the coronavirus though none had yet to test positive.

“As of now, we have the supplies we need," Lee Health's Antonucci said. "We do anticipate that a time may come when supply chain interruptions could result in shortages. So we are planning for this and tapping all potential resources, and we are working with our staff to make sure that we're using our supplies wisely.”

NCH Healthcare System RN Tracy Rogers provides a tour of the triage tent Friday, April 17, 2020, at NCH Baker Hospital in Naples. Nurse Rogers is the acting COVID-19 screener at NCH Baker Hospital.

Florida crossed 1,000 coronavirus cases, just two days after surpassing 500. Collier County had 33 cases and Lee 30.

March 23: Cape Coral City Council voted unanimously to close the city’s parks, playgrounds and golf course until at least April 6.

"The goal is to give a limited number of things for people to do so they stay home," said Mayor Joe Coviello who was among the council members who said they observed many people ignoring the CDC’s social distancing guidelines.

There were 72 flights canceled at Southwest Florida International Airport as the spread of the coronavirus wreaked havoc on the travel industry.

"This is nothing like we've ever seen before," airport spokeswoman Victoria Moreland said of the cancellations during a time that is normally one of the busiest months for the airport.  

RSW’s passenger traffic in March would decline by more than 620,000 compared to March 2019. Overall, 2020 would see about 4.25 million fewer passengers at RSW than 2019 and the annual count of just under 6 million would be the fewest since 2003.  

Gov. DeSantis issued an executive order that required travelers arriving in Florida from the coronavirus hotspots of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to self-quarantine for 14 days. DeSantis would rescind the order in August.

Images from Southwest Florida International Airport on Thursday March 19, 2020. Traffic is down at the airport because of the coronavirus pandemic.

March 24: Concerned about rising coronavirus cases, Collier commissioners voted unanimously to initiate talks with their Lee counterparts about asking Gov. DeSantis for the authority to close non-essential businesses if the situation worsened.

“It would be a very drastic step for us to take, but at the same time, I think that we’re living in times where drastic measures are necessary,” said Collier Commission Chairman Burt Saunders. “And if we do the right things, I think we can look back and feel comfortable that we did what we could to protect our citizens.”

There were 41 cases in Collier and 34 in Lee, which also announced its third COVID-19 death. The unidentified 67-year-old man had been receiving treatment at HealthPark Medical Center in south Fort Myers.

March 26: With Florida reporting more than 2,000 total coronavirus cases, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office announced it would begin using marine and aerial units to surveil county beaches to ensure people were not gathering in defiance of the closure order.

Sheriff Carmine Marceno said educating the public about coronavirus safeguards was the first priority but added that citations and arrests were also options if people continued to put others at risk.

"We don't want to complicate a very difficult situation," Marceno said. "But we can enforce and as a last resort we will."

Lee's Hamman urged people to continue to shelter in place.

"Think, before you ever leave the house, 'Is this a necessary trip?'" he said. "Do I really need to go out and do this?"

Lee County Commissioner, Brian Hamman, talked about tourism in Lee County and what steps the county was taking in heavily populated areas throughout the county. Lee County Sheriff's Office gave a media update on COVID-19. Officials with Lee Health, the health department, city, county and schools were on hand to say a few words, as well as answer questions.

Meanwhile, Gov. DeSantis faced growing calls from public health officials, healthcare workers and politicians to issue a statewide shutdown in order to lessen the spread of the coronavirus.

While he supported local governments who imposed stricter lockdowns in hard-hit areas of the state such as Miami-Dade, DeSantis cited the negative economic impact as the primary reason for avoiding a statewide edict, something he would never impose.

Many Republicans lauded DeSantis’ response to the crisis.

"My feeling on the ground is it’s getting better already,” said Congressman Neal Dunn of Panama City.

March 27: Lee Health announced two more COVID-19 deaths,  the county’s fourth and fifth.

One of the deaths was 39-year-old Conrad Buchanan of Fort Myers, who at the time was the youngest victim in Lee and the second youngest in Florida. The other victim was an unidentified 94-year-old man.

Conrad Buchanan (middle) poses with his family, son Ethan, daughter Skye and wife Nicole. Buchanan, also known as DJ Griff Gotti, died on Thursday after testing positive for COVID-19. At 39, he remains one of the youngest victims in Lee County.

According to his family, it took Buchanan, who had no underlying health conditions, five days of trying to get tested for the coronavirus. The day after his positive result came back, he was hospitalized. Four days later, he died.

"None of the testing sites wanted to take him," Buchanan’s wife Nicole said. "He was only 39.

"He was so scared. Watching somebody go through this ... it's just ... He was healthy. He was fine." 

Buchanan’s tragic story attracted national attention from media outlets such as CNN and People.

With five deaths among 95 confirmed coronavirus cases, Lee County’s mortality rate of 5.3% was one of the highest in the state. Collier County had 85 cases. Florida reported more than 3,000 total cases, just one day after crossing 2,000.

March 28: Lee County’s sixth coronavirus-related death – a 77-year-old man – was announced by Lee Health. At the time, it was the second-highest number of COVID-19 fatalities in Florida, trailing only Broward County which had 11 deaths.

Florida reported more than 4,000 total cases, just one day after surpassing 3,000. Meanwhile, Lee County reached 100 total cases and Collier County had 95.

March 29: Collier County reported its first COVID-19 death, a 61-year-old man who had traveled to Mexico and Haiti. Collier also reached 100 total coronavirus cases, one day after Lee hit triple figures.

March 30: Lee commissioners decided against implementing a shelter-in-place order and closing essential businesses, instead adopting a resolution based on voluntary guidelines shared by Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees.

"The challenge is, of course, to protect the health care system and the community to the fullest extent that we can which includes encouraging people to behave in a way that limits the spread of the virus," County Manager Roger Desjarlais said. "A stay at home order? Shutting down the county is physically impossible and I'm not sure what that means."

The decision came three days after Collier commissioners rejected a similar order and like Lee, opted to follow state and federal guidelines instead of implementing their own, more stringent ones.

Among the guidelines adopted were:

  • Encouraging people over age 65, people with high-risk medical conditions and people who have a cold or flu to remain home.
  • Restricting gatherings of private citizens to no more than 10 people with social distancing of 6 feet.
  • Encouraging businesses to allow people to work from home.

Fort Myers Beach imposed a 90-day ban on stays at its hotels, motels and other accommodations. The decision came on the heels of a move by the Sanibel City Council to institute a 45-day ban on stays. There was some concern that vacationers who had their reservations canceled on Sanibel would instead head to Fort Myers Beach.

Florida surpassed 5,000 total coronavirus cases, more than 10 times the amount of cases reported statewide just 10 days earlier.

March 31: Two more COVID-19 deaths were reported in Lee County – a 62-year-old woman who had traveled to Ecuador and a 95-year-old woman – bringing its total to eight. Lee also surpassed 200 total cases, 24 days after its first case was reported. Collier ended March with 146 cases and one death.

Statewide, Florida reported 1,037 cases on the month’s final day, the first time it topped 1,000. After reporting its first two coronavirus cases on March 1, the state ended the month with 6,741 cases and 85 deaths.