Lost, found, gained: What the COVID-19 pandemic wrought in Southwest Florida

In the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, Southwest Florida lost much. It regained some. Fundamentally, by virtue of the crisis that unfolded here, it is changed.

Andrew Atkins
Naples Daily News

When COVID-19 reached Southwest Florida in March 2020, the full scale of loss the community would face was, at the time, unimaginable.

In short order, milestones and memories-to-be were upended. Nonprofits stumbled over a sudden vacuum of funding. People found themselves in, as one mental health professional described, an extended flashbulb moment — which for many is not over.

Since the onset of the pandemic, more than 2 million people have been confirmed positive for the virus in Florida. More than 30,000 have died.

Southwest Florida lost much. It regained some. Fundamentally, by virtue of the crisis that unfolded here, it is changed.

‘A very weird year’

 Lisa Dong - School: Lehigh Senior High School - Academic All Star

Lisa Dong remembers her last day in the classroom at Lehigh Senior High School. Like her classmates, she expected to return after Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered public schools to extend spring break closures in mid-March.

Instead, Dong hasn’t seen her friends in almost a year.

“It was kind of abrupt. We didn’t know just how bad the pandemic turned out to be,” she said.

Dong, as well as any number of students her age, missed many milestone moments: Prom, walking the stage to pick up their diploma and summertime goodbyes as they entered the workforce or went off to college.

More about Lisa:Lehigh Senior High's 2020 Academic All Star is Lisa Dong

If schools did hold major events — like graduations — they departed from the family-focused festivities they were before, opting instead for low-key, socially distanced alternatives.

“For me, it really sucks not being able to say goodbye or have some sort of ending or closure for my teachers, for my friends, things like that,” Dong said. “This has definitely been a very weird year.”

As a freshman at Yale University in Connecticut, Dong continued to miss milestones such as foregone first-year traditions, like a freshman formal and banquet.

Dong, who is a first-generation American, worries about her parents — Chinese natives living in the United States. A USA TODAY report notes violence against Asian Americans sharply increased in March 2020 as COVID-19 spread throughout the U.S.

Stop AAPI Hate, an advocacy group tracking hate incidents, said it received nearly 3,800 reports of hate incidents across the country since March 2020. The increase is in comparison to roughly 100 incidents annually in previous years, according to a separate USA TODAY report.

“It really just breaks my heart, because my parents are a little bit older, so I worry for them,” she said. “That’s a constant thing at the back of my head. You just never know.”

‘I didn’t know what was going to happen’

Kara Cardinal and husband Brian Cardinal pose for a portrait in their home office in south Naples on Wednesday, April 4, 2018.

Kara Cardinal remembers one wedding, in March, where she watched the DJ get phone call after phone call after phone call of postponements or cancellations.

This did not bode well: Cardinal is in the major moments business as the owner of KC Weddings & Events, through which she specializes in destination weddings and designs. Those few weeks in March when the state rolled over into a shutdown were “scary, very scary" for the Naples resident.

“Honestly, I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Cardinal said.

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She found out: As couples were forced to postpone or cancel their weddings planned through her altogether, she was thrust into a financially precarious position where, to some extent, she couldn’t perform the job she had created for herself. As an extrovert, the isolation took a heavy toll.

“I was incredibly depressed,” Cardinal said. “It was really, really tough for me.”

She received unemployment, which gave her enough time and resources to figure out what to do next. She offered a postponement package for her clients and took the time at home to focus on herself and her business, reorganizing her storage room, office, client worksheets and processes.

“I was able to change my outlook and my perspective,” she said. “This is a time I can use to focus on myself and my business and really hit the ground running.”

Now, a year since the virus threatened to cripple her business, Cardinal feels optimistic and more mindful of the need for family time.

“We’re getting more inquiries and bookings now than we did January and February of last year, before we knew COVID was a thing,” she said. “I am booking my ideal clients consistently.”

‘A community’s true colors come to light’

Callhan Soldavini

For the second year in a row, Callhan Soldavini is seeing clients cancel the events the nonprofits need to operate.

“I think our normal’s redefined,” she said.

The staff attorney at Legal Aid Service of Collier County has worked with nonprofits throughout the pandemic. Her office, part of the Florida Community Development Legal Project, represents more than 100 nonprofits from Broward through Hillsborough counties.

Related:Journalist shares tales of covering a pandemic

Consistently, those nonprofits have a larger need to serve during the pandemic, but they’re not able to have large, in-person events like annual fundraisers. Given Southwest Florida’s nature as a seasonal vacation spot, spring is the fundraiser season, Soldavini said.

Some nonprofits were able to host events prior to the March 2020 shutdown, but not all were so lucky. Just as vaccines seem promising, agencies are looking at a second consecutive year of missed fundraiser events.

“It’s just too on the cusp of ‘Is it OK to have this event, or am I putting my community at a greater risk for having it?” Soldavini said. “Unfortunately, for most of our clients, we’re still seeing a second year of in-person events being cancelled.”

Still, it’s not all so grim: Soldavini said nonprofits have largely adapted to the rapidfire changes thrown their way.

“They’ve really done a good job at making sure the mission is still served without cutting on the quality of the services,” she said. Be it transitioning to digital offerings or other approaches, “most of our clients have done an incredible job changing how they provide services to accommodate this new world.”

It’s not just the nonprofits adapting — surrounding communities have shown up to empower organizations through volunteering or other forms of assistance.

“In the face of tragedy, you definitely see a community’s true colors come to light,” Soldavini said.

‘This long flashbulb moment’

Nancy Dauphinais

Nancy Dauphinais said both mental health professionals and their clients have shared feelings of anxiety, depression, and loss.

“We’re all going through it, to some extent, together,” she said.

As the Chief Operating Officer for the David Lawrence Centers for Behavioral Health, a nonprofit providing treatment for children and adults who experience mental health and substance use challenges, Dauphinais said the early days of the pandemic proved to be a fast-paced learning experience.

In less than two weeks, Dauphinais said, the center’s therapists had to change from in-person visits to a remote model.

More:David Lawrence Center opens certified recovery home for men in Collier County

“That’s not how things were when they entered the field,” she said. “We kind of all had to catch up with that.”

For example, when counseling in an office setting, neither the therapist nor the client has to account for the possibility of a partner or sibling walking in, or of clients showing up in pajamas or bathrobes, or trying to hold their session from the bathroom or behind the wheel.

More to the point, Dauphinais noted an increase in the number of individuals presenting for crisis services.

“We’ve had record breaking numbers in our crisis unit for individuals under the Baker Act,” she said. “Many individuals’ stressors are exceeding their ability to cope.”

Collectively, the pandemic is similar to other crises that play out in front of and affect large swaths of people, like how people can remember where they were on September 11, 2001, those flashbulb moments that stick in their brains for the rest of their lives.

“There are definitely traumatic elements that people are experiencing,” Dauphinais said. “I think we’re in this long flashbulb moment.”

The scale of trauma is also vast: Some may have missed milestones like weddings or graduations, while others have seen loved ones on ventilators or even lost one to COVID. It’s hard to tally up the grief and keep moving forward when there’s no known or definite end.

“It’s hard until you know it’s over. When you’re in the midst of it, how do you calculate what’s gone until it’s over?” Dauphinais said. “You’re still racking up hard things. You’re still racking up loss. You’re still racking up damage.”

The stress is also unusual by the very nature of the uncertainty of the pandemic: Because there’s no end in sight, people are still bracing for more impacts. Still, Dauphinais believes healing is already happening.

“Human beings are resilient. The majority of people that witness a trauma will resolve that and experience that and have the coping resources to get through it,” she said.

In some ways, society has been forced to slow down and focus on what’s truly important, and there are more ways to access care.

“I think we are seeing healing,” she said. “Hopefully that will emerge and we’ll leave the rest behind.”

Andrew Atkins writes about food and features for the Naples Daily News. Contact him via email at andrew.atkins@naplesnews.com. To support work like Andrew's, please consider subscribing: https://cm.naplesnews.com/specialoffer/