by Jay Reeves | The Associated Press
Gulf Shores, Ala. Tourists and servers alike dance over tables and aisles at a restaurant on the “Redneck Riviera,” a beloved stretch of towns along the northern Gulf Coast where beaches, bars and stores are packed. Yet just a few miles away, a hospital lacking critical care beds, its rooms filled with people fighting for their lives.
On maps showing virus “hot spots” in red, this part of the US coast is shining like a bad sunburn. And the booming tourism heat after the 2020 lockdowns and travel restrictions is turning to a decline with only few signs of slowing.
Health officials believe the spike is due to a combination of the country’s lowest vaccination rates, unabated tourism, disregard for basic health precautions and the region’s carefree lifestyle, all combining at a time when the mutated virus was first States are evading new health restrictions.
On a recent afternoon, one shopper after another walked into a Gulf Shores souvenir shop with the mouth of a giant, fake shark. Mini-golf courses, bars, go-kart tracks, hotels and condominium towers were full. The National Shrimp Festival, which attracts 250,000 people to the Alabama coast, is scheduled for October despite the COVID-19 outbreak.
Inside the Hangout restaurant, where dancing is encouraged at the tables, “Cotton Eye Joe” received a raucous reception from largely immaculate customers.
“Where have you come from, where have you gone? / Cotton Eye Joe, where have you come from?” The speakers were scared.
Spokesperson Taylor Lewis said the revelation came just 12 miles to the north, South Baldwin Regional Medical Center was treating more than three dozen COVID-19 patients, about 90% of whom had not been vaccinated.
“After Memorial Day it was, ‘Everything is back to normal, go to the beach, take off your mask,'” said Dr. Burt Eicold, chief public health officer for Mobile County, west of Gulf Shores. Mobile County’s COVID-19 positivity rate has grown to nearly 30%, and the county has the most new cases in the state.
Lisa Hastings, a Louisiana native and nurse who moved to the Alabama coast with her two sisters, saw the situation in two ways. She was a little baffled by the wide-open scene from a professional standpoint, but she doesn’t hold it against anyone who wants to hang out and have fun, vaccinations or not.
“I think people like to be afraid and that’s why they have to live their lives,” Hastings said. Nearby, an Illinois tourist raids that the pandemic is fake and that vaccinations are another method of government control.
Some have decided against vaccinations and wearing face masks, choosing instead to party without caution at places like Flora-Bama, a sprawling beach bar on the Alabama-Florida line. There, bands play to large crowds filled with alcoholic drinks, including coastal favorite Sugar Bushwalker.
Lulu’s, a popular Gulf Shore restaurant owned by singer Jimmy Buffett’s sister Lucy Buffett, recently had to close for a week as the virus was racing through workers.
At The Dock, a beachfront restaurant that serves cold beer and seafood next to a public beach in Pensacola Beach, Florida, manager Justin Smith said the tourist season has been busy and that his employees are staying healthy, at least for now. have been successful. While more vaccinations could help, Smith said he would never need to vaccinate his employees.
“I’ve been here for 18 years. It’s not going to happen,” he said.
Outbreaks caused by the coronavirus threaten to overwhelm the region’s health care system and traditions. Panama City Beach, Florida cited the pandemic in canceling an annual country music festival scheduled for early September, and New Orleans banned mask-wearing and closed several events.
Urging people to get vaccinated, state leaders including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Alabama Gov. Kay Ive have resisted imposing new restrictions, even as hospital beds are full. On Monday, officials said 1,560 patients needed intensive care treatment in Alabama, where hospitals have just 1,562 ICU beds.
Hospital officials joined together in Pensacola last week to call for more vaccinations, while also debunking false rumors about vaccines and masks. In an area dominated by Christian conservatives, Mayor Grover C. Robinson IV made a direct appeal to churchgoers to take the shot.
“Our two hospitals are Christian affiliated,” he said. “The first thing it says throughout the Bible is, ‘Don’t be afraid.'”
More people are getting their initial vaccine dose than a few weeks ago, but it is not yet enough to stop the spread of COVID-19. Statistics show that among 11 coastal counties in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, Okaloosa County in Florida has the highest share of fully vaccinated residents at 41.3% by area. Many are around a third, and all are below the national average of about 51%.
Natalie Fox, a nursing executive with USA Health in Mobile, said medical workers are exhausted after more than a year fighting the pandemic. Still, people sick with COVID-19 – most of them not vaccinated – keep coming.
“We are receiving patients in every way because everyone is dealing with this heightened stress,” she said.
Rhonda Landrum, a 50-year-old health care worker near Mobile, recently didn’t get this mandate to get a shot after seeing all three of her unvaccinated daughters contract COVID-19. People are not taking the pandemic seriously, she said, and it is not safe to be out in public without a vaccine.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “I am at home.”