A year after COVID-19 declared global pandemic, a look at South Florida then and now

(WSVN) - This Thursday marks one year since the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a global pandemic. We didn’t know it at the time, but everything was about to change. The Nightteam’s Karen Hensel looks back in our special assignment report: Pandemic: Past and Present.

The signs were strange and everywhere.

“Stay home, save lives.”

“Beaches & parks closed.”

“Wash your darn hands!”

From empty South Florida streets to shuttered stores and restaurants, life as we knew it had drastically changed.

Rey Valdes, Miami: “When it started, Lincoln Road was essentially like a ghost town. I mean, pretty much all of Miami Beach the first couple of weeks.”

It was March and April 2020.

The impacts of the novel coronavirus were just starting to come into frightening focus.

There were lines outside grocery stores, and panic buying that included a run on toilet paper, and if you felt like it was the end of the world, you were not alone.

Marlena Shaav, NYC high school student: “We live in New York City, and, like, it seriously looked like there was some sort of apocalypse.”

Jonathan Chakov, tourist: “Life changed. Life changed like overnight.”

Dr. Scott Schieman is a former sociology professor at the University of Miami. He currently works at the University of Toronto.

Dr. Scott Schieman, University of Toronto sociology professor: “I think people felt like, ‘OK, these might be temporary shocks, but how long could this really last?'”

As we now know, it could and did last.

What started with lockdowns led to a year mixed with fear, isolation and finally, some hope.

Dr. Scott Schieman: “Looking back was how abrupt everything felt for people.”

Restrictions forced businesses to close.

By April, more than a million Floridians were suddenly out of work.

Many of those who did have jobs faced the risk of getting sick themselves.

The supermarket employees who kept shelves stocked and stores open and healthcare workers tirelessly combating COVID.

South Floridians showed their support for these heroes in ways large and small.

There was even appreciation from above.

The pandemic introduced odd new phrases into our collective vocabulary: “social distancing,” “flatten the curve” and the “new normal.”

COVID testing became routine for many, and when venturing out, accessories included gloves and masks.

Tourist: “When you’re leaving the house, like, ‘Oh, my phone, my wallet, my keys, my mask.”

With schools closed, students and teachers had to make a difficult adjustment to virtual learning, and Zoom is now known by virtually everyone.

Dr. Scott Schieman: “I know a lot of people that are just so sick of Zoom, including myself.”

Milestone events like birthdays and weddings were attended through video conference. Heartbreakingly, so were some funerals.

Dr. Scott Schieman: “It’s hard for a lot of people to make sense of it, right? The sheer amount of death, the loss.”

A year after the pandemic started, South Florida looks a lot different.

The once empty Hollywood Broadwalk is again packed with people.

Deserted beaches are back open, and largely abandoned airports are filled with flyers.

Dr. Scott Schieman: “The pandemic has made them realize how important the social connections, the social bonds are in their lives, and I think they’re ready to reestablish those and reconnect.”

And experts say how fast that reconnection happens depends on how quickly Americans get vaccinated. So far in Florida, more than three and a half million people have gotten at least one dose, and this is just one of the stories that our team is working on as we mark one year since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Patrick Fraser: “Some of the people who got that COVID vaccine are now getting a bill for it. Do you have to pay it? Help Me Howard has the answer Wednesday night at 10.”

Kevin Ozebek: “Then, Thursday night at 10, we meet the South Florida scientists who are leading the fight to develop cutting edge COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. Then, Friday night, we go inside a clinical trial bringing hope to those who have COVID long-haul syndrome.”

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