“You gotta fight for your right to party.” ~Beastie Boys (lyric released 1986)
“If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.” This statement was made by a young Miami Beach spring-breaker on camera to a Reuters reporter on March 18, 2020.1 This sound bite played on the national news and summed up the feelings of thousands of young people who had been planning to attend this beach party for months, and they were not going to let a silly virus get in the way. Recognizing that March 18 feels like a decade ago and the impact of COVID-19 on our country was only beginning, I can empathize with this young man’s priorities. That is not to say I was not shocked and appalled when I saw this video on the nightly news.
While comments from the young man—his name isn’t pertinent to this column, so I’ll refer to him as Mr. Z, as in Generation Z—were epically ill-informed, I find it difficult to blame this young adult. Mr. Z is like a second lieutenant in the Army: He has all the components needed to be a competent officer someday, though at the moment, and his lack of life experience demands that you do not give him any responsibilities beyond taking out the trash. Oh, and he will require close supervision and direction for that activity.
Mr. Z, in my opinion, was making the best decision his young mind could with the information he had available to him at the time. He simply was fighting for his right to be young and party on the beach. I understand this feeling, and there was a time in my life where I was on that beach fighting for the same right. Spring break beaches are just one of the many beautiful things about this culture that are worth fighting for. Nevertheless, I was still dismayed by Mr. Z’s seemingly superficial and selfish motivation during a national crisis. Then again, I am a physician in my fifth decade of life. I have more education than is healthy, career experience in Army medicine with two deployments, and an unusual interest in all things related to medical history. I understand the term “pandemic,” and I have read the firsthand accounts of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. I know what a virus is and the insidiousness of its spread.
I can even intellectualize the virus to be a brush fire with humans being the fuel. When fighting large land fires, firefighters cut fire breaks to deprive the fire of fuel and thus contain the inferno. Staying at home and social distancing is the equivalent of creating a “fire break” for COVID-19, depriving the viral fire of its human fuel and eventually allowing the contagion to burn out. I imagine young Mr. Z’s mind was free of all these cluttering thoughts, and I bless him for it. He is young, his mind should be on other things, and, like the Army second lieutenant I mentioned, more senior officers should be keeping him out of trouble.
The tragedy of Florida’s decision to keep its beaches open for spring break, counter to the prevailing best evidence at the time, was a nonstarter as a plan. The potential impact of this decision was fascinatingly demonstrated by a company named X-Mode. This company provides cellphone-tracking data for phone applications like weather and transit apps. They partnered with a data visualization firm, Techtonix. Together they developed a United States map of the travels of spring breakers from just one day of a 1-mile stretch of Miami Beach using their cellphones. The map generated demonstrates how widely traveled and interconnected our current society is with the cellphones from this small area ending up throughout the country.2 It would be challenging to plan a more perfect situation for viral spread. What is so devastatingly sad about this situation is that nobody in public health or disease prevention would be surprised by this result. The country’s health experts already knew how easily the virus could spread and have been calling for stringent social isolation measures for months.
It is too easy to place the blame for possible (read likely) spring breaker spread of COVID-19 and the deaths that will surely follow at the feet of Mr. Z and his fellow beach revelers. Nope, he was just being a young person and, like the Army second lieutenant I noted, can be expected to screw up, if not given appropriate guidance and education. Mr. Z is undoubtedly responsible for his actions, but the system failed him and everyone else on the beach.
Spring break, and all the other things that make living in this country spectacular, are privileges not rights. I feel we are uniquely advantaged in this country in that most Americans have the luxury for most of their lives to take these privileges for granted. This is the “normal” state we enjoy in our American system. Occasionally, events like World Wars I and II, 9/11, and now the COVID-19 pandemic remind us how fragile these privileges can be. Sometimes, during these crises, Americans must set aside their normal state and fight for their right to party. It is during these times that national, state and local leadership from government must be clear, unequivocal and based on the best available science. We cannot hope for an Army second lieutenant to make the right decision if we fail to create conditions that make that decision easy or unavoidable. As federal medicine leaders, we need to strive to make these health decisions easy for our patients by taking the time to explain why certain behaviors are necessary and in their self-interest. If we fail in that duty, how can we feel indignant when they show up to the beach ready to party?
2https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/04/tech/location-tracking-florida-coronavirus/index.html. Accessed April 9, 2020.