“5, 4, 3, 2, 1,” a raucous crowd shouts. Two college-age women, tanned and lithe in thong two-piece swimsuits, start playfully wrestling, the waves crashing down around them as they tumble around in the sand. Throngs of people mill around them, holding Solo cups and taking video on their phones, erupting into cheers.
To most viewers, that TikTok — which has more than 1.1 million likes — captures the standard spring break scene: attractive young revelers, heavy drinking, and a picturesque beachside setting, with hints of performative girl-on-girl action thrown in for good measure.
That’s how Patricia Duong, 18, a Lynn University freshman, saw it. She had her friend record the clip while she was on spring break last week in Fort Lauderdale. “When you go to the beach now you can tell nobody is even thinking about it,” says Duong. “Everyone is just having fun and enjoying the weather.”
The “it,” of course, is COVID-19, the mysterious disease caused by the novel coronavirus, currently spreading around the world and in the United States. At this point, the majority of the states in the U.S. have confirmed cases of COVID-2019, including popular spring break destinations like Florida (which has 26 cases). And while public health experts are encouraging people to engage in “social distancing,” a term used to describe avoiding large crowds (such as those found at spring break destinations), college students like Duong are holding firm to the time-honored tradition of going to the beach and getting wasted.
Many have booked their tickets well in advance; others just want to make the most of their college years. “My parents are freaking out and want me to quit my part-time job here and drive home and not go on my spring break trip to Miami with all my housemates,” says Daniela, 22, a senior in college. “This is my last semester, since I graduate, so my housemates and I have been looking forward to our last spring break trip! No way we can miss this.”
By continuing with their spring break plans, college students aren’t necessarily going against current CDC advice. The CDC has not issued a domestic travel advisory, though it does recommend that travelers at high risk of COVID-19 complications (such as elderly people or people with preexisting conditions) avoid nonessential travel at this time if possible. It also states that travelers’ risk of exposure to COVID-19 “may increase in crowded settings,” such as “conferences, public events (like concerts and sporting events), religious gatherings, public spaces (like movie theaters and shopping malls), and public transportation.”
As cases rack up in the United States (current estimates are a little more than a thousand) and we learn more about how easily transmissible the virus is, epidemiologists are recommending that people practice social distancing by working remotely, avoiding large crowds, and reducing contact with as many people as possible — all of which, of course, are antithetical to the traditional spring break experience, which is characterized primarily by Señor Frog’s body shots and keg stands.
From what we know about COVID-19 so far, college students are at less risk of developing COVID-19 complications themselves, which is why they tend to be sanguine about the risks of travel. “I’m young so I know the rates of this affecting me and killing me is low,” says Deirdra Lambright, 20, who is planning on traveling to Houston this weekend and recently tweeted about her mother asking her to cancel.
The risk, of course, is not that students become sick themselves, but that they contract the virus and transmit it to others who may be more at risk. “My mom made points about the possibility of being able to contaminate other people, being a carrier and so on, but I don’t feel concerned,” says Lambright. “I will obviously take precautions when in the airports but I am still going and think things are being blown out of proportion and made to be worse than they are in the US at least.”
SPRING BREAK FOREVER !!! pic.twitter.com/ZJ4yz3M6Kt
— Barstool SRU (@Barstool_SRU) March 11, 2020
Though some college students may be unperturbed about the spread of COVID-19, that doesn’t change the fact that people are canceling their spring break trips en masse. Though the spring break season has only just started (most colleges are typically off between late February and late April), it appears that this downward trend is applicable to spring break destinations as well. According to data provided to Rolling Stone by STR, which provides data on the hospitality industry, room demand for hotels in Cancun has dropped 13.5 percent in the last week, while demand in Daytona Beach and Miami Beach have dropped 6.4 percent and 7.8 percent, respectively.
This trend is consistent with national hotel data across the board, says Jan Freitag, senior Vice President of lodging insights for STR. Freitag says that generally speaking, revenue per available hotel room (which he refers to as “rev par”) has been down 12 percent within just the past week, which is “very rare” in weekly national data: “that implies something is materially wrong,” he says.
Freitag believes this downward spiral will only continue as the case number in the United States increases and states and cities continue to adopt ordinances like the one recently adopted in Austin, which banned gatherings over 2,500 people to contain the spread of the virus. “The travelers may want to go [on spring break] and the establishments may want to house them, but if people can’t get into a bar and the state says they’re not comfortable with so many people in the same spot, then obviously people will be canceling their trips,” he says.
For those who are currently on spring break, there are some measures they can adopt to reduce their risk, says James Scott, a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. He advises students to wash their hands frequently, avoid touching their faces, and use their own towels and drinking glasses (i.e., don’t share that yard-long Hurricane at Señor Frogs).
“Keep track of people with whom you interact closely in case you are asked later to assist in contact tracking,” he says, adding that it’s essential to avoid large crowds of more than 200 people. He also suggests students visit their parents, grandparents, or elderly relatives before, rather than after, they return from spring break; and to pay close attention to their health 10 to 14 days after returning.
In the interim, however, many students are in limbo. With many colleges like Harvard and New York University having either canceled classes or made them remote (and some on campuses like Michigan State University and Vanderbilt having tested positive for COVID-19), many students are unsure when they can return to campus, if at all.
This isn’t necessarily bad news to everyone, says Duong: “Some kids are happy they don’t need to go into class, and some kids are extending spring break as a result.”
But it’s frightening for many students who are currently waiting to see if their campuses will remain closed or if they’ll have to go back home for an undetermined period of time. “It does kinda suck that I can’t go back,” says Leah Friedenberg, 21, a Penn State senior in Boca Raton for spring break. At the time we spoke, she was waiting to hear from Penn regarding whether campus will be closed (it was). “Am I gonna have a virtual graduation? Are they just gonna send me my diploma? I don’t really know what they’re doing about that.”
A small silver lining, however, is that she’s still in Boca, staying at her father’s house with a friend. Though she says she hasn’t seen a noticeable change in people’s behavior — “it’s just a bunch of drunk 20-to-26-year-olds. They didn’t seem that concerned” — at one point, she says, she went to a bar where a guard checking IDs at the door coughed.
“He was like, ‘Sorry, I’ve just been to China,'” she says, a reference to the fact that the virus originated in Wuhan, China (it has since spread to more than 200 countries around the world). “I was like, why would you say that? But I think he was kidding.” Then adds, hastily, “I hope he was kidding.”