In a rare reunion, 10 members spanning four generations of my family just got together for three days in the Florida Keys.
Our family visits can be filled with squabbles and awkward moments, more “Family Feud” than Norman Rockwell. Yours, too? Yet we pulled off a joyous celebration of life and one another.
“People today want to feel hope about something,” my 83-year-old mother and the patriarch of our clan told me. “It’s been so bad lately, with COVID and all.”
My mom, who lives in Boca Raton and is recovering from very rough knee-replacement surgery, has lost most of her vision in a bravely fought, 30-year battle with macular degeneration. Yet she sees more clearly than most people.
Even in Florida
Florida is the most open state in the nation, and the specter of COVID-19 looms even here. All nine adults at my family reunion were fully vaccinated, yet everything we did was reined in by COVID caution.
Five of us flew to Miami from Brooklyn, Denver and Los Angeles, dutifully masked the entire time.
At most of the places where we gathered for lunch and dinner, the staff members were masked up, whether by policy or choice. “Help Wanted” signs are everywhere, amidst a staff shortage caused by government dole rather than by the Wu-Flu.
The lack of cooks and servers made our meals run long, way too long for my mom and stepdad, and their 2 ½-year-old great-grandson (my great-nephew, who was meeting most of us for the first time.)
On Saturday night at Senor Frijoles, a packed Mexican restaurant, only one cook scrambled to serve the 20-person party that had arrived half an hour before our 10-top. We had to wait more than two hours to eat (though the food was excellent once it arrived.)
At the Hampton Inn at Manatee Bay — aptly named, based on the zaftig manatee I saw lolling about one afternoon, 20 feet from shore — the Tiki Bar was closed for our stay because the lone bartender had called in sick. Given my family’s inclination for libations, this marked a significant loss of revenue.
The Lobster King
In Islamorada, 16 miles south of Key Largo, I visited an old high school classmate, Gary Nichols, who made himself into Florida’s Lobster King. He owns four lobster boats, thousands of traps, and a fish house for processing the catch.
The work is extremely hard, and workers are scarce, especially when they get government payments for not working at all, he says.
“We’re looking for a few good men. Or women,” says Gary, whose older daughter pilots one of the family lobster boats. Mark Cockerham, an especially skilled local fishing guide, tells me, “She’s one of the best captains on the water.”
Some 108 miles to the north, in Deerfield Beach, Fla., the Wyndham beachside resort has three restaurants. More than a year after lockdown, only one of them, Patio Bar & Grill, is able to open full-time.
A second, Burger Craze, has to go dark every Monday and Tuesday for lack of staff. The third spot has been converted to hosting banquets, “and that one was my baby,” Executive Chef Tulio Castilla tells me.
A waitress with nine years at the Wyndham mentions that business was starting to look up, then alludes to the new Delta strain of the virus and says, “But now …”
Life as Risk Management
In Key Largo, for our communal lunches and dinners, we insisted on outdoor seating to reduce the already low risk of COVID contagion to my toddler great-nephew. This is what you do, even though, in a nation of 330 million people, fewer than 400 people under age 17 have died from COVID-19.
The day after our reunion ends, the toddler and his parents drive a few hours north to see other relatives, and all three of them come down with a sore throat and runny nose. Meanwhile, six other adults develop the same symptoms, everyone at our reunion except me.
Is it COVID-19? It must be, it has to be. Panic ensues, all further visits are canceled, and the recriminations begin: who infected whom?
The toddler and his parents take a Walgreen’s home test, and mom and dad test positive but their son tests negative. Then another relative takes the rapid test and the results are negative; he is certain he has COVID-19, anyway.
Two days later, five other people in our party take the swab test that is deeper-probing and needs two days to provide the results — and all of them test negative.
Remember when we used to get a summer cold, and it was no big deal? The COVID crisis and government’s response to it, and the media’s coverage of it, have turned us into a nation of fretful fraidy cats.
Dennis Kneale is a writer and media strategist in New York, after six years as anchor at CNBC and Fox Business Network and 25 years at The Wall Street Journal and Forbes. He helped write "The Trump Century: How Our President Changed the Course of History," by Lou Dobbs, published in September 2020 by HarperCollins. Read Dennis Kneale's reports — More Here.
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