On a warm mid-May day, sun worshipers lay on the white sand, water-lovers splashed in the cool, spring-fed Weeki Wachee River as kayakers paddled by. The aroma of roasting wieners was in the air; some boys were sneaking past the “no-diving” signs on a bridge, and joyfully diving into the river. It was just like last May, back in the year 2019 BC (before corona) at Rogers Park.
While it may be true that “there’s no place like home,” many Hernando County residents had had their fill of it after weeks practicing social distancing and stay-at-home advisories. When county officials began lifting restrictions, opening parks, libraries and allowing some closed businesses to reopen in May, it was not a moment too soon for Hernando’s chronically bored, nature-loving residents. Locking down may have reduced the risk of contracting coronavirus, but their odds of contracting cabin fever were skyrocketing.
“There’s only so much you can do at home,” said James Thacker, as he sat in the shade of a picnic shelter at Alfred McKethan/Pine Island Park beach with his wife, Diane. The elderly couple say they were starting to go a bit “stir crazy” at home.
They’d heard the parks were opening, but they hung out at home for a couple of weeks more playing it safe. Then they couldn’t resist the call of the sun, sand and surf at one of their favorite spots.
“This is our first trip out anywhere since all this virus stuff started,” said Diane.
And for the Thackers, “all this” started much earlier than it did for most folks. The couple explained that they both had become seriously ill while on a cruise in late January. Many others on the ship came down with the bug, as well. Diane, who said she has some existing health issues, suffered the most. The ship’s doctor had to put her on a IV, a regimen of antibiotics, and she was so weak she was put in a wheelchair for three days.
“This was before anyone was talking about this virus,” said James, adding that when the couple got home Jan. 27, they self-quarantined to “make sure no one caught whatever we had.”
The couple say they’re not sure what bug it was, but wonder if they were among the first to contract COVID-19 in this part of the world.
“We think maybe it was,” said Diane, adding whatever they had was worse than any ordinary flu.
Hernando County Commissioner Jeff Rogers said he’s happy residents are more free to roam and that the county was able to open the parks for “the enjoyment of our residents.” He added that Hernando is following the governor’s “reopen Florida plan,” and that the county is stressing social distancing and smart practices as it begins the reopening process.
“We look forward to the gradual reopening of Hernando County and other activities in our county parks, when the environment is ready and with the protection of our residents in the forefront,” said Rogers. “The county will observe the activities in the parks and work to ensure our citizens remember and practice the social distancing guidelines from the CDC while visiting our parks.”
Dawn Erb, a resident of Spring Hill, opted for Linda Pedersen Park for her family’s first outing after the long lockdown. They had their kayaks and were launching there for a paddle out of Jenkins Creek a couple of weeks after the park reopened.
“My daughter has only been out of the house twice since all this started,” she said. “Our grandmother died and she was out once to get an outfit for the funeral, and again for the funeral.”
Erb said she’s glad the restrictions have eased and the Hernando parks opened, as the family really needed a nice outing and some fresh air.
“We weren’t quick to get out after things started opening,” she said. “We feel now is a better time and it’s OK to get out safely.”
Kimberly Randles chose Rogers Park for an outing with her family. They had been staying at home for weeks before taking their boat along the river and docking at the park for a cookout — wieners and shish kabobs on the grill.
How did the family fare during the lockdowns?
“Well, I’m a stay-at-home mom, so staying at home was business as usual for me; nothing new,” said Randles.
Just the same, she’s quite pleased the county opened the parks, as it was just the break they needed.
“We’re definitely happy it (Rogers Park) opened,” she said. “We really like it here.”
Many have wondered that while about 80% of state parks reopened, Weeki Wachee State Park remains shuttered until further notice.
The reason, according to information attendants provide to those calling, is that most open state parks are open, natural spaces where hiking and biking while practicing social distancing is easier. Weeki Wachee Park is a theme park. The live mermaid shows, for example, are held in a theater and theaters remain closed under the governor’s orders. The Buccaneer Bay water park inside the park gates also is closed, though the kayak rentals at Buccaneer Bay reopened May 12.