CLEARWATER, FL – MARCH 18: People gather on Clearwater Beach during spring break despite world health officials’ warnings to avoid large groups on March 18, 2020 in Clearwater, Florida. The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Eighty years ago, a virus dedicated to the evil notion that a “master race” should have dominion over the world was consuming Europe with beachheads in Asia and Africa.
With this murderous tyranny forcing itself on one conquered nation after another, allied countries asked their people for sacrifices commensurate with the threat, up to and including what Abraham Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.”
Their response cleansed the world of malignant Nazi fascism. Americans of all ages observed meatless and wheatless days, bought war bonds, held scrap rubber and metal drives. And they volunteered in unprecedented numbers for military service.
In 1944, that sense of sacrifice for the greater good sent boys in their late teens and early 20s wading onto the sandy beaches of Normandy and into German machine guns that cut them down by the thousands.
Fast forward to another beach scene 76 years later: besotted college students in their late teens and early 20s crowd oceanfront resorts from Florida to Texas, ignoring urgent national calls to blunt the spread of a potentially lethal virus by sequestering themselves. Even warnings that failure to do so could overwhelm hospitals and kill many thousands could not persuade them to sacrifice their ritual spring bacchanalia of sun, surf, suds and sex.
“If I get corona, I get corona,” one student-hedonist from Ohio told Reuters in Florida last week, presumably referencing the disease, not the cerveza. “At the end of the day I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.”
He spoke for many in the coddled, college-attending and privileged demographic of twenty-somethings known as Generation Z. Believing that their youth minimizes personal consequences from the virus, they’ve wantonly jammed themselves together on the shores, watering holes and motel rooms with little or no separation – perfect conditions for such an aggressive contagion.
Does nothing beyond their instant gratification matter? Do they not consider the consequences of carrying the bug home to vulnerable parents or, more troubling, grandparents far more likely to need the services of an emergency room — or a mortician?
The message all along has been clear from health care professionals and epidemiologists. The obligations were few: wash your hands regularly for 20 seconds with soap and water and use hand sanitizer; shelter at home unless going out is essential; and when you must go out, keep safe distances from others and practice good hygiene. Hardly onerous, given the stakes.
Overall, many in the nation embraced those appeals to the common welfare.
Supermarkets are closing early so staffs can clean and disinfect them. Some stores, including Dollar General, Walmart, Target and Fresh Market, have gone even farther, reserving early morning hours exclusively for elderly shoppers who are most vulnerable to the disease.
Restaurateurs, particularly small independents, were limiting dining room occupancy even before last week’s nationwide guidance to limit gatherings to 10 or fewer. Many have adapted, going exclusively to drive-thru, carry-out or even home delivery. Some — including immigrant Luis Pedraza who built a successful Mexican restaurant near Hopewell, Virginia — are providing free meals to families disrupted by the coronavirus, even as their livelihoods face existential risks. And in Arkansas, a landlord asked struggling business tenants to pay their employees instead of their rent.
Retired doctors and nurses are voluntarily returning to duty on the perilous front lines of the outbreak as the wave of coronavirus patients swells and threatens to inundate America’s healthcare infrastructure, even amid a shortage of vital protective equipment.
In multi-story apartment and condo complexes, inspired by self-quarantined urbanites in Italy where the virus has killed the most people, Virginians emerged onto their balconies to join in song.
In some American suburbs, neighbors marked the vernal equinox by putting up gaudy Christmas lawn decorations they’d stowed away just 2½ months earlier to infuse cheer into a somber, silent spring.
In some coastal Sun Belt resort towns, however, any semblance of shared hardship fell short of the commercial imperative to party on. In Florida, where some local governments refused to close crowded beaches, Gov. Ron DeSantis whiffed at the opportunity, instead offering a toothless prohibition against clusters of more than 10 people. Imagine sheriff’s deputies trying to enforce that.
It’s not as though there isn’t reason for the young to be jaded by inconsistencies and hypocrisies of elders with influence, fame and power. Before Donald Trump said last week he always knew COVID-19 would be a global pandemic and proclaimed himself “a wartime president” against a “Chinese Virus,” he repeatedly discounted the coronavirus threat and even called it a Democratic “hoax.” He claimed that a vaccine was imminent even though his own experts had told him that it was a year to 18 months away.
It also set a dubious moral tone when celebrities, politicians and elite athletes who showed no symptoms got tested immediately while ordinary Americans with fever, coughs, body aches and shortness of breath faced ridiculous obstacles or were turned away. (Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, who tested positive for the virus Sunday, was reportedly using the Senate gym and pool.) Nor did it inspire shared sacrifice when some merchants sought to gouge consumers by charging $60 a bottle ($1 a squirt) for hand sanitizer or $10 for one roll of toilet paper.
To be sure, not all collegians are spending their indefinite spring breaks languishing on beaches or in cabanas. Some of the less privileged, more enterprising and socially conscious of them have come home from campus and started their own businesses, hiring out to help homebound homeowners use the time off for spring cleaning and maintenance. College seniors may have to forgo what they’ve studied years to achieve – to stride across a stage on campus and receive a degree while proud families cheer in the audience.
It’s easy to dismiss youth hell-bent on spring-break revelry as thoughtless, but might there be a germ of malice also? In February, youthful social media users coined the term “boomer remover” as a cruel euphemism for COVID-19. It refers to the generation born after World War II now ranging in age from their late 50s into their 70s — a demographic conspicuously at risk to the disease. By March 13, the hashtag #boomerremover was trending on Twitter, a not-so-subtle shot across seniors’ bow.
But consider the upside, grandma and grandpa: if you survive, you needn’t feel as guilty about spending their inheritance — maybe for a place on the beach?
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