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Large Florida Retirement Community With Slow Coronavirus Response Sees Positives Grow

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Some 125,000 retirees call The Villages home. It's a sprawling community just northwest of Orlando. Like much of Florida, they were not quick there to heed the CDC recommendations for social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Now they are, say residents Ian and Helena Stone. They moved to The Villages 15 years ago.

IAN STONE: Well, right now, it's probably the safest place to be because we're following safe practices here.

HELENA STONE: (Inaudible).

I STONE: I'm going to put my wife on, hold on.

H STONE: Hello. It's definitely not bleak here, yes. In the beginning, nobody followed rules. People were in the swimming pool. They closed down our three music squares, but they went in the square anyway and brought their own music, and they danced.

KELLY: All right. Well, to hear how the Stones and everybody else in The Villages are coping in this era of coronavirus, we are joined by Meta Minton, editor of Villages-News. That is an independent paper that covers the community. Welcome.

META MINTON: Welcome. Thank you.

KELLY: So I know just today, the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, issued a stay-at-home order for the whole state that's going to take effect at midnight Thursday, so I know that will likely change things. Just up until now, take us through today, how much has day-to-day life in The Villages changed? Are they still out there dancing?

MINTON: Well, it's changed quite a bit over time because things keep tightening up, and people are having less and less to do. This is a community where people - it's fun and frivolity, and eat, drink and be merry. And slowly, everything's chipped away from that. They can't go to the squares. The last thing they can do is they can play golf and pickleball. But the swimming pools are closed, the dog parks are closed, and there's less and less to do every day.

When Ron DeSantis, the governor, came on at 1:00 today and announced this, you know, shelter-at-home order, the million-dollar question now is how does that impact me today?

KELLY: Yeah.

MINTON: So we're waiting on some information from some of our local officials to rule on that. And that's the million-dollar question. As of an hour ago, everybody's in a grocery store buying more supplies.

KELLY: Let me ask how people are doing from a health perspective. The population there skews older. Almost 80% of the people who live in The Villages are over 65, according to the Census Bureau. Do we know how many people have been tested for COVID-19?

MINTON: We've had some independent testing going on by UF Health, which is with the University of Florida. They've tested 2,280 people so far - 23 have tested positive. Grasping the number on The Villages is a little bit more difficult because it covers three different counties. Right now, we have 43 villagers who have tested positive for COVID-19, though.

KELLY: Yeah.

MINTON: And we anticipate that there will be more.

KELLY: I saw also they have managed to set up drive-through testing for residents.

MINTON: Yes. That was with the UF Health. And the people here, if you've ever been to The Villages, it's this golf cart community, so they were able to drive through in their golf carts and be tested. So it's kind of a unique situation here.

KELLY: So as you talk to people who live there, how worried are they? What are they worried about? What are their main concerns?

MINTON: It's in different degrees. You go into the grocery store, you see people with gloves and masks who are just residents, and this has been going on for a while. But then you see other people who - Starbucks is closed, so they formed their own Starbucks at the town square where you have six or seven people sitting around drinking coffee or reading books. And it's just this night and day of how people are adapting to it. You have the people who are really taking it seriously, but then you have a lot of people who, even as of today, are not taking it that seriously.

KELLY: And just in the moments we have left, what are the local medical facilities like if they had to handle a surge in numbers?

MINTON: Well, I've talked to a lot of my friends at the hospital. This is hurricane country, so we are so used to preparing for the coming storm, and I think that's where we are right now. The hospitals, they've put out tents outside. They've done a lot of preparation in advance for this. And now we're waiting for that big storm to hit, and to see if it - we pray that it passes us by, but you never know. And so that's the state of readiness right now in Florida.

(SOUNDBITE APOLLO BROWN'S "NEVER IN A MILLION YEARS")

KELLY: That is Meta Minton, editor of Villages-News, talking to us there about The Villages just northwest of Orlando.

Thanks so much.

MINTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.