WEST VILLAGES — What started as a concern cascaded quickly into a crisis as COVID-19 wrapped around the world.

Sarasota County Schools are closed until at least April 15; Atlanta Braves spring training canceled the rest of its scrimmage season; hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities are restricting visitation.

And so many businesses have closed, or held off openings, or trimmed hours, that it is too numerous to list.

Among them, three in West Villages Marketplace that had — or were just about — to open. All eateries; all closed or delayed.

As of Monday night, there were 21 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Sarasota County.

The first in the state was confirmed in Sarasota County on March 1. Since then, the state has confirmed it has 1,412 with 18 deaths — as of Tuesday.

Most city, county and state parks have been closed until further notice. Area residents crowded beaches and the Venice Jetty as the closures became reality over the weekend.

“Sarasota County is known as a wonderful place to visit and we don’t want to change that,” Sarasota County Administrator Jonathan Lewis said. “We will do our best to keep this closure as short as possible.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order left it up to cities and counties to impose tighter restrictions, and several already had.

Louise Conway, of New Jersey, was with a group of friends Friday evening, waiting to watch one last sunset before the beach closure Saturday.

“We don’t like the idea of it but we understand it,” she said.

Margaret Tuohy, 70, lives in Ramblers Rest off River Road near West Villages.

When she and her husband, Ed, 70, are not in the West Villages area, they live in DeMotte, Indiana.

They spent Thursday morning with friends, Tom and Jane Forshee, of Canton, Georgia. The four were within a circle in the sand they had marked off.

It was their way of social distancing.

“We’re watching the crowds and if they get close to us, we’re going to leave,” Margaret Tuohy said.

Because of COVID-19, Ramblers Rest — along with most other communities — has shut down gatherings and recreation halls. That left, as of Thursday, the beaches as a place to go outside and get fresh air.

“We decided to come out here to the open air; they said open air is best,” Tom Forshee, 70, said. “Anybody gets close to us, we’ll just pack up and leave. That’s why we’ve got this line right here. … We’re doing that 6-foot, don’t crowd up,” he added — pointing to the markings in the sand.

None of them, though, were upset about closing Venice Beach. On Thursday, the idea was just being floated.

“If it closes, it closes,” Tom Forshee said.

After Major League Baseball announced the premature ending of spring training, the Atlanta Braves — with their home in West Villages — released a statement.

“While the Braves are disappointed to cut our regular spring training schedule short, the health and safety of our fans, employees, players and the community at large has been, and always will be, a priority for us,” it said.

CoolToday Park’s Tiki Tomahawk eatery also closed and the fan shop at the Braves stadium is currently closed as well.

To reduce exposure to the coronavirus, the county’s four hospitals are telling almost all potential visitors to stay away.

Sarasota Memorial Hospital was the last to take the step, announcing visitation would cease, with a few exceptions that weren’t specified in the press statement.

Venice Regional Bayfront Health announced it was suspending visitation, with a few exceptions.

“We will continue to welcome those serving as interpreters, acting as health care power of attorney for patients or for a patient facing an end-of-life prognosis,” Marketing Manager Julie Beatty said.

The emergency department will remain open 24 hours a day, she added, and the hospital is screening all patients for COVID-19 risk factors.

Technology will still allow visitation of a sort, she said.

“The hospital has free Wi-Fi, so we encourage friends and family to connect with their loved one using Facetime or another video communication app,” she said.

Doctors Hospital of Sarasota and Englewood Community Hospital had also already banned visits to inpatients.

The two HCA West Florida hospitals can make exceptions for end-of-life patients and patients in labor and delivery, post-partum and neonatal intensive care units, but only for one visitor, who may stay overnight.

One visitor may accompany someone to the emergency room or for outpatient surgery but will have to leave if the person is admitted.

No visitors under 18 will be admitted except the parents of a hospitalized child. All visitors will be questioned about their health and potential exposure to the virus.

Locally, restaurant owners are coping the best they can. Some are worried it could put them out of business.

Tommy Villani was putting finishing touches on (Hurricane) Irma’s Tacos, Craft Beer & Tequila Bar in West Villages when the governor’s order came down.

“I would never want to open (Irma’s for takeout) in this environment,” Villani said. “Plus it would be impossible to get any inspections or licenses now.”

Mike Altieri, owner of Luna’s Pizza, said the coronavirus was already hurting business.

“We’re running about 30% to 40% of what we normally do. This is the first time everything has come to a screeching halt,” Altieri said.

“Days ago, we had the Atlanta Braves in here and it was packed. It went from that madness to this,” he said pointing to empty tables.

Tammy Hayley, manager at Abby’s Restaurant on Miami Avenue, said their business also plummeted in the past week.

“We went from our best season ever, up 35%, to our worst season,” Hayley said. “Last Sunday we had seven waiters working. Now we have three.”

Ristorante San Marco closed its doors on Tuesday with this sign, “We will be closed tonight and tomorrow until we can further assess the situation. Thank you for your understanding.”

Owner Phillip Villella said he’s surprised all the restaurants hadn’t already shut down.

“Maybe it’s OK we take off for a couple weeks,” he said “To stop the spread — we can always reopen a restaurant. But you can’t reopen a life.”

Writers Bob Mudge, Sue Wade and Greg Giles contributed.


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