TAMPA, Fla. — Raymond James Stadium not only is the site of Super Bowl 55, but also a symbol of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 440,000 Americans.
More than 1,300 of those people died here in Hillsborough County, which encompasses Tampa among its 1.4 million residents and this week includes fitting juxtaposition.
Colorful Super Bowl signage has brightened the 65,890-seat stadium, where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will play the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday. A digital roadside sign nearby shows COVID-19 testing is available from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The stadium has served as a testing site.
COVID-19 testing sign near Raymond James Stadium.Josh Peter, USA TODAY Sports
In Hillsborough County, more than 100,000 residents have tested positive and that has led to about 2,7000 hospitalizations. Based on cases per capita and test positivity, The New York Times has dubbed it “extremely high risk” on its tracker.
“You cannot escape COVID,” said Gloria Castillo, a funeral director in Tampa. “It’s really awful everyday.’’
Determined to move forward with a game that will be broadcast around the world, the NFL is celebrating what it deems COVID-19 heroes. The league has invited 7,500 vaccinated healthcare workers in Florida to attend the game for free. They will be part of a crowd the league says will be capped at 25,000 because of the risk of the virus being spread.
Gloria Castillo, a funeral director in TampaYou cannot escape COVID. It’s really awful every day.”
The free tickets for the healthcare workers have an average value of $2,5000 each and a total of $18.75 million, according to NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy.
“This program is designed to recognize these workers but also promote the importance of vaccines,” he said while referring to healthcare workers as MVPs “who sacrificed so much this year to comfort and care for people in their communities.”
But a tension exists as the game approaches.
Missing a year after the Chiefs won Super Bowl 54 is Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. He is an offensive lineman for the Chiefs and a trained physician who opted out of the 2020 season to help COVID-19 patients.
Close to 70 other players decided not to play this season, and more than 250 players have tested positive for COVID-19. Long-term efforts remain unknown even for people who recovered without experiencing lingering symptoms.
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NFL teams have limited the size of crowds this season, but there are no statistics on how many fans have contracted the virus while at the stadium. Attendance at the Super Bowl will be less than half of what’s typically seen at soldout stadiums hosting the game in years past.
“I just think it’s irresponsible for people to be gathering in large groups, even though I understand they’re saying this is a much smaller group than they’ve ever had,” said Carole Baskin the CEO of Big Cat Rescue who was featured in the Netlflix documentary series “Tiger King’’ who lives in Tampa. “But it doesn’t matter that it’s a smaller group. It’s way more people than should be exposed to each other for the purpose of watching a game.
“We are right now dealing with life or death on this planet and I think every one of us should be doing our part to stay home.”
Tampa mayor Jane Castor has imposed a mask mandate for entertainment areas and set a $500 fine for violators. But enforcement has been problematic in a state where the governor, Ron DeSantis, banned localities from collecting mask fines.
An aerial view of Raymond James Stadium ahead of Super Bowl LV.Mike Ehrmann, Getty Images
But since NFL events for fans began here Saturday, the league has employed an army of volunteers to enforce the mask requirement.
“I’m encouraged by what I’m seeing the NFL doing at the actual game itself,’’ said Jill Roberts, an assistant professor at the University of South Florida in the College of Public Health. “I think within the stadium and the game itself, the risk is very low.
“My concern is an influx of people going to bars and restaurants and tailgating in areas near the stadium and all of those things. Super Bowl parties are going to be as big of a problem as gatherings at Thanksgiving and Christmas were, and we do know for sure those gatherings did influence the increase in cases that we’re seeing right now.”
When it comes to the pandemic, some people in Tampa already have seen more than others.
Suzie Dorner is a nurse manager at Tampa General Hospital.Courtesy: Daniel Wallace, T.G.H.
Suzie Dorner, a nurse manager at Tampa General Hospital, beamed with excitement last week when she learned she’d been selected as one of three honorary captains for Super Bowl 55 and would participate in the coin toss.
“Oh, my gosh,” Dorner said after retired Bucs star Derrick Brooks told her the news. “Thank you so much. I’m so humbled and honored. I’m speechless.’’
But she also said, “It has been a very rough, let’s see, 10, 11 months now. And it’s been my first year as a nurse manager, too. So, it’s been very hard to lead the team through this pandemic.’’
This week, even as the game approached and the hoopla grew, Dorner’s mood shifted while talking about the pandemic.
“When I walk into the hospital, it’s starting to feel like July again,” she said.
Suzie Dorner, a nurse manager at Tampa General HospitalTo be that person, holding a patient’s hand as they passed away, it’s a lot to carry.
Those were dark days at Tampa General Hospital, when all of the patients in the 18-bed, COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit were on ventilators. The death rate in Hillsborough County has increased by 15% over the past 14 days, into the double digits this week.
Dorner, 31, has led a team of about 50 nurses that tried to comfort patients as they took their last breaths. Family members were prohibited from entering the unit to limit exposure to the deadly virus.
“To be that person, holding a patient’s hand as they passed away, it’s a lot to carry,” Dorner said.
She said her maternal grandmother was a nurse in World War II and inspired her to go into healthcare. But nothing prepared her for the pandemic even as the death rates have dropped.
In October, Dorner said she helped open the hospital’s new, Global Emerging Disease Institute. It includes 59 beds available for COVID-19 patients in ICU.
“Caring for the COVID population is physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting,’’ she said. “It definitely took a toll on my team.
“We have learned a lot more about the virus and we’ve become more comfortable taking care of these patients. But I don’t think it’s really gotten easier.”
Gloria Castillo is a funeral director in Tampa.Josh Peter, USA TODAY Sports
A funeral director
Looking to make some extra money, Gloria Castillo said she considered using the limos from her funeral home in Tampa to transport visitors during Super Bowl week. She said she decided against it because of COVID-19 concerns and knows what some people might be thinking.
“People would say, ‘Hey, the funeral home is booming,’ ” Castillo said. “You see all the bodies and this and that, but for some of us …”
While thousands of funeral homes are owned by conglomerates, Castillo, who is Black, is owner and funeral director of Integrity Funeral Services.
“We’re out here swimming in the water with the big whales,” she said. “We’re just trying to hold on, OK?’”
She’s not alone.
Castillo said many of her customers, about half who are Black, lost their jobs during the pandemic. As a result, Castillo said, they are more likely to opt for cremation for $1,150 rather than a burial for approximately $6,500 — which means less income for funeral directors like herself.
One woman recently contacted her and tried to work something out with other family members to no avail, according to Castillo.
“They can’t pool together their funds because they’re trying to still pay rent, still trying to eat, trying to survive,’’ Castillo said.
More people than usual are seeking free cremation or burial services from Hillsborough County, according to Castillo, who said financial problems only compound another problem for people of color. They have suffered disproportionately from COVID-19.
“No one is speaking about it,” she said of the situation.
Castillo said her business will remain viable, and she expressed excitement about the Super Bowl being played in Tampa.
But with the NFL spotlighting healthcare workers, Castillo noted that funeral directors are often the last people to handle COVID-19 victims.
“We are the first last responders,” she said.
Jill Roberts is an associate professor in the College of Public Health, Global and Planetary Health at University of South Florida.Courtesy: University of South Florida
Jill Roberts, an assistant professor at the University of Florida, has studied the use of molecular techniques such as pulsed-field gel electrophoresis to characterize microorganisms from sources such as foods, clinical samples, environmental samples and others.
Most people would better understand another one of her interests: COVID-19.
Because she resides in Tampa, she has taken particular interest on the impact the virus has had on this city and its population of about 390,000 people.
“The good news, I guess, if there’s good news, is these strains that have been going around where we’ve been seeing the last severe cases in terms of deaths, our senior citizens seem to have been protected,” Roberts said.
“However, unfortunately, we’re seeing a lot of hospitalizations and so our ICU’s are getting kind of busy. As long as we keep our case numbers where they’re at now, it’s manageable.”
Roberts lamented the lack of enforcement of the city’s mask ordinance. But she lauded leaders Hillsborough County and neighboring Pinellas County.
Jill Roberts, an assistant professor at the University of FloridaWe should have had much, much bigger outbreaks than we did.
“We should have had much, much bigger outbreaks than we did,’’ she said. “I think that leadership made a difference.”
In June, political leadership led to converting a parking lot at Raymond James Stadium into a testing site. But at the end of December, with Super Bowl preparations to begin, the testing site was moved to another nearby parking lot.
On Tuesday, a dozen cars drove onto the site, where almost 20,000 COVID-19 tests were administered in January.
Michelle Van Dyke, a media relations strategist for Hillsborough County, might as well have been referring to ultimate outcome of COVID-19 when asked if the testing site will move back to the site of this year’s Super Bowl after the game is played.
“To be determined,” she said.