After a Bruising, Exhausting Pandemic Year, a Shard of Hope for Some in Tampa Bay

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Peggy Jagars' son Mark comforts her on March 1, her deceased son's birthday.

Peggy Jagars' son Mark comforts her on March 1, her deceased son's birthday. (Martha Asensio-Rhine | Tampa Bay Times)

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Monday’s headlines brought promise. Within months, the president predicted, there would be enough vaccines for every adult American. Cases dipped, though Floridians were still dying — 150 reported on March 1 alone.

The day marked a year since the Sunshine State confirmed its first case of COVID-19. For all of the collective despair and change, the disease had struck in profoundly individual ways.

Everyone has lost something. Most are still bruised and exhausted. Some have found a shard of hope.

We spent Monday with five people: A grieving mother, a tired teacher, an optimistic outfitter, a frustrated florist and a woman still struggling to recover.

Lingering Sorrow

Three beeps. The coffee is ready.

Peggy Jagars fixes a cup, creamer and Sweet and Low, then sits at the head of her dining room table. She can feel pressure, by now familiar, in the back of her throat.

Six months have passed since she put an obituary for her son in the local newspapers: Joseph “Chuck” Fernandez, 53, dead of the coronavirus. His face is in many of Peggy’s pictures — on the fridge, atop the piano, in the entertainment center near the box with his ashes. In them, he’s always smiling.

Peggy still hasn’t been able to hold a memorial, to say goodbye. She can’t imagine calling their big, Hispanic family together and not sharing food or hugs. Still too dangerous.

It’s just after 8 a.m., March 1; today would have been Chuck’s birthday. Peggy, 74, would have hung a paper banner over the door. She and her husband, Bud, in another year, would have taken him to the Strawberry Festival for shortcake.

Mondays are already the hardest because her son died on a Monday, a morning when she had planned to bring him coffee. He had been hospitalized for weeks.

She calls it having “Chuck on the brain,” the hours when she can’t seem to corral her thoughts.

Peggy sips her coffee slowly, in a room of soft wallpaper and wood-grain accents, in her home of 40 years. The table is where she used to feed her son, spreading a quilt over the floor to catch spills. Chuck had cerebral palsy. He spent his days in a wheelchair and communicated using a handful of words, signaling with yeses and nos.

Mark, Chuck’s younger brother, walks from his house next door, past the shimmering pool and through the glass door. By then, Peggy is standing, suddenly sobbing. She presses her head to her son’s chest.

“I know, I know,” Mark says, rubbing her back.

“I miss him,” she cries. “I miss him.”

They see Chuck everywhere. Bobbing around the pool in the backyard as a kid, shaking his head when Mark’s children did something silly, drinking rum and coke — his favorite — through a straw. Peggy can’t bring herself to move the wheelchair ramp at the front door.

Before leaving for work, Mark tells his mother to find something to do, a distraction. She usually goes out to the yard, where there’s always a project across their 2.5 acres in Brandon.

Late morning, Peggy is coiling hoses near the driveway, by the corner with an etching from when it was just poured:

Chuck

10-10-88

She trims the orchids, the lime tree, the ivy, her face shining.

Both vaccinated, she and Bud, 93, are venturing out, testing what it feels like to eat at restaurants. She got the coronavirus, too, after being around Chuck. Once she recovered, Peggy was able to see him in the hospital. She was there the second he was born, Bud says now, and the second he died.

Peggy was at the beauty salon not long ago when a hairdresser, fussing about masks, wondered how long it would take for life to be back to normal.

“Life is never going to be normal again,” Peggy had said. “Everyone just suffered so much.”

Staying on Course

Her most diligent AP English students arrive for fifth period, filing into Room 736. In masks and oversized T-shirts, they slump into their seats, joke, dawdle, unzip backpacks.

Melissa Alequin paces the classroom in black boots and a black mask, earrings shining against her dark, curly hair. Voice loud — because she is always loud — she tries to rally the students.

“If you’re like, ‘You know what, this year’s a wash. I give up. I already failed semester 1, and I’m failing quarter 3, I’m not going to be able to probably fix this.’ WRONG!” she yells.

She emphasizes her point with her hands, which clutch worksheets of old AP exam prompts, since today’s lesson includes what can feel like never-ending prep for never-ending tests. She pleads, “It is literally not over until the last day of school. And even then.”

It’s almost lunch, almost spring break, almost a year since school emptied out and everything changed.

Melissa, 30, has already contended with a backed-up printer and lesson folders that must be uploaded for e-learners on Schoology. She’s added March birthdays to the classroom display, thought up the day’s required “essential question” and asked students to pocket their phones. She’s wiped down desks with Peroxy, filled out the usual COVID questionnaire.

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There’s more to do once Melissa Alequin gets home from teaching. (John Pendygraft | Tampa Bay Times)

It’s allergy season, so now there’s the added complication of kids with tired eyes, raggedy tissues and slipping masks. They bend over their worksheets of short fiction analyses and wait for the lunch bell. Melissa stresses what the College Board is looking for, since it’s her job to shepherd them toward a future that doesn’t seem to be giving anybody a break.

“I hate school,” a female student laments.

“I know,” Melissa says, softly. “Hang in there.”

She remembers how that pressure felt.

She picks poetry and books that reflect her students here at Bradenton’s Southeast High School, over half of whom are Black and Hispanic. “Use your voice,” she’s always telling them. But caring attention can’t make up for everything. When COVID-19 sent students home, many didn’t have laptops. Some didn’t know how to open Word. A handful just disappeared.

In the fall, nothing seemed to make a dent in students’ stress as they grieved deaths and worked late to help their families. Kids were caught in the middle as schools tooled around with e-learning and on-campus teaching, as politicians yanked teachers this way and that, as tests went on hold and back again. Early days of leniency gave way to higher expectations, and Melissa watched kids give up before fall midterms.

She wishes they could see what she sees, how resilient they’ve been.

Sixth period, American literature, tests her. Her students are her babies, their pain her pain, but they arrive distracted and irritable. Today is for chipping away at creative projects about The Crucible , but they make halting progress. “If you’re not going to use this time to do work, stop holding the rest of the class back,” she says.

With decisive tests looming, students have been bursting into anxiety attacks. Melissa fields texts at all hours.

Hands on hips, she circles. She leans over shoulders. “Yezzir,” she says, answering a student’s raised hand. “I like it,” she says to a boy with his red hood pulled up. “No, don’t sit down, I gotta clean!”

Bell to bell, email to email, the day passes fast. “I wish I remembered what it was like to be able to go to the bathroom,” she jokes, kind of, to a student. If only she could get a moment to herself, to really process the whiplash and heartbreak of this exhausting year.

In a year, her teaching certificate will be up, and she has to decide whether to renew. She has seen, up close, how the achievement gap, already so vast, has cracked wide open this year. How could some students still not have school laptops? And how was one teacher expected to do so much?

Students in seventh period, her last class, tease each other like family. They settle into their projects. “Let me just say I appreciate you,” she says, pacing the aisles. On the whiteboard, Melissa helps a student see the arc of exposition, rising action, on toward a resolution.

Craving the Outdoors

A half-hour before the store opens, two customers already are waiting at the door.

“Come back at 10!” the owner calls through the glass, waving.

The men decide to wait. Other shoppers will be here soon.

Since April, when Bill Jackson’s Shop for Adventure was designated an essential business, people have been streaming to the store. In 2020, the Jacksons had their best year ever. Revenue rose by 32 percent.

“Good morning, everyone! Good to see you all,” Darry Jackson calls to two dozen of his employees at 9:40 a.m. Monday. “Let’s line up out back, in front of the paddleboards.”

The staff follows Darry through aisles of coolers and camping gear, onto a covered porch.

“So today we’re going to hear about a new inflatable, double-layer fusion model. It’s more durable,” Darry says, smiling beside a blue and green striped board. “I bought one and have it here at the store. If anyone wants to take it out and try it, it’s yours.”

Bill Jackson’s sits on the east edge of U.S. 19, on the southern tip of Pinellas Park, nestled in 5 acres of woods. Behind the 38,000-square-foot store, a little lake bears a plaque for Darry’s parents, Bill and Harriet, who started the business in 1946 selling World War II Army surplus.

Their sons — Darry, 72, and Doug, 71 — still run the store, teaching paddleboarding and gun safety, and leading trips, until the pandemic arrived.

“We had no idea what to do, what we could do,” Darry said. “We were worried we’d lose everything.”

They locked up in mid-March, when sheriff’s deputies posted a notice on their door.

After a month, deputies stopped by again, this time with good news. Since the outfitter carries freeze-dried food, survival gear and guns, it had been deemed an essential business. They couldn’t re-open the store, but customers could pick things up on the curb. Many people, panicked by the pandemic and protests, wanted firearms. The shop kept running out of gun safes and ammo.

By June, the Jacksons started allowing a limited number of customers back inside. They made everyone wear masks and disinfected counters every hour.

Then, Darry said, something extraordinary started to happen. Summer saw a surge of shoppers anxious to escape quarantine, travel with tents instead of risking hotels, wave to strangers across the water.

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Business is booming at Bill Jackson’s Shop for Adventure. (Douglas R. Clifford | Tampa Bay Times)

The store used to sell an average of six traditional kayaks per week. Now the Jacksons move 40 or more — when they can get them.

It’s warm this morning. On the porch, workers are sweating behind their masks.

A man named Rich Allen is explaining the new “Shark Ray 12-foot-6,” an inflatable paddleboard whose double layers are “heat-pressed, puncture resistant, very stiff.” Each comes with its own backpack, so you don’t need a car rack.

“We wanted to bring you a board that’s more affordable, and easier for everyone to use,” says Rich, whose board retails for $749.

Rich is a tri-athlete who competed in the Sydney Olympics. At the beginning of 2020, he was starting a company in Clearwater manufacturing high-end swim goggles and gear for triathletes. “Then all the triathlons got canceled,” he says. “So we had to switch gears, adapt.”

The workers clap when Rich finishes, then Darry raises his hands. “Okay, you guys, it’s time to open up!”

A basket of masks greets customers now. Beside it, on a counter by the cash register, a whiteboard dares: Chase Adventure! Try something new this month!

The layout of the store hasn’t changed much since the pandemic. But it closes at 6 now instead of 9 p.m. For the first time in their lives, the brothers aren’t on-call through dinner. “We might never go back,” Darry says.

They’re teaching fly fishing, kayaking and paddleboarding again. No groups, only private lessons. Gun safety classes are limited to 10 people instead of 16 — and are booked through April.

Trade shows still are canceled. They Zoom into Orlando and Fort Worth virtual conventions from an empty classroom. “I miss touching the products,” Darry says. “But we saved $15,000 in travel last year.”

The Jacksons are giving $100 to workers who get the vaccine. Doug got his Sunday.

Their extra income is buying a new computer system for the store. And providing bonuses to employees — thousands of dollars each month. “Even though they’re still working, many of their spouses aren’t. We want to help where we can,” Darry says.

“I feel guilty, sometimes, that we’re doing so well.”

Waiting for Word

The afternoon is already slowing at Irene’s Florist in Largo. In the back, a designer stuffs stems into a decorative jar. Snip , swoosh . Snip , swoosh . She prunes excess greens, swipes debris off a metal counter into the trash.

Buckets of baby’s breath and yellow daisies lie by her feet.

Acenett Peters-Vasquez, owner of the shop, picked up the new flowers from a local supplier Monday morning. For days, she has been juggling work with a family crisis.

An administrator from her father’s nursing home called the week before to say he had died of the coronavirus. The burial would be today.

She had wanted to send roses and carnations, because she couldn’t travel to Panama. But she didn’t know where to send them. She’d been given the name of the wrong funeral home.

In the uncertainty, Acenett found a strange hope: Maybe all of this is wrong.

Minutes after the burial was supposed to have begun, her half-brother texts a picture of an official record, outlined in blue. República de Panamá. Zulvago Gualtier Joseph Boyd.

“So it is my dad,” she says, standing at the front desk, beneath a painting of tulips. He was 93, a former embassy worker.

Acenett, 66, tries to call the cemetery where her father had paid for a plot. No answer.

She waits. And waits.

A man walks into the flower shop, the last customer before closing. He grabs a vase with a red arrangement and quickly leaves, having paid online. Today, Irene’s had 16 orders. On Friday, it was 30.

Funerals and weddings dropped off in the last year. More people were cremated. Romantic partners didn’t send as many “I’m sorry” bouquets to home offices.

Acenett had already struggled to keep clients after moving from St. Petersburg to Largo because of a rent hike.

She does some deliveries herself, to save money. Her favorite part is seeing people perk up at a surprise bouquet. Like in a nursing home, when the residents ask: “Is that for me?” Now, florists drop arrangements by the door.

A woman who ran a delivery once for Irene’s had stopped in this afternoon to sell empanadas. Acenett bought two, in a little brown bag. She knows right now, especially, it’s important to help each other out.

By midafternoon, Acenett is alone at the front desk. The designer and an office manager have gone home. It’s bright inside, the shelves lined with stuffed bears. The room smells sweet, what perfume wishes it could be.

Acenett reaches the cemetery. In Spanish, a man directs her to a new funeral home. A woman there says yes, they had her father’s body. They’d buried him an hour ago.

Acenett hangs up, hoping the woman from the nursing home was at the service and took a video.

A couple of men call the flower shop before closing, putting in orders. One wants a devotion bouquet sent to an office down the road. To: “My love. My everything.” Another wants a bouquet of 12 light pink roses, breast cancer colors, for a woman undergoing surgery.

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Acenett Peters-Vasquez worked Monday while waiting for word on her father’s funeral in Panama. (Dirk Shadd | Tampa Bay Times)

Acenett waits, again, for a call from Panama.

She sweeps the plastic tile in the back, carrying a tote of clippings and wrappers to the trash.

Tucking her flowers into coolers before locking up, Acenett plucks faded stems, snapping them in her palm. She doesn’t want customers to get a bouquet that looks tired.

Fighting Fatigue

Dinner is canned tuna sandwiches at home in Lutz, followed by rest on the sofa with the Hallmark Channel until the grocery delivery comes. Keri Frcho lugs the half-dozen Publix bags to the kitchen, then feels the familiar squeeze in her chest, so tight she can hardly gasp for air. She checks her oxygen, which has dipped to 94 percent. She sits, and waits, again, to be able to breathe.

Keri, 37, a nurse between jobs, got the coronavirus last fall, along with her son Jordan Clapper. Since then, they have not been able to shake COVID-19’s brutal hold. It has sent Keri to the hospital, kept her out of work and robbed Jordan of karate. Of being 17.

Keri’s chest aches. Her back hurts. She woke around 7 in the recliner by the bed, where she sleeps propped up with an oxygen sensor. A migraine struck, so she sat with a fresh ice pack in the living room, shutters drawn and TV off. Her mind drifted among chores she hoped to do but probably could not. It had been a stressful weekend, and her body was paying for it. They’d had to put one of their dogs down the day before. Their honeymoon dog, Chilli.

The disease’s long-term effects are cruel. Well-done meat tastes bloody. French fries and cheese, old favorites, induce nausea. Keri sniffs essential oils, searching for a flicker of lemon. And when her family cradled her beloved boxer at the vet one last time, Keri realized it had been six months since she smelled her baby’s fur.

Baking brings a sense of peace, so after dinner, she opens the cupboards. She mixes batter for angel food cake, which she’ll top with whipped fudge frosting and raspberries. She used to bake for 18 hours on holidays, turning out scratch pies and cakes. Now, a box mix wipes her out.

Her son tested positive on Sept. 11. The next morning, he smelled something like a burning battery — then nothing.

The virus passed, but the bizarre effects of “long COVID” clung on. Jordan craved sleep. His heart raced and chest ached. He lost 15 pounds. By late fall, he opted for virtual school. He used to practice karate and jiu jitsu for three hours, then go on a run, but now a twice-weekly session left him in need of a four-hour nap. He forgot names of people he knew well. By February, he paused fighting altogether.

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Keri Frcho’s son Jordan Clapper falls asleep easily, worn down by the illness. (Courtesy of Keri Frcho)

His mom went through her own saga.

The day after Jordan’s positive test, she nearly passed out while cooking dinner. Trembling, boiling hot, then flashing cold, she called her mom. She couldn’t understand the words her mother spoke. She ended up in the emergency room.

Months of agony and appointments followed. One week, she could smell coffee brewing, and the next she was back in the ER, oxygen plummeting. Once, struggling to breathe, heart going crazy, she panicked and texted her husband pictures of the Purina Pro Plan, so he’d know what to feed the pets if she didn’t survive. She texted her sons to remind them they were strong, they were smart, and that she loved them no matter what.

Winter was a strange blur with damaged veins, swollen limbs and faulty balance. Health problems that had dogged her for years flared up, alongside new ones. Brain problems, heart problems, panic attacks. Pain sometimes faded, then roared back in creative forms. Was glass lodged in her lungs?

Life, now, looks like little chores. Empty the dishwasher, then rest for an hour. Shower, then recover. Walk the dogs, on a good day. It can feel like she’s grieving her life while still living it.

She attends virtual church often, and tries to keep a strong face for her kids. She sometimes posts in a group for Florida “long-haulers,” who share prolonged symptoms and the quest for doctors who understand. Lately, despite the chest rattle, she feels more herself. Sunshine feels good on her skin.

She’s still at the kitchen counter, which bears hot pink sticky notes crammed with doctors’ names, when Jordan and her other son burst in after a trip to the beach for the sunset. Jordan, who turns 18 Sunday, has been spending long hours napping, curled up with the dogs anywhere he falls. Sometimes, he has dreams so intense it feels like he’s dying and wakes, gasping, with blue lips.

He’s excited now, though. Keri can hear it while mixing the frosting. Jordan runs to Keri’s husband and throws his hands out in front of him and says that when they stepped out of the car, for a second, he could smell the ocean.


Zachary T. Sampson, Staff writer, Tampa Bay Times

Claire McNeill, Tampa Bay Times

Lane DeGregory, Tampa Bay Times

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