A controversial decision to open Florida’s beaches on April 17 2020 led to a rash of national criticism, and an April 18 2020 Facebook post warned that 1,400 Floridians became ill specifically because of the newly-opened beaches (archived here):
On April 20 2020, we examined claims that photographs published nationally (and internationally) were taken before the COVID-19 pandemic:
In the Facebook post above, a user cautioned others on the purported consequences of Florida’s beach openings, writing:
Y’all see they opened up Florida beaches and now they have 1400 new cases over night! Go outside if you want to!
The claim appeared to be that because Florida beaches had opened, as many as 1,400 Florida beachgoers fell ill and were diagnosed with COVID-19.
According to the person who posted the claim, the following series of events had occurred:
- [April 17 2020] Beaches reopen across Florida;
- [April 18 2020] News outlets in and outside the United States publish images of seemingly crowded beaches, primarily in Jacksonville, beginning in the morning of that day;
- [April 18 2020] At 4:43 PM, the Facebook post above claims there were “1400 new cases” overnight, suggesting people visited beaches on April 17th and fell ill the same evening.
Case Counts in Florida Between April 17 and 18 2020
Purely in terms of numbers, the post was not inaccurate.
An April 17 2020 article (updated on April 18 2020) from Florida’s WTVT reported:
TAMPA, Fla. – The Florida Department of Health says the number of known cases of COVID-19 in the state rose by 1,413 [on April 17 2020] as the virus spreads and as more people get tested across the state. The total number of cases in Florida is now 24,753.
After several days of new cases in Florida trending downward, [April 16 2020]’s total was the highest number of new cases in 10 days. Friday’s total appeared to be the highest single-day increase yet.
The Miami Herald reported the same number — 1,413 new diagnoses of COVID-19 as of April 17 2020:
Florida had 1,413 new reported cases of COVID-19 [on April 17 2020], the highest number of new cases since the outbreak began more than a month ago, according to the state’s Department of Health. It also reported 58 new deaths since Thursday evening.
It’s impossible to say for sure, but it seems the poster saw news of the beach re-openings across Florida, juxtaposed with several local news reports featuring the number highlighted in the post — 1,400, or 1,413 to be precise.
Florida’s Department of Health issued daily COVID-19 numbers. On April 17 2020, the number of cases reported in that briefing was 24,753. On April 18 2020, the number was 25,269 — a day-over-day change of 569.
On April 19 2020, the figure provided was 27,058, a day over day change of 1,789.
Correlation, Causation, and COVID-19’s Incubation Period
The Facebook post was a snapshot in time, seemingly contrasting viral images of Jacksonville beachgoers with contemporaneous news of 1,400 (or 1,413) new cases of COVID-19 in Florida, then connecting the two.
Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Symptoms of Coronavirus” page does not include the words “incubation period,” it does make reference to the duration range between exposure to SARS-CoV-2 (novel coronavirus) and falling ill or beginning to show symptoms:
Watch for symptoms
People with COVID-19 have had a wide range of symptoms reported – ranging from mild symptoms to severe illness.
These symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure to the virus[.]
Admittedly, the range between contracting COVID-19 and falling ill was extremely broad — two days to two weeks. Florida beaches opened at 5 PM on April 17 2020; the post appeared just under 20 hours later, at 12:43 PM Eastern time on April 18 2020.
In short, if anyone contracted novel coronavirus after Florida beaches opened on April 17 2020, they did not fall ill with COVID-19 “overnight” as of noon the following day.
A CDC FAQ indicated the broad range is due to the novel nature of COVID-19, but reiterates the range:
The onset and duration of viral shedding and the period of infectiousness for COVID-19 are not yet known. It is possible that SARS-CoV-2 RNA may be detectable in the upper or lower respiratory tract for weeks after illness onset, similar to infections with MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV. However, detection of viral RNA does not necessarily mean that infectious virus is present. There are reports of asymptomatic infections (detection of virus with no development of symptoms) and pre-symptomatic infections (detection of virus prior to development of symptoms) with SARS-CoV-2, but their role in transmission is not yet known. Based on existing literature, the incubation period (the time from exposure to development of symptoms) of SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses (e.g. MERS-CoV, SARS-CoV) ranges from 2–14 days.
Although the Facebook status update claiming “they opened up Florida beaches and now they have 1400 new cases over night” contained some true information, its underlying claim was unstable. Yes, Florida beaches opened on April 17 2020, and much of the country (and world) recoiled in dismay seeing images of crowded shores. It was also true at least two news organizations in Florida (WTVT and the Miami Herald) reported 1,400 new cases — numbers not out of line with state Department of Health Figures, but somewhat out of step with them.
However, the two conditions were unrelated due to the known incubation period of COVID-19. The earliest an infected person would become symptomatic was 48 hours after exposure; the latest was believed to be two weeks. No one who went to the beach (even if they became infected there) would be ill at the time the post was shared. Given the timeframe, the 1,413 cases mentioned in the media (1,400 in the post) were people who had contracted the virus while Florida beaches were still closed due to COVID-19.