March was the beginning of a changing world. At the start of the month there were vague reports coming in of a virus that was starting to spread at an alarming rate. Much of Plant City continued on like normal: the Florida Strawberry Festival still was held, events were thrown like normal, schools met each day with full classrooms until, suddenly, everything came to a screeching halt.
The Florida Strawberry Festival went off without a hitch at the start of the month. The bands played, the exhibits were visited in a steady stream, the food was consumed in massive quantities and the only indication something was looming on the horizon were the addition of signs that encouraged people to wash their hands and sanitize. COVID-19 was not yet a name anyone recognized.
In every corner of the community, things seemed to go on as normal. RVR Horse Rescue found a new home in Plant City in March and hosted a grand opening for the community. Volunteers headed to the Plant City campus of HCC to plant more than 60 native trees as part of a wetland and stormwater enhancement project. Plant City Police Department achieved an excelsior accreditation and had a special presentation at a city commission meeting. But more people started tuning in to the news to watch with confusion and rising worry as word started to trickle in of a pandemic.
By the third week of the month, much of the world had come to a screeching halt. Restaurants were closed, businesses locked their doors, organizations were left with no staff and no ability to do their jobs, office buildings were ghost towns and employees in many industries now had to adjust to a reality of working from home. The United Food Bank of Plant City faced empty shelves and an onslaught of people needing help. Businesses were adapting and partnering with local governments or organizations to act as relief aid hubs.
Yet there was still a lack of understanding of the longevity of this virus. Many of the initial announcements were closing programs and events until April or May with the belief that within a month or two everything would be “back to normal.” Students and young athletes were encouraged to still find unique ways to persevere because they had to be ready to jump back in to their normal routine at any second. Many businesses were reluctant to convert to fully virtual operations because they didn’t want to sink the money into software and equipment that would be useless as soon as everyone returned to the office.
The county’s Emergency Policy Group still met in person and struggled to adjust to a demand they’d never had thrown at them: how do you guide this community through a pandemic?