MIAMI BEACH — Dryden Quigley, a junior at Duke University, and three friends began making plans to spend spring break in Miami Beach about six weeks ago when the coronavirus still felt relatively distant. It does not feel distant now.
In the week Ms. Quigley, 21, vacationed on Miami Beach: the state’s coronavirus cases more than tripled, her university halted classes on campus and the mayor of Miami Beach declared spring break was over.
“It’s been overwhelming — every day there is something else,” Ms. Quigley said. “I started off pretty excited about hanging on the beach. Now I am on edge and nervous about the traveling.”
It is a dilemma shared by students traveling not just to South Florida but to other warm-weather spring break destinations such as South Carolina, Texas, Mexico and Jamaica.
With tens of thousands of students flocking to beaches in South Florida and possibly as many still planning to come, the collateral damage from the coronavirus has been coming into clear relief almost hourly, whether it was the shutdown of March Madness or well-known figures like Tom Hanks coming down with the virus. For the first time, a case was linked on Wednesday to a spring break event in Florida, a state that now counts 42 cases, according to the health department.
On Thursday, Dan Gelber, the mayor of Miami Beach, declared what might have been unthinkable only days before — spring break, for all practical purposes, was over.
“We have been an economy based on hospitality and tourism,” said Jimmy Morales, the city manager of Miami Beach. “We had been trying to strike a balance being preventive and not hurting our businesses. The last 24-plus hours really changed all that.
“Our focus now is preventing this from getting worse at all costs. I am sure the kids will still come, but they won’t be coming to a ‘party city.’”
Mr. Morales’s mission was to change, at least slightly, Miami Beach’s spring break culture to reduce the risk of the virus spreading. So he canceled events that would draw large crowds and asked the nightclubs in the city to close. So far, two of the biggest clubs have agreed to shut down temporarily. And he said if conditions worsen, the city will consider imposing curfews too.
For the college students who spent their spring break in Florida, the week was already somewhat different, with the steady drumbeat of health and local officials imploring them to wash their hands, practice social distancing and, if sick, stay away. Miami Beach installed handwashing stations. Fort Lauderdale leaders welcomed students but said they were ready to adjust their plans and response if needed.
Some students decided their youth was enough protection and partied on. Others acknowledged the risks and vowed to practice social distancing, if possible, in bars and on beaches full of people. Some devised plans to stay away from parents and grandparents, a vulnerable group, when they returned home in case they were carrying the disease.
But the week turned quickly — and the impacts became personal — as colleges and universities extended spring breaks, closed campuses and moved to online classes.
On the third night of her spring break, Ms. Quigley met with other students from Duke for a meal by the beach. The group of eight was just about to order a round of tacos when every cellphone started buzzing with the news that Duke was extending spring break for a week and then moving from on-campus to remote classes.
“People were upset,” said Ms. Quigley, who leaves Sunday, adding that many of her friends at other schools had now canceled their upcoming spring break plans. “People were on the phone with their parents trying to figure out what to do. It was clear how serious the coronavirus had become.”
As the cases mounted, city leaders met with health officials to formulate strategies that would reduce the risk of the virus spreading. Large public events like Ultra Music Festival and Calle Ocho were quickly canceled. But spring break is tricky because it is not made up of a single event and students visit beaches from Panama City to Key West.
The outbreak forced hard public health questions: What are the potential risks of thousands of students descending on the state’s beaches and crowding into bars and restaurants? Can spring break during a pandemic be safe? And with two weeks left in the spring break season, should state and local leaders try to slow the waves of young people who could potentially arrive and then spread the virus across the country?
“Young people who are on spring break are not just sitting having conversations. They are going to multiple places, they are going to parties, they are touching and kissing, they are drinking,” Dr. Lilian Abbo, chief of infection prevention for Jackson Health System and a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, said on Wednesday. “We can’t stop people from coming here for spring break, so we have to send a consistent message: Do not come into public spaces sick, practice social distancing.”
Last Monday, the governor declared a state of emergency. That same day, Ben Cunningham was in Ohio making his mother a promise before he hopped onto a plane to Florida for spring break: He would wash his hands frequently, wipe down surfaces and keep the pocket-size hand sanitizer in his backpack.
Mr. Cunningham, 18, a freshman at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio, spent much of his first day on Fort Lauderdale Beach trying to balance the uncertainty of a fast-moving virus with spring break plans with his buddies. “I am here to have fun, but I have to be cautious too,” Mr. Cunningham said. “I am trying to stay away from people I see coughing and I won’t be hugging any random people.”
A slow parade of cars cruised the street that shoulders Fort Lauderdale Beach. The bars were thick with students chugging beer and eating pizza and dancing to Pop Smoke’s music. Kaitland Carter, a 19-year-old waitress from Columbus, Ohio, was steps away on the beach, waiting for the afternoon drizzle to give way to the sun. She said she was relying on the open outdoor space to decrease the chances of exposure to the coronavirus.
“I just keep hearing how this affects mostly older people,” she reasoned. “And there were hardly any cases in Ohio when I left so I figured I could stay in my own zone and still have a good time.”
And if she met someone: “We can text.”