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THE VILLAGES, Fla. -- With over 100,000 residents, The Villages is one of the largest retirement communities in the U.S., according to The Wall Street Journal. Per the community’s website, it spans across three counties and encompasses 32 square miles — making it larger than the island of Manhattan.
Since the community is designed for residents age 55 and up -- a demographic more susceptible to COVID-19 — just about all of its recreational amenities have been temporarily shut down.
Craig Schuler, who has been a resident for over a decade, has found himself practicing basketball alone to get his exercise in — something he cannot stand doing.
“I hate practicing. But, it’s exercise,” Schuler told Fox News. “Me and the wife [sic] walk probably three times a day. Other than that, not a whole lot of physical activity.”
But, as the nation works to reopen, so too does The Villages. A three-phase plan is being implemented to restart some of the community’s recreational activities.
A statement posted to The Villages Community Development Districts website reads:
“The safety of residents, guests, staff and visitors in The Villages community continues to be of utmost importance to the District. As the guidance provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Florida Department of Health and Governor DeSantis on the prevention of COVID-19 continues to update, the District will be implementing a carefully phased plan to slowly and safely reopen recreational amenities.”
Phase one is already in the works. Crews are sanitizing the community’s public spaces, particularly the rec centers and are reorganizing seating areas in order to create six-foot buffers for social distancing.
Phase two is supposed to begin May 4th. Pending approval from government officials, the hope is that “recreational activities that meet criteria of specific health department guidelines will begin opening.” The statement does not clarify specifically which facilities will potentially open, but adds that the facility use will be “limited.”
Schuler acknowledges that there could be a risk to reopening within the Villages, but believes its the right course of action.
“I’m excited to get back to normal. That would be great,” said Schuler, adding, “I love this place!”
Schuler is perhaps even more excited for his wife, Sue Schuler, who would use the rec centers consistently for activities like arts, crafts, and theater.
She too believes it is time for a return to normalcy.
“We’ve gotten to a point where we’ve been inundated with what we need to do in order to keep ourselves safe,” Sue Schuler told Fox News. “I think we get it. I think we can reasonably go back to some activities and we can handle it.”
Fellow resident Rick Mackey is a fitness fanatic who lead classes at some of the pools. He would like to get back to his routine soon but does have some concerns. As a result, he plans to be cautious.
“There’s a lot of recreational activities that go on inside the [rec centers]. It’s going to be interesting to see how they separate them and give them social distancing," Mackey told Fox News. "I’m very cautious, but I’m outside all the time, I wear my gloves, and have [sanitizing] wipes.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis mentioned during his appearance with President Trump at the White House Tuesday that the community has thus far not been overly impacted by COVID-19.
“There were articles written saying, 'Oh, The Villages is going to crash and burn,' all this other stuff. They have like a 2 percent or 2.5 percent infection rate,” said DeSantis.
Those numbers are in the ballpark of a recent series of testing conducted by UF Health. The latest of which wrapped up April 14 and found that after testing 1,580 residents who were showing symptoms of coronavirus, only 42 actually tested positive — making for a 2.7 percent confirmed case rate. Additionally, 2,100 asymptomatic residents underwent voluntary testing, and only three actually tested positive.
DeSantis chalks this up to social distancing’s efficacy — even within more vulnerable communities.
“We told them, ‘Limit contacts because you're more at risk.’ And, they listened,” said DeSantis.
President Trump took to Twitter earlier this month to praise the community's resiliency:
The most recent executive order signed by Gov. DeSantis on Wednesday allows for restaurants to reopen their dining rooms with a maximum of 25 percent occupancy beginning May 4. Libraries and museums may reopen as well with adherence to the 25 percent capacity rule, and elective surgeries may resume. At this time, however, salons, spas, and gyms are to remain closed.
The third and final phase of The Villages’ reopening plan is not expected to go into effect until after May 31. This phase will include “opening non-regional recreation centers, additional outdoor facilities and a full opening of District Administrative offices," per the statement.
In the meantime, the Villages is encouraging its residents to follow CDC guidelines and continue with social distancing.