When Western Illinois University Associate Professor Rob Porter took a spring break trip to relax and do a little fishing in Florida, he likely never envisioned his adventure would turn into a multi-week, coronavirus-forced endeavor that would transition to a research project and possible book.
Porter, who teaches in WIU’s Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Administration (RPTA), traveled to his home in St. Petersburg, FL, during WIU’s spring break in early March. He was intentional during his trip, trying to unplug, ending up with a bicycle as his only mode of travel. He was excited to patronize his favorite local restaurants and businesses.
“My week of relaxation didn’t work out as I had planned,” he said.
The post-spring break conference Porter was to attend was cancelled and he remains in Florida under a Stay at Home order, where he teaches his classes online and holds office hours from his beautiful backyard.
During his first post-spring break week, Porter noticed people were flooding to St. Petersburg’s beaches just as talk of closing everything from businesses to entire states first began.
“On Saturday, March 14, I saw spring break ramp up like never before,” he said. “There were hundreds of cars and traffic jams to the beaches; there was nowhere to sit at the restaurants on the beaches. No one could go anywhere, so they came here.”
Once Pinellas County shut down its beaches, Porter said St. Petersburg became a “ghost town” within two days. The diverging situations led him to begin researching the impact of Coronavirus protocols on the community, which relies heavily on spring break traffic between March 1 and Easter Sunday for much of its annual income.
By March 17, restaurants in the area transitioned to take-out orders only, with only local residents left to place orders.
“It became a weird, like a 9-11 feeling,” said Porter. “I only have my bike, so when I started my research project, I was riding 20 miles a day to do data collection and get groceries and other necessary life stuff.”
Porter began interviewing the owners and managers of local businesses about the impact of the virus and the accompanying regulations, as well as other disasters they had lived through.
“Many had lived through other disasters like 9-11, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, multiple red tides and hurricanes,” he said. “But nothing has prepared them for this. Some businesses closed because the family owners were afraid tourists weren’t following the six-foot rule, so they closed for family safety.”
Porter said that weather-wise, this has been the best spring break season business owners have seen in 14 years, with very little rain. The spring season is the “bread and butter” of the Pinellas peninsula, but Porter said businesses are reporting only having 10-25 percent of their regular revenue for this time of year.
While the towns’ streets and beaches are mostly vacant, Porter said fishing in the area has made a “whopping comeback” because it’s an activity people can do while practicing social distancing on the area’s seawalls.
Local residents can also be seen doing more physical activity, including boating, bicycling and walking, during this time, but still maintaining proper social distance. Porter said he is living a simpler lifestyle during his time at home, composting and recycling most everything he uses. He said there is also a marked difference in the air quality in the area.
While the location of his office has moved to his backyard, Porter said his students were already trained on using the technology needed to learn remotely. In addition to his research, each day Porter has been writing extensively about his experiences in the newly arranged environment. He hopes the writings could become a book of creative non-fiction.
“It’s short and sweet and stream of consciousness,” said Porter. “My wife says it’s a mix of (Jack) Kerouac and (Ernest) Hemingway. I wish.”
Porter said the book idea came quickly, when his research partner, WIU Professor Heather McIlvaine-Newsad, implored him to take copious notes.
“I sat down to write and thought, this is what I’ve been waiting for – This life, pedaling through a pandemic. So, I’m exploring what dislocation, simplicity, and need mean thanks to her prompt.”
McIlvaine-Newsad and Brooke Niermann, an RPTA graduate assistant, are doing a lion’s share of the work as well, with Niermann combing through news sources and chronicling the Florida experience via the media.
“Heather is checking in and keeping me focused on being safe and patient,” he said.
McIlvaine-Newsad said Porter initially messaged her from Florida to let her know what he was working on.
“I had two thoughts simultaneously,” she said. “The first one was ‘stay away from all of those people ignoring the CDC guidelines’ and the second one was ‘wow, what a great research opportunity.’ I guess Rob and I were thinking along the same lines. Within a few hours we had reworked an Institutional Review Board protocol we used in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria hit and Rob began interviewing people. This really is a once in a lifetime opportunity for him to be part of this disaster event as a participant and a researcher at the same time. Since I am removed from the location, since I am still in Macomb, I can offer insight that researchers on the ground may not see due to their proximity.”
The Coronavirus has also offered Porter subject matter for this semester’s Environmental Interpretation class, talking about the response to the pandemic and the environmental implications.
“It’s pertinent to RPTA and interpretation is partly about making sure the correct information is put out there in a situation like this,” he said.
For more information about WIU’s RPTA program, visit wiu.edu/RPTA.