The state of Florida is saturated with the highly-transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, colleges across the state are preparing to open their doors for the fall semester.
Undergrads at schools statewide told Insider that their plans to keep partying aren't slowing down.
On a recent Saturday night in July, the vibrations of EDM music pulsating from bars and nightclubs along Atlantic Avenue drifted into the palm fronds and sliced through the humid Florida air.
In the heart of Palm Beach County, a throng of 20-somethings snaked down the block outside The Office, a local nightlife venue in Delray Beach, poised to elbow their way toward the crowded bar and order rounds of shots.
Across the road at Taverna Opa, another late-night party scene, a DJ spun some tracks to a crowd of dozens as belly dancers stood on top of wooden tables and swerved through the air.
During the worst surges of the COVID-19 pandemic, Florida hotspots like these have counted on the loyalty of one oftentimes carefree constituency: local college students who, come Saturday night, are ready to get lit.
"I don't think I can really name a whole lot of people that don't go out," Nicole Prescott, 23, a drama student at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, told Insider. She's noticed that masks have been a rarity throughout the spring and summer on the few occasions she's gone out with friends since receiving her Pfizer shots.
"Being so lax about protocols and just letting people go through life however they want with COVID is really dangerous," she added.
Across Florida, the highly-transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus is surging. As of July 30, a record high of more than 21,000 new COVID cases was reported in the state, versus just over 2,400 one month before, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And on a CDC map which designates counties as red zones if they've experienced high levels of community spread, all of Florida is illustrated in crimson. More than half of the adult population has been fully vaccinated for COVID-19.
Nevertheless, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, signed an executive order in May which ended all mask mandates local governments in the state had imposed on their residents. In September, he rolled back restrictions on restaurants' operating capacity, months before vaccines were available.
On Friday, DeSantis issued another executive order, this one prohibiting schools from requiring mask-wearing in the classroom, even after the CDC recommended this week that K-12 students and staff do exactly the opposite.
'They're just going out and not caring at all'
Insider interviewed seven undergrads from five universities throughout the state: the University of Miami, the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida State University in Tallahassee, Palm Beach State College, and Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
In spite of the virus' growing threat, the consensus from these students was that the party is far from over.
For Brianna Pope, 20, a Palm Beach State College nursing major, the nightclubs in Fort Lauderdale's cosmopolitan Las Olas district are the most tempting draw.
Weekend nights out typically begin around 10 P.M., she told Insider. On the dance floors of popular hotspots, masks aren't part of the dress code.
"They're just going out and not caring at all," Pope said. "When you go down there, there's really no one wearing masks or anyone taking precautions."
Schools vary on requirements for masking or social distancing as the semester begins
The University of Florida, a state school in Gainesville, is known as much for its athletic culture as for its undergrads' hard-charging party scene.
In an emailed statement on Saturday, a spokesperson for the university told Insider that classes will resume in-person this semester without physical distancing. Wearing masks will be optional, though vaccines are highly encouraged for students, faculty, and staff.
At Palm Beach State College, which operates multiple sites throughout the county, the school strongly recommends face coverings on campus, inside classrooms and offices, and outdoors when social distancing isn't possible, according to an internal email sent in late July by administrators which was reviewed by Insider.
Spokespersons for Palm Beach State College did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Saturday.
Fears are mounting over what the fall semester could bring
The very real prospect of coronavirus outbreaks in student residences has some housing administrators putting preemptive restrictions into place.
Insider reviewed an email sent by Shawn Woodin, president and CEO of the Southern Scholarship Foundation, which provides off-campus housing for 470 students in cities including Tallahassee and Gainesville.
The email, sent on July 29, informed students that face coverings would be required within any of its 26 housing sites where fewer than 80% of residents are fully vaccinated. Having guests will be forbidden in any of those houses.
When reached by phone on Saturday, Woodin told Insider that fewer than 50% of residents ages 18-23 reported that they had been fully inoculated against the virus, based on data he'd reviewed.
"Based on the spring semester, I know that, as college students, some of our residents were going to parties, gatherings, that should not have happened," Woodin said. "Will those behaviors continue? I hope not, but it's likely some of our residents will."
Nevertheless, some students are wary of what the autumn semester may have in store as school gets underway.
"Some students might ignore the CDC guidelines and prioritize having fun," said Daniel Gallup, 20, a student at the University of Florida who received the Pfizer vaccine in March.
"But I'm going to follow the recommendations," he added, "because going out isn't worth getting sick and spreading it to anyone else, especially people I care about."
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