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Florida and New York share an interstate, but their COVID cultures are worlds apart

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Where do you keep your COVID vaccination card?

If you keep it on you, for quick access to a restaurant or a show, or if you’ve slipped it into a plastic sleeve to safeguard it from spills, chances are you’re from New York.

If your pristine card is tucked away in a folder with your passport, birth certificate and other important but seldom-used papers, it’s much more likely you live in Florida.

Gone are the days when flip-flops vs. wool socks and parkas vs. swimsuits distinguished which end of Interstate 95 a person calls home. These days, it’s evident by the location and condition of a 4-by-3-inch piece of card stock with stickers and dates notated. 

And that’s not all.

Faced with the same pandemic — with remarkably similar but no less tragic death tolls (as of Feb. 21, Florida at 68,955; New York at 66,466, out of total populations of 21.78 million in Florida and 20.21 million in New York) — the two states have chosen strikingly different paths forward. Our contrasting COVID cultures impact everything from whether we don masks to how — or even if — we dine out.

And because we have made the choices we’ve made, we give ourselves license to do what we often do when faced with differences: conclude, loudly, that those who disagree are clueless.

Waiters don’t wear masks in Florida?!

New Yorkers have to be vaccinated to see a show?!

Neither state is a monolith. Both are home to residents who fully support what their leaders are doing — and residents convinced their leadership has it all wrong. You will find restaurants and retail stores in Florida that ask patrons and staff to wear masks; and New York parents who grouse about being forced to cover their faces at high school basketball games.

New York’s and Florida’s COVID cultures are worlds apart
USA TODAY Network journalists compare the differences in COVID culture between New York and Florida.
Rob Landers, Florida Today

New York’s approach has been closely aligned with recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which were updated Friday. The new guidance would allow most Americans to unmask indoors, based on metrics including community COVID-19 transmission, hospitalization rates and hospital capacity. More than half of U.S. counties now fall into the low- or medium-risk category, according to the CDC data. Masks are only recommended for high-risk areas.

A large swath of Florida remains in the highest-risk category, with only one county considered low-risk. By contrast, much of downstate New York is classified as low-risk, and many other New York counties shift to the medium level. So, where there are rules, they may soon change. 

Still, as America enters a third year of a no-longer-novel coronavirus, it’s eye-opening to take a stock of the two COVID cultures. Yes, the pandemic ground is shifting constantly under our feet, whether those feet are in sandy Florida or snowy New York. Restrictions ebb and flow, but one thing is certain: These dispatches show that Florida and New York remain worlds apart.

To mask or not to mask, that is the question 

If you want to check out Hugh Jackman in “The Music Man” on Broadway, you’ve got trouble if you don’t have a mask and proof of vaccination. You won’t be admitted to the Winter Garden Theatre. 

Still, audiences are showing up, grateful to see live performances after a 23-month hiatus, and more than willing to mask up and produce that vaccination card if that — and the steep price of a Broadway ticket — is what it takes. Among those checking out those dancing Iowans at a recent performance were New Yorkers Michael and Lisa Panitz, from Katonah, and Jennifer Panitz, from Yonkers, beaming from behind masks.

The omicron surge took its toll, but Broadway soldiers on. 

From left, Michael and Lisa Panitz, from Katonah, NY, and Jennifer Panitz, from Yonkers, NY, are excited for “The Music Man” at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre on Feb. 9, 2022.
About 1,500 fans of the country band Midland attended a concert in Cocoa, Florida, on Feb. 18.
TOP: From left, Michael and Lisa Panitz of Katonah, N.Y., and Jennifer Panitz of Yonkers, N.Y., are excited for “The Music Man” at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre on Feb. 9. BOTTOM: About 1,500 fans of the country band Midland are packed in for an outdoor concert in Cocoa, Fla., on Feb. 18. LEFT: From left, Michael and Lisa Panitz of Katonah, N.Y., and Jennifer Panitz of Yonkers, N.Y., are excited for “The Music Man” at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre on Feb. 9. RIGHT: About 1,500 fans of the country band Midland are packed in for an outdoor concert in Cocoa, Fla., on Feb. 18. LEFT: From left, Michael and Lisa Panitz of Katonah, N.Y., and Jennifer Panitz of Yonkers, N.Y., are excited for “The Music Man” at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre on Feb. 9. RIGHT: About 1,500 fans of the country band Midland are packed in for an outdoor concert in Cocoa, Fla., on Feb. 18. Submitted by Jennifer Panitz; Suzy Fleming Leonard/Florida Today

Meanwhile, at a recent Saturday night show of “Hello, Dolly!” at Henegar Center in Melbourne, Florida, there was a smattering of face coverings, but you could see the smiles of the mostly unmasked 350-patron audience. 

‘Defeated Fauci-ism’:Florida issues new COVID mask guidelines that ‘buck’ CDC

It’s a significant departure from the required masking and the “if we have to ask you a third time to put your mask on, you’ll have to leave” protocol the south Brevard County community theater once had in place. No one seemed to bat an eye at a few patrons coughing in the balcony. And certainly no one was asking about vaccination cards.

TAKING A TOLL

Blindsided by the coronavirus, New York had a higher COVID-19 death toll than Florida for most of the pandemic. But during the summer 2021 surge of infections fueled by the delta variant, Florida’s fatalities climbed past New York’s. As the omicron mutation engulfed America, New York deaths tracked back up, putting both states closer together in total deaths.

Mask mandates at school are a learning experience

In New York, for the time being, children are masked in school. In Florida, mandates are out, but students can mask, if they wish. 

But this is where the line blurs between the two cultures. There are vocal parents in both states blasting mask mandates.  

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, who recently dropped mask mandates for private businesses, announced Sunday that she’s lifting the school mask mandates as of Wednesday. Until then, schoolkids must mask up 100%. 

A sign of that New York COVID culture is clear in a just-released Siena College poll, in which 58% of New York registered voters agreed with the slower approach to mask removal in classrooms, saying they think officials should wait to remove the mandate until more data is available in early March. 

Leon High School students in Tallahassee, Florida, gather outside the main building on campus to catch up with one another before going to class on the first day of school on Aug. 11, 2021.
Students in Candace Wood’s sixth grade math and science class at Yonkers Middle High School in Yonkers, N.Y., wear face coverings Feb. 17, 2022.
Students in Paula Johnson’s sixth grade English Class at Yonkers Middle High School in Yonkers, NY, wear face coverings during class on Feb. 17, 2022.
TOP: Leon High School students gather outside the main building on campus to catch up with one another before going to class in Tallahassee, Fla., on Aug. 11, 2021, the first day of the current school year. BOTTOM: Students in Paula Johnson’s sixth grade English Class at Yonkers Middle High School in Yonkers, N.Y., wear face coverings during class on Feb. 17. TOP: Leon High School students gather outside the main building on campus to catch up with one another before going to class in Tallahassee, Fla., on Aug. 11, 2021, the first day of the current school year. BOTTOM: Students in Paula Johnson’s sixth grade English Class at Yonkers Middle High School in Yonkers, N.Y., wear face coverings during class on Feb. 17. TOP: Leon High School students gather outside the main building on campus to catch up with one another before going to class in Tallahassee, Fla., on Aug. 11, 2021, the first day of the current school year. BOTTOM: Students in Paula Johnson’s sixth grade English Class at Yonkers Middle High School in Yonkers, N.Y., wear face coverings during class on Feb. 17. Alicia Devine/Tallahassee Democrat; Mark Vergari/The Journal News

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis, via executive order, prevented school districts from imposing mandates and the state Legislature now is considering a measure that would strip a combined $200 million in additional funding from the 12 school districts that temporarily bucked the mask mandate prohibition at the height of the delta variant surge. 

Now, in some Florida schools, masks seem less common than the emails regularly sent home to parents warning of a COVID-19 exposure. When that email comes, no follow-up action is required. 

Parents protest mask mandate for students
A group of mothers and supporters protest the mask mandate for students outside the Rockland County Office Building Jan. 31, 2022 in New City.
Tania Savayan, Rockland/Westchester Journal News

Rachel Barrial, a mother of two students at Rockledge High in Brevard County, Florida, said masking at the school is probably 50-50. 

Which students decide to mask up seems dictated by the same thing that influences much of teen life: what their friends are doing. Her son and daughter wear masks because the kids they hang out with wear masks.  

At high school sports games, mask monitors enter gyms

Scan the high school stands at basketball games in New York and it’s all masks, all the time, with social distancing still encouraged. In Florida, they pack in the crowds, maskless. 

In New York, there’s a new job description: mask monitor.

As Watkins Glen High School hosted rivals Odessa-Montour for a girls basketball game at the southern shore of Seneca Lake in New York’s Finger Lakes, a crowd monitor was tasked with making sure everyone in the crowd wore their masks correctly. 

New rules: NYSPHAA to require proof of vaccination or negative COVID large-scale championship events

Some New York schools limit the number of fans who can attend to two, using a check-in log. 

Masks even play a role in which games are played. 

Horseheads’ wrestling team pulled out of a tournament across the New York state line into Pennsylvania earlier this season because the Pennsylvania venue didn’t require masks.  

Few of the cheering fans are masked during a girls basketball game between South Fort Myers High School and Fort Myers High School in Southwest Florida on Jan. 7, 2022.
Fans wear masks in New York as they attend a girls basketball game between Scarsdale and White Plains at White Plains High School Jan. 31, 2022.
TOP: Few of the cheering fans are masked during a girls basketball game between South Fort Myers High School and Fort Myers High School in Southwest Florida on Jan. 7. BOTTOM: Parents in New York wear masks as they attend a girls basketball game between Scarsdale and White Plains at White Plains High School on Jan. 31. LEFT: Few of the cheering fans are masked during a girls basketball game between South Fort Myers High School and Fort Myers High School in Southwest Florida on Jan. 7. RIGHT: Parents in New York wear masks as they attend a girls basketball game between Scarsdale and White Plains at White Plains High School on Jan. 31. LEFT: Few of the cheering fans are masked during a girls basketball game between South Fort Myers High School and Fort Myers High School in Southwest Florida on Jan. 7. RIGHT: Parents in New York wear masks as they attend a girls basketball game between Scarsdale and White Plains at White Plains High School on Jan. 31. Andrew West/The News-Press; Seth Harrison/The Journal News

Masking in the Florida school gym has gone the way of short shorts on basketball players. Bare-faced spectators tilt their heads together to hear conversations above the crowd noise. Players and game officials run the court without face coverings. 

At the Florida High School Athletic Association girls weightlifting championship, held in mid-February in Port St. Joe in the Florida Panhandle, competitors high-fived and hugged coaches while spectators sat shoulder-to-shoulder watching the bench press and clean-and-jerk competitions.

CATCHING THE VIRUS

Florida has experienced more coronavirus surges than New York. Although New York did not see a wave of infections during summer 2021, when the delta variant took over Florida, omicron has pushed New York’s total case count up exponentially. But omicron has fueled a bigger surge in Florida.

Dining during pandemic brought people outside — and into igloos

When it comes to restaurants, things in the two states are different, inside and out. 

You will readily find Florida restaurants providing outdoor seating areas. What you won’t find is a majority of mask-wearers, even among servers.  

Bare-faced servers are as commonplace in Florida as flip-flops and shorts. And most patrons, including seniors, stopped covering up when the vaccines were rolled out. Even restaurants sporting CDC signage rarely enforce the guidelines.

Ryan Dion, 110 Grill’s chief operating officer
We’re excited that it’s not restricted down there, and also 1,000 new people relocate to Florida daily, which is extremely exciting.

For most restaurants in Florida, business is now conducted much the same as it was pre-pandemic. And restaurateurs from across the country are noticing. 

Kelly’s Roast Beef, the beloved Boston-area fast-casual chain known for its roast beef sandwiches, lobster rolls and hand-breaded onion rings, recently announced plans to expand into Southwest Florida, via a partnership with the Massachusetts-based 110 Grill restaurant group. 

“We’re excited that it’s not restricted down there, and also 1,000 new people relocate to Florida daily, which is extremely exciting,” Ryan Dion, 110 Grill’s chief operating officer, said. “The weather also helps.” 

Florida migration:Who’s moving to Sunshine state? New York, New Jersey tags explained

Sarasota will be the first location of Kelly’s in the Sunshine State, followed by restaurants in the nearby communities of Parrish, North Port and Venice. 

Mediterraneo in Sarasota, Florida, is busy on Feb. 24, 2022. The Italian restaurant is one of many that expanded its outdoor seating amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Many diners still choose to sit outdoors, but indoor seating is equally popular. Mask-wearing is entirely up to the individual patron, and the individual server.
Igloos at Tequila Sunrise in Larchmont, N.Y.
TOP: At Mediterraneo in Sarasota, Fla., many diners still choose to sit in the expanded outdoor area, but indoor seating is equally popular. Mask-wearing is entirely up to the individual, whether patron or server. BOTTOM: Outdoor dining igloos at Tequila Sunrise in Larchmont, N.Y. LEFT: At Mediterraneo in Sarasota, Fla., many diners still choose to sit in the expanded outdoor area, but indoor seating is equally popular. Mask-wearing is entirely up to the individual, whether patron or server. RIGHT: Outdoor dining igloos at Tequila Sunrise in Larchmont, N.Y. LEFT: At Mediterraneo in Sarasota, Fla., many diners still choose to sit in the expanded outdoor area, but indoor seating is equally popular. Mask-wearing is entirely up to the individual, whether patron or server. RIGHT: Outdoor dining igloos at Tequila Sunrise in Larchmont, N.Y. Kat Dow/Herald-Tribune; submitted by Tequila Sunrise

Though outdoor dining was popular with New Yorkers last winter — with heaters, heated tents and fire pits — the novelty seems to have worn off this year. After all, it’s cold in New York. 

But not far from Long Island Sound, there’s a guy with an igloo waiting for you

Rob Gorsline, owner of Tequila Sunrise in Larchmont, N.Y., offers heated plastic igloos that are still finding diners, though not as many as last year. Gorsline said the igloos are accounting for a quarter of his total revenue this winter. 

“There are still many people who will not step foot inside the restaurant, so we’re grateful to be able to provide a comfortable option to those who prefer being outdoors,” he said. 

Proving vaccination: There’s an app for that 

Since last August, if you’ve wanted to dine indoors in New York City, you’ve had to show that vaccination card — or the state’s Excelsior Pass smartphone app that proves vaccine status

The app, which produces a QR code that can be scanned at the entrance to venues, is the go-to for sports fans and concertgoers. 

More on this:New York launches nation’s first ‘vaccine passports.’ Others are working on similar ideas 

New York’s Excelsior Pass app allows event attendees to prove their COVID-19 vaccination status.
New York’s Excelsior Pass app allows event attendees to prove their COVID-19 vaccination status. New York State Governor’s Office

Heading to see Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden? Bring your card or the Excelsior Pass app. Same for Broadway theaters, and if you want to check out the Knicks, Nets, Rangers, Islanders, Mets or Yankees. 

In Florida, vaccine mandates are off limits and even raising the topic of vaccination status could be asking for trouble. The only thing you needed to attend NFL games or the Daytona 500 is a ticket and a heartbeat.

GETTING THE SHOT

Even as more infectious mutations of the coronavirus sweep across the country, Floridians have become less inclined than New Yorkers to get vaccines. In early spring 2021, 29% of Florida residents and 31% of New Yorkers had been at least partially inoculated. Now, the gap is 11 percentage points: 89% of New Yorkers and 78% of Floridians have gotten the shots as of Feb. 22.

Getting COVID carded to dine in New York

He didn’t have to, but Joe Printz, owner of DVine Bar in suburban Sparkill, New York, made the difficult decision to require proof of vaccination for indoor dining on Jan. 5. 

It wasn’t easy. He didn’t want to turn away patrons, especially in winter. 

A sign detailing Seed to Table’s mask exception guidelines hangs outside the entrance to the store in Naples, Fla.
A sign detailing Seed to Table’s mask exception guidelines hangs outside the entrance to the store in Naples, Fla. Alex Driehaus/Naples Daily News/USA TODAY - FLORIDA NETWORK

Printz was concerned about the safety of his employees — his chef has multiple sclerosis — and he was following the lead of restaurants in New York City, which mandated proof of vaccine to dine inside back in August.  

More proof needed: Several Westchester, Rockland restaurants now ask diners to be vaccinated

He got some pushback after making the announcement on social media, and while he admits it may have cost him some business, in the end, he’s glad he did it. 

“Overall, the feedback has been more positive than negative,” he said. 

In Florida, indoor dining has returned almost to pre-COVID numbers, limited not by vaccine or mask mandates but by supply chain and hiring difficulties. Diners crowd together at the bar and sit at tables only a few feet apart. 

Ruth Dutes, 33, manager at Osteria Tulia, an eatery in Naples, Florida, said business has been back to normal for months after going back to full capacity in the summer, just before the delta variant hit. 

“It was as if nothing happened,” Dutes said. “We have a lot New Yorkers come down and they are very happy. They have been saying that for a while.”

Mask up, aisle 3 — or face side-eye from fellow grocery shoppers

Grocery stores were ground zero at the start of the pandemic. In both states, there were empty shelves and one-way aisles, and seniors-only hours to reduce their exposure. And there were masks. Everywhere. 

These days, that’s still largely the case in New York, more so downstate than upstate. At Whole Foods in White Plains and at the C-Town in Tarrytown, masks are universal, among staff and shoppers alike. Not wearing masks draws a side-eye from fellow shoppers. 

But the trend away from mask-wearing is noticeable in the Elmira, New York, area, despite a state mask mandate that went into effect in December. 

About half of the customers shopping recently at the Lowe’s in Big Flats didn’t have facial coverings during a moderately busy time of day. A sign on the door provided a reminder masks were required, but it was not displayed prominently and nobody in the store did anything to encourage or enforce mask-wearing.

After two years, how do you feel about wearing masks?
Almost two years of mask-wearing to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, we asked people how they felt about still wearing them.
Tania Savayan, Rockland/Westchester Journal News

Masks are by no means universal in Florida supermarkets. 

At a Winn-Dixie in Port St. John on Florida’s east coast on an 80-plus-degree day in February, at least every other shopper was masked up, or wearing a mask on their head, no matter where it was sitting, and the clerks were, too. Those who were bare-faced were, for the most part, men — largely younger — but some older women were mask-free, too.

On a recent sunny Saturday in St. Augustine, visitors chatted in French, Spanish and English as they walked down the crowded St. George Street and popped in and out of shops selling chocolate, knives, T-shirts and ceramic lizards. A few slipped face coverings on as they entered the stores, but they were definitely in the minority. Out on the street, where people walked nearly rubbing elbows, almost no one wore a mask.

In Venice, Florida, Jay Howard said his wife, Irene, wears her mask and is not interested in a mask debate when she goes grocery shopping. She even has changed when she shops. 

“She has found that if she goes to the Publix shortly before closing, whatever hour that is, if they close at 6 or they close at 9, she’ll go a half an hour before and the store is basically empty,” Howard said. “She still wears a mask, but we do tend to be more cautious about the times that we shop. We try not to go to fully loaded places.” 

Sometimes, masking varies within the same store. 

At the  the 23rd Street Piggly Wiggly in Panama City, Florida, some shoppers and staff wear masks and some don’t.
A shopper in a mask outside the Stop & Shop in Nanuet, NY, on Feb. 17, 2022.
TOP: At the the 23rd Street Piggly Wiggly in Panama City, Fla., some shoppers and staff wear masks and some don’t. BOTTOM: A shopper in a mask outside the Stop & Shop in Nanuet, N.Y., on Feb. 17. LEFT: At the the 23rd Street Piggly Wiggly in Panama City, Fla., some shoppers and staff wear masks and some don’t. RIGHT: A shopper in a mask outside the Stop & Shop in Nanuet, N.Y., on Feb. 17. LEFT: At the the 23rd Street Piggly Wiggly in Panama City, Fla., some shoppers and staff wear masks and some don’t. RIGHT: A shopper in a mask outside the Stop & Shop in Nanuet, N.Y., on Feb. 17. Jacqueline Bostick/The News Herald; John Meore/The Journal News

Around 3 p.m. on a recent Friday in Cocoa, Florida, at the Walmart Supercenter, a masked customer sat and filled out paperwork at the pharmacy, where everyone scouring the vitamin and pain reliever aisles was also masked. Not so on the grocery side, though, where masking wasn’t universal and the older a person was, the more likely their face was at least partially covered.  

In the commercial hub of Panama City, the 23rd Street Piggly Wiggly is packed with everyday shoppers scouting for the best deals on ethnically specific produce like Ghana’s yellow yam and the starchy Central and South American achiote. It is common to see five or six hands blithely reaching in and out of display tubs, each person examining the produce in hope of selecting the best specimens. Cashiers and sales floor staff may or may not be wearing masks.  

A half-mile down the same street at Sam’s Club, the scene is nearly the polar opposite. The requirement for shoppers to brandish their club cards has merged with an opportunity for masked door greeters to promote mask-wearing during shoppers’ brief visits. Of course, the greeters have boxes of masks and bottles of hand sanitizer in their possession. While it is no longer required for shoppers to wear masks, it is obvious that all staff are required to do so.

SERIOUS INFECTIONS

Florida has experienced bigger swings in COVID-19 hospitalizations than New York. During the late summer delta variant surge, Florida’s hospitals tended to more than six times as many coronavirus patients as New York’s on an average day. The omicron variant has put a near-equal number of people in the hospital in both states. Most people hospitalized since vaccines became available have been unvaccinated.

Streaming services. No, not Netflix — church

Churches found it challenging during the pandemic, but there was some good to come out of it. Many who followed worship services online ended up joining.

Pastor Nancy Mayeux at First United Methodist Church in Naples said she noticed a startling development when they began streaming services: The congregation was getting members who did not live in Naples and had never even been to the Gulf-side city.

Rev. Nancy Mayeux from the First United Methodist Church in Naples, Florida, oversees an Easter Sunrise Service at the Naples Pier on April 4, 2021. Hundreds attended the annual event.
Rev. Nancy Mayeux from the First United Methodist Church in Naples, Florida, oversees an Easter Sunrise Service at the Naples Pier on April 4, 2021. Hundreds attended the annual event. Andrew West/The News-Press

And while they didn’t even plan on visiting, they found a spiritual home in the church and were tuning in every week.

“That was actually a nice thing that came out of the pandemic,” Mayeux said.

Donna Lee Harold, of Titusville, Florida, is 76 and is resigned to taking “baby steps until I can dance again.”  

Donna Lee Harold, of Titusville, Florida
Church was online for months, but I go back now. Still wear a mask when we sing.

“I felt protected with all the CDC recommended vaccines so was just going out, when omicron came along,” she wrote. “So back to masking up with the N95 and not wearing one of the dozens of pretty masks I wore previously. ... Church was online for months, but I go back now. Still wear a mask when we sing.”

At All Saints Episcopal Church in Briarcliff Manor, New York, in Westchester County — where COVID took deadly hold early — Rector Kevin Veitinger reckons he’s been doing something not many of his Florida counterparts have: checking the state’s COVID positivity rate reports to see if his flock can gather in person.

For months, Veitinger, a third-generation Floridian, shivered with his parishioners in a courtyard that made meeting in person possible and safe. Then omicron hit and they went virtual in January. This month, they began meeting in person, inside again, with one heavy concession to COVID: Only the masked choir sings.

Rector Kevin Veitinger sits beside the basket of masks offered to parishioners at the entrance of All Saints Episcopal Church in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., on Feb. 18.
Rector Kevin Veitinger sits beside the basket of masks offered to parishioners at the entrance of All Saints Episcopal Church in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., on Feb. 18. Tania Savayan/The Journal News

How does Veitinger keep his flock from singing?

“We don’t post the hymn numbers,” he said with a laugh. A would-be singer would have to thumb through the hymnal quickly to find the hymn and might catch up by verse two, he said.

“I have a few older folks that know all the hymns. Even with their masks on, I can tell they’re singing,” he said.

Still, the rector realizes that music is integral to the worship experience in his church and there’s only so far he’ll go in the name of COVID safety.

Yes, he’ll check positivity rates. But church culture can supersede COVID culture on this one point, he figures, when an elder worshiper’s mask can be seen billowing along with the music.

“It’s not like one of the things where I’m going to stop the music and say, ‘You’re not allowed to sing,’” he said.

Changing the COVID conversation

There will come a time when these COVID cultures will give way to normal New York and Florida bickering once again.

Then we can get back to arguing about which state has the better baseball team.

Or pizza.

Or, dare we suggest: bagels.

We’re not there yet.

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