OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. – For months now, “unsavory” people, including gang members, have been hosting massive parties at vacation rental homes with the intent of spreading COVID-19, according to Osceola County Sheriff Russ Gibson.
Since mid-March, the sheriff’s office has received more than 600 noise complaints, many related to what Gibson referred to as COVID-19 parties.
Helicopter video from one such party in May shows dozens of cars lining the streets in a residential community with vehicles blocking the road so people can dance and socialize in the middle of the intersection.
The gathering was dispersed without incident when deputies arrived but Gibson said that’s not always the case.
“Last week someone, some folks in the crowd threw some fireworks at the deputies that were there. They did the right thing, they backed out, they waited for extra resources to arrive and then we went in and took care of the party,” Gibson said. “We dispersed it.”
At that same party, a gun was recovered and shots were fired, according to the sheriff.
Don't fall for unsafe activities. Do the right thing. #besafePosted by Osceola County Sheriff's Office on Friday, July 17, 2020
He said the parties range in size anywhere from 50 people to 400 people. They come from other parts of Central Florida and rent multiple nearby vacation rental properties in Osceola County, specifically in three gated housing developments, and use them to host the gatherings.
“Well, a lot of times, we’ve been finding out that there are people here that are unsavory people that you wouldn’t want in your neighborhoods. There are some gangs, that are renting these houses, and they’re coming here to Osceola County. And this is something that we have to protect our residents with,” Gibson said.
He mentioned an incident in April where a man was fatally shot during one of these house parties. An arrest has since been made in that case.
On top of the violence, Gibson said he’s also concerned about how these parties are affecting the coronavirus situation in Osceola County. As of Friday, Florida Department of Health numbers show the county has reported a cumulative total of 5,556 cases, 248 hospitalizations and 38 deaths.
“They’re being referred to, from what I’m being told, as COVID-19 parties where they’re actually getting together and they’re trying to mingle to potentially spread the virus amongst each other if they’re asymptomatic or whatever the case might be,” Gibson said. “We’ve just seen a tremendous spike just here in Osceola County.”
While young people like those attending the parties are likely to experience more mild symptoms assuming that they have no pre-existing conditions, they can easily spread the deadly respiratory illness to older family members who could be more at risk of developing serious complications.
“The problem is is when you have this and you take it back home to a parent or grandparent, and unknowingly pass that virus on to them, and potentially end their life -- It’s just not worth it. And you have to think beyond the moment. And I think sometimes our young folks are just thinking about the moment,” Gibson said.
Those who live in the usually quiet gated communities where the parties are held are “living a life of terror right now,” according to the sheriff.
“These are real situations, very dangerous situations and our residents are afraid, you know, and we don’t want that. And we don’t want to feel like, other than dispersing this, that we’re powerless and they just continue to happen. Osceola County can’t be listed as party central or COVID-19 party central and then we’re not going to do that,” Gibson said.
His goal is to work with county commissioners to develop some type of ordinance that could prevent these types of parties from happening. He also plans to work with politicians on the state level.
“If I have to bring a lobbyist on to the sheriff’s office to help us up there in Tallahassee, that is what we’ll do to get these laws changed that affect the tourism industry in Central Florida. Anywhere where there’s tourism, these houses and these parties can go on,” Gibson said.
As far as what the everyday citizen can do, the sheriff recommended reporting these types of parties when you see them advertised on social media.
With the weekend approaching, Gibson said his deputies plan to step up patrols in the areas where the parties have been known to happen.
“We’re not going to issue citations when we go to these homes when we see these open house parties. We’re going to get them on their way. They’re not going to be permitted to stay,” Gibson said.
The phone number for the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office non-emergency line is 407-348-1100.