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In Florida yard, a ribbon flutters for every Covid death

Leila MACOR
·3-min read

When Cathy Tobias began tying a ribbon to a rope for each Covid-19 death in Florida, she had no idea her entire patio would end up being draped in color.

The eye-catching tribute to those who have died in the Sunshine State during the pandemic crisscrosses her patio, weaves across stairs and onto a balcony at her home on Anna Maria Island, a small community on Florida's Gulf coast.

There are now more than 30,000 ribbons, in all colors of the rainbow -- from pale pink to crimson to neon green.

Sitting on a porch with a neighbor who has helped her create the memorial, Tobias said she began to tie the ribbons because she wanted to visualize the death toll.

"Watching the numbers change as fast as we can tie really hits us very deeply and strongly -- how many people have died and are dying," the 67-year-old retired occupational therapist said. "It's very sad."

Tobias' home is at the end of the main road on Anna Maria Island, a tourist-friendly town on a narrow strip of land with visitors driving around in rented golf carts and plenty of stores stocked with beach gear.

She says her tribute of course conjures up mixed emotions.

"It is in some ways celebratory because we're celebrating life -- of course, lives lost," said Tobias, who now works as a photographer.

"Each one of these people have family, loved ones, friends that are all deeply impacted and I didn't want them to get lost in this pandemic."

She said she knows "what it feels like, unfortunately, to lose a loved one," because her first child died at less than a month old.

- 'Labor of love' -

Tying ribbons might not seem too complicated, but as the pandemic swept the world and Florida along with it, Tobias and her neighbor Lucy Kancy, devised an organizational system to keep track of all the dead.

For every 10 deaths, they tie a white ribbon. After that, for every 500, 1,000 and 10,000 deaths, they acknowledge the grim milestone using markers.

"It takes forever -- it's a labor of love," said Kancy, 69.

"To cut these the right size, it takes hours. And then, before you know it, it's time to do it again."

Last month, Tobias displayed the fluttering streamers for the first time on one of the island's public beaches, with the help of her sister and several friends.

Arranged in one long line, the ribbons spread out more than 750 feet (230 meters).

Tobias brought markers so visitors could write the names of their dead loved ones on the ribbons, hoping those left behind could get a bit of catharsis, particularly those who could not attend a funeral to say goodbye.

"A lot of these people, we know, died alone and families weren't given the opportunity to grieve properly or even have proper funerals," Tobias said.

All are welcome to participate, even if their loved one did not die of Covid in Florida. So far, about 40 names have been inscribed.

Tobias now wonders what to do with her creation, which is back at her home.

In the short term, it will be exhibited this month at an arts center in nearby St. Petersburg.

She also dreams of seeing a Covid ribbon memorial for every US state, to pay tribute to the more than 500,000 people who have died in the country, which is the hardest-hit in the world.

For now, Tobias is focused on Florida's losses.

"I just keep going. I'm just trying to keep up," she says.

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