• Chloe Gray lost her mother and her aunt to the coronavirus. She was also infected, along with five family members. 
  • Gray's family lives in Marion County, Florida, where the sheriff banned masks for staff and visitors to his department.
  • For Gray's family, the pandemic has been a "wake-up call," she said.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

When Chloe Gray moved back to Marion County, Florida, to take care of her mother in the spring, she saw teachers, bus drivers, butchers, and grocery clerks without masks. Government employees didn't wear face coverings, either.

Gray's 68-year-old mom had recently suffered a stroke, which depleted her lung capacity. So the number-one priority was to keep her from getting sick.

"No one in the community is taking this seriously," Gray told Business Insider. "I feel like most people would intervene if they saw someone shove down an old lady in the street and start to beat the shit out of her. But that's basically what not wearing a mask is doing."

Gray, a 24-year-old dating coach, said those choices have devastated her family. Eight members got the coronavirus, including Gray and her sister. It killed her aunt in September. Gray's mother was diagnosed in August. After weeks on a ventilator, her mother developed organ failure, leaving doctors with no recourse. She passed away on October 12.

"My mom's not going to be at my wedding. I don't even know how to process that," Gray said.

'It was a wake-up call'

In Marion County, as in many other places across the US, some have come to see mask-wearing and social distancing as political statements instead of public-health tools.

"If you would speak with a normal, random person in this town, wearing a mask is just unnecessary and stupid, and it's been exaggerated by mainstream media and fake news," Gray said. "They're being fed these lies by people who don't give a f— about them and don't care whether or not they die. It's really sad."

Marion County has voted Republican in the last five presidential elections. President Donald Trump got 62% of the vote there in 2016. Trump frames mask-wearing as a voluntary, personal choice, a stance Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has adopted as well. Trump has also repeatedly compared the coronavirus' threat to that of the seasonal flu. Because of that, Gray said, many residents of her county — including her extended family — resisted taking the pandemic seriously.

In August, Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods even began prohibiting deputies, staff, and visitors to his department from wearing face coverings.

"Effective immediately, any individual walking in to any one of our lobbies (which includes the main office and all district offices) that is wearing a mask will be asked to remove it," Woods wrote in an email.

"If most powerful person in the country is telling you that masks aren't necessary, that this isn't a big deal, that more people die of the flu, it's not shocking that people believe him," Gray said. "But that very quickly changed when my sister got sick. It was a wake-up call for everyone in my family."

'It has destroyed my family'

Marion County has seen more than 10,000 coronavirus cases so far, most of which occurred during the summer.

Gray's 28-year-sister, a government employee who works in an office where masks aren't required, was the first family member to become ill in March. She spent a week in the hospital, where she was given supplemental oxygen.

Shortly after, Gray's sister-in-law, a retail worker, was hospitalized with the virus as well. She passed it to her husband and two daughters, ages two and seven. Gray became sick while caring for her nieces.

To take care of Gray's mother, the family had hired an in-home nurse, who Gray said agreed not to see any other clients or socialize with anyone besides her husband. But in August, the nurse tested positive for COVID-19. Gray's mother tested positive a few days later. By then, the nurse was the only person with whom she'd had close contact for more than a month.

Gray later uncovered a Facebook photo of the nurse at the beach with her extended family prior to the diagnosis, suggesting the woman hadn't been as careful as Gray had expected. 

"While that nurse has recovered and she's perfectly fine now, it has destroyed my family," Gray said.

Saying goodbye during a pandemic 

Coronavirus cases in Florida have started to tick up again as the US enters a third surge of infections: Over the last two weeks, Florida has seen a 25% increase in new daily cases. The percentage of coronavirus tests coming back positive has also risen. It now hovers at 12% — a sign the virus is still spreading rampantly. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said test-positivity rates should ideally sit below 3%. 

After Gray's mother was placed on a ventilator, she wasn't allowed to visit. Instead, the family was let in once to say their goodbyes, one at a time.

By that point, Gray hadn't been in the same room as her mom for six months. To minimize risk, she'd been dropping off groceries and other basic necessities outside her mom's home and had set up a table and chairs on her mom's front porch, where she waved from outside the window.

Gray said she understood that the hospital had to take similar precautions with its own staff and patients.

"As much as I love my mom, getting to be with her and our pain is not any more important than the safety of everyone else in the hospital," she said. "The mentality of 'they should make an exception for your family because of what you're experiencing' is the same mentality that allows people to think that it's okay to walk around without a mask."

After her mother's death, Gray rented a cabin in Oregon, where she plans to stay through the holidays with her boyfriend. But she remains worried about her hometown.

Florida began allowing bars and restaurants to operate at full capacity in mid-September. On Tuesday, Gov. DeSantis reopened all 67 of Florida's school districts for in-person classes. Gray said people's aversion to masks persists.

"I get that masks are stuffy and uncomfortable, and I get that human beings are social creatures and being stuck at home is just unbearable, but it's a matter of life and death," she said. "All you have to do to save people's lives is to only go out when you need to and wear a mask."

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