2023. We made it — the first calendar year since 2020 with full capacities, no masks and a patient-zero free-for-all. However, the new COVID-19 variant, XBB.1.5, brings forth the most transmissible version yet. After having it myself as I welcomed the New Year, the Omicron variant creates a genuine possibility of another lockdown. Let’s all avoid that and take precautions now to slow the spread of COVID-19 through these safe, yet fun, Gainesville activities.
Ocala Drive-In Theatre
Pull up at the Ocala Drive-In to see your favorite movie from the safety of your car. Or, if you prefer, set up a chair beside your car and watch from there! Either way, the drive-in provides a safe, socially distant way to enjoy a movie theater experience. The open field supplies plenty of space, and the concession stand offers pizza, burgers, wings and more.
“I like the Ocala Drive-In Theatre because it’s pretty old-timey,” University of Florida senior Meghan McGlone said. “I like how you turn on your radio to a station, and then you can listen to the movie from your car, and they have a little snack stand where you can go get popcorn.”
McGlone said her favorite purchases from concessions include chicken nuggets and sprite. She recommends the drive-in theatre as a cost-efficient and socially distant way to enjoy a movie from your driver’s seat, your trunk or in the grass. The people who come keep to themselves and don’t bother you. McGlone said that she likes the drive-in more than any other movie theatre in Gainesville. This month, catch “Plane,” “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” “Avatar 2” or “Megan.”
Biking the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail
This historic 16-mile trail used to be a rail bed. Now, it creates a scenic greenway full of plants and wildlife native to Gainesville. University of Florida graduate student Nick Eatman loves the Hawthorne trail because he can go at any time of day while still feeling completely safe. The trail creates an environment to enjoy the outdoors safely and socially distantly on any mode of transportation.
“It’s also just somewhere that you can be outdoors and experience nature firsthand, whether that’s via longboard or skateboard, on a bike, or just a simple walk,” Eatman said. “Depending on which time you go, you may even some see wildlife.”
The trail offers amenities such as benches and convenience stores along the 10-foot-wide paths. You may want to take a break due to the curvy and hill-covered terrain. It connects to Boulware Springs City Park, a great starting point for cyclists while moving through historic towns such as Rochelle, Phifer and Grove Park. Bring water, sunscreen and bug spray, and enjoy your bike ride while staying COVID-safe!
Fishing at Lake Wauburg
At nearly 300 acres, Lake Wauburg offers a beautiful location to fish and watch the wildlife. Full of bass, bream and speckled perch, bring your fishing pole and see what you can catch! While there, keep an eye out for more than 270 types of birds including sandhill cranes and bald eagles. The lake also houses alligators, otters, deer, bobcats and snakes.
Snack at the Food Trucks
Gainesville’s food truck scene offers a variety of options for all diets and tastes. Even better, it creates an outdoor environment perfect for a socially distant meal. Midpoint Park and Eatery, Gainesville’s newest outdoor food truck park, offers restaurants with a range of dishes — Plantology, Zen Asian Street Eats, Scuola Pizza and Nopal Dos. Another beautiful food truck park, 4th Ave Food Park, hosts vendors including Opus Airstream, Satch Squared, Fehrenbacher’s, Humble Wood Fire, Feliz Flavors, BakerBaker and Sublime Tacos.
The food truck scene also offers many different activities and events. The University of Florida Thrift Club hosted its most recent thrift swap at 4th Ave Food Park. The group exchanged clothing items between members while simultaneously enjoying delicious food. Any leftover items got donated to Peaceful Paths Domestic Abuse Network.
“We usually host our swaps at Opus Coffee, which is a local coffee shop, or outside on campus,” University of Florida senior and Thrift Club social media manager Megan Bosshart said. “We decided to expand our swaps to have one per month at 4th Ave Food Park mostly because we wanted to diversify our locations and dates.”
Bosshart said Thrift Club plans to host swaps at 4th Ave one Sunday a month so more members can attend if they cannot make it to other swaps. She said the fully outdoor swaps at 4th Ave provide a safer space when it comes to COVID exposure, ensuring the comfort of all members of the club. Attending events and dining at the food trucks provides an experience with something for everyone, including vegan options and baked goods. Another added benefit — you get to support local businesses!
Explore the Devil’s Millhopper
Devil’s Millhopper, a national landmark since 1976, displays a 120-foot-deep limestone sinkhole engulfed by a rainforest. It fosters sweet relief from the Florida sun, as the temperature drops significantly as you move into the shaded canopy of plants inside the sinkhole. OUTdoors, the University of Florida’s LGBTQ+ hiking club, had a recent outing at the state park. The club meets every Sunday at various locations around Gainesville for hiking and exploring.
“It’s basically the only state park UF is right next to and they recently reopened the stairs leading down into the sinkhole earlier this year, so it was a pretty obvious choice,” University of Florida junior and OUTdoors treasurer Kath Trang said. “With state parks, you get the benefit of well-maintained trails and educational material regarding the park, so if you’ve got an hour or so free, it’s a great place to go for a quick hike.”
When the park reopened the stairs down to the sinkhole, they also modified them to be less strenuous. Even so, the steep stairwell of 123 steps into the sinkhole may sound daunting, but when you see the greenery growing around you and the waterfalls streaming down, the steps don’t seem so bad. According to Trang, the view at the bottom made the steps worth it. Listen to the sound of the birds and frogs and keep your eyes out for beautiful butterflies. This natural experience fosters a perfect spot to explore the outdoors while remaining COVID-free.
Grab Krishna in Plaza of the Americas
As you walk around campus, you may notice the amazing outdoor eating area at Plaza of the Americas. The Krishna Lunch buffet, a UF staple since 1971, offers food five days a week from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The revolving menu provides a new meal each day of the week, starting on Monday with chickpeas and potatoes in tomato masala with rice, salad and apple cinnamon halava. On Tuesdays, they serve my favorite dish — kofta veggie balls and mixed vegetable curry on rice with salad and banana cream halava. Wednesday means mac-n-cheese — enjoy vegan mac-n-cheese with barbecue tofu and corn chips. Thursdays offer lentil soup and thai coconut curry, and on Fridays they serve chili with Gauranga potatoes. Sit in the plaza and enjoy the outdoors while you munch on your favorite meal.
Dick Mondell’s on the go
Gainesville’s local burger joint, Dick Mondell’s, takes COVID-19 precautions seriously. It offers its full menu with walk-up and drive-thru options, and according to its website, the staff keeps up with washing and sanitizing their hands and the workstation. The convenient location between campus and downtown Gainesville makes it perfect for burgers on the go, and the outdoor seating area provides space to sit and eat if you prefer. According to The Gainesville Sun, the restaurant opened in 2018 when co-owners Connor Castelli and Chris Leckerling came up with the idea for a school project at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in California.
Picnic at Depot Park
The open lawns of Depot Park host a perfect spot for a picnic by the pond. Second-year graduate student at the University of Florida Nick Eatman loves watching the evening sunset on the pond. He said the pond is a popular location and one of his favorite views in Gainesville. Additionally, he loves people-watching while at Depot.
“Instead of wildlife or nature, you get to see all types of people,” Eatman said. “Could be college students, old couples, or families, and they’re all enjoying the park in their own way with their own space.”
The pavilion at Depot offers grills, tables and chairs to really amp up your picnic experience, and you can rent out the pavilion for special events. Cook up some food on the grill or bring your own dish while catching up with friends or family and remaining socially distant. After your meal, you can walk around the waters-edge promenade that overlooks the pond or walk the path of the conservation area to view wildlife and wetlands.
Walk the La Chua Trail
On the north end of Paynes Prarie sits the La Chua Trail. As long as you watch out for alligators, bison and wild horses, adventuring out to the observation tower brings an exciting experience to view wildlife first-hand. The round-trip hike of more than three miles creates plenty of opportunities to explore, but if you leave the trail, carry a hiking stick and stay aware of your surroundings. University of Florida senior Nora O’Neill finds the La Chua Trail an escape from the craziness of school and work, and she loves the convenient location.
“I love reading all of the little informational tidbits about the wildlife and ecology, and it’s always fun to see some alligators up close,” O’Neill said.
When you arrive at the trailhead, check out the kiosk for information and maps, then get started on a walk through beautiful trees, old stables and a wonderful prairie. Keep your eyes out for the Alachua Sink drainage system, the Florida Aquifer and terrific waterfalls. The alligators in the waterways often hide in plain sight, slowly moving through the water disguised as long dark shapes. Because of the alligators, it’s best to leave your dog at home. Instead, stick with a pair of binoculars for bird watching.
Carson Springs Wildlife Conservation Foundation
This Gainesville wildlife sanctuary provides a home for 25 different species with unique stories. Some of these animals include cheetahs, Indian rhinos, kune kune pigs, bat-eared foxes and river otters. The foundation offers a variety of tours including walking tours, open houses and riding tours. Make sure to also keep an eye on the events, as they host many throughout the year. Some previous events include the Halloween Drive Thru, Thanksgiving Tours and Christmas Tours. On Feb. 12, check out the Valentine’s Couples Tour, complete with champagne and strawberries for you and your significant other.