FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A decade ago, eight retirees with ties to New York City became fast friends over their love of poker, running into each other over and over in South Florida casinos. Before long, they started their own poker game in the card room of an Aventura condominium that became something of a ritual.
The players convened every Sunday to Thursday for raucous games over pots less than $100. Over the years, they traveled together on cruises and swapped stories about grandchildren. Harriet Molko, who sat at the table every week with her husband, Ronald Molko, said the group was, in many ways, a family.
They all played together for the last time on March 12. In a matter of weeks, coronavirus claimed the lives of three members of that poker family and debilitated the other five.
According to Molko and relatives of the deceased, the beloved poker game that brought them together so many years ago is likely at the center of what changed them forever. All of them said they believe the virus might have spread in the midst of hugs, banter and the exchanging of cards, cash and chips.
The startling wave of infections in the group came at a time in early March when Florida’s publicly stated coronavirus cases had yet to reach 200, and state and local officials were still days away from implementing stringent social distancing orders.
Three days after the March 12 game, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the cancellation of gatherings of more than 50 people. This was just eight friends in a room.
The unfolding of events is a microcosm for how the virus is able to unknowingly spread — not only in large, bustling gatherings, but even in small, intimate ones. Molko said at least one of the players at the game that night was coughing and sneezing, but no one thought much of it at the time.
“It’s a tragedy,” Molko said from her Miami home.
‘IT WAS HER SOCIAL LIFE’
Marcy Friedman, 94, lived in the Aventura condominium and helped organize the weekly games, making sure all players were in the card room at 7 p.m. from Sunday to Thursday like clockwork.
She died in Aventura Hospital on March 28, according to her son, Andrew Friedman. Before contracting the virus, he said she had underlying heart, lung and kidney conditions.
Friedman, who was born in Brooklyn and worked as a school secretary before retiring to Florida in the early 2000s, didn’t organize the game she loved because of the money involved. She simply loved to play and be around her dear friends, her son said.
“It was her social life.”
In the days before his mother came down with symptoms on March 15, Friedman said he told her to cut back on playing poker.
Although the number of coronavirus infections in Florida was low, in New York, where he lives, the numbers of infected were jumping rapidly and it was becoming clear the elderly were most at risk.
But his mother wasn’t concerned. To be fair, he said, most people outside of New York weren’t at the time.
“It wasn’t like now,” he said. “Everything wasn’t shut down.”
On March 15, Friedman said his mother complained to him about breathing problems. The next day she was admitted into Aventura Hospital. She was tested for the virus, but didn’t get a result for 10 days.
On March 23, Friedman flew from New York, but he could see her only on FaceTime.
Like many others, his mother suffered in her final days, battling the disease alone.
“It was terrible for me,” he said. “I’m sure it was terrible for her.”
Beverly Glass, 84, and Fred Sands, 86, regulars of Marcy Friedman’s game, also died in March. The two were partners for 20 years and lived in Hollywood, according to Glass’ daughter, Lori Helitzer.
Like other regulars in the poker game, Helitzer said they also frequented South Florida casinos. “They were not a sit-at-home couple,” she said. “They were movers and shakers.”
Helitzer said the two New York natives originally met after both of their spouses died of cancer in the late ’90s. Glass was a stay-at-home mother for much of her life, and Sands had a long career as a car salesman. What started as a friendship blossomed into love.
Before the March 12 poker game, Helitzer said she told Glass and Sands they should stop playing altogether because of the coronavirus. She delivered their groceries and told them to stay home.
“They didn’t get it,” she said.
Within a week of that game, Helitzer said Glass and Sands both began to experience symptoms and were admitted into Memorial Regional Hospital. They tested positive for COVID-19 and were placed in separate rooms.
Helitzer felt helpless at home. The one thing she could do, she realized, was try to bring Glass and Sands together. “I thought they would both help each other get better,” she said. “I thought it would be better than them laying there alone and staring at the ceiling.”
After spending hours on the phone with staff at the hospital, Helitzer said they placed Glass and Sands in one room. That night, she got a phone call from the nurse who reported the two lovebirds holding hands.
On March 27, Sands died as Glass watched from her bed.
According to the Broward County Medical Examiner’s Office, he had underlying conditions of non-Hodgkins lymphoma and tightening in the arteries. Glass had the same heart condition.
On March 31, she died too.
Helitzer said the sudden deaths have been difficult to process. Like Friedman, she said she wishes she could have done more to curtail Glass and Sand’s active lifestyle.
But she takes small comfort knowing the two of them spent some of their final moments alive, together.
“Unfortunately, it’s more than most people get.”
In the month since the last poker game with all the regulars in Aventura, family members of the deceased and Molko have little clarity on how everyone became infected.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local health departments in Florida haven’t provided any answers.
Friedman, Helitzer and Molko said none of the agencies reached out for contact-tracing purposes. “I’m surprised they haven’t called me yet,” Molko said.
Molko said another friend at the game, who also contracted the virus, did receive a call from the state health department and efforts were made to trace her interactions with others. That friend declined to be named and comment on this story, as did two other players at the March 12 game.
Molko said that although she stopped frequenting casinos by early March, and well before that final game, she knows that other players had still been spending time at The Big Easy Casino (formerly Mardi Gras Casino) in Hallandale Beach and the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood.
Other players, she said, continued playing at other small games through the weekend after March 12. Casinos were still open: The Big Easy closed on March 17, and Hard Rock followed on March 20.
After hearing some coughing during that March 12 game, Molko later put on a face mask for a while — just to be sure. “I was trying to do the right thing,” she said.
Nonetheless, by March 15, Molko also began to feel symptoms.
By March 22 she tested positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalized at Aventura Hospital. She spent nine gruesome days in the hospital. At one point, she said, she thought she might die.
“I don’t know how I made it,” she said. “I guess I’m just younger and stronger.”
Molko said she is in her 70s and does not have any preexisting conditions. Her husband, Ronald, is in his 80s and does not have any of the risk factors, either. Despite testing positive for the virus, he did not need to be hospitalized.
On April 2, Molko was released, after learning about the deaths of her three dear friends.
She has spent the days since recovering at her home in Miami, trying to understand all that has happened.
“It’s just a nightmare and I’m trying to get over it.”
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