It should have been an idyllic dotage in coastal Florida for Gregory Zec and his wife. Instead, they are contemplating a retirement overshadowed by uncertainty and fear because of a viral outbreak that has laid low friends and family alike.
Like other seniors, the 69-year-old and his septuagenarian wife are high risk for a raging coronavirus epidemic that has killed 215,000Americans and turned many of the elderly against President Donald Trump in a crucial election year.
"The big thing for me is the coronavirus because that is killing a lot of people and it's getting worse," said Zec, 69, who lives with his 72-year-old wife in Sarasota on Florida's west coast.
He said several of his friends and relatives had fallen sick from the virus, and some ended up in intensive care.
"Looks like by the end of the year as many people will be dead from this as from World War II," Zec told AFP, citing projections that more the US death toll could surpass 300,000 in the coming months.
More than 15,300 people have died of the disease so far in Florida.
"I don't want to be one and I don't want my wife to be one," said Zec. "The magnitude is big."
Zec worked for 35 years in the pharmaceutical industry and did not want to say who he voted for in 2016. But he said there was no way he would be voting for Trump on November 3.
The way the president dealt with his own infection, stage-managing his return from hospital to the White House in a helicopter, did not help sway his opinion either.
"When he got off the helicopter, I thought it was pathetic," said Zec. "He had a lot of spray tan on, makeup which I don't like to see in a man, and standing on a balcony remind me of Benito Mussolini," the Italian fascist leader who allied with Nazi Germany in World War II.
- Key state, but unpredictable -
Opinion polls suggest that this voting group in a traditional Republican stronghold are slowly moving closer to supporting Trump's opponent, Democrat Joe Biden.
A Quinnipiac poll on October 7 showed a comfortable advantage for Biden over Trump of 55 to 40 percent among voters aged 65 or over in Florida.
In addition, those who voided their ballot or voted for a third party candidate in 2016 are leaning toward the former vice president, said Eduardo Gamarra, a lecturer in political science at Florida International University.
Eyeing that shift, Biden made a flying visit to Florida Tuesday to address seniors.
"The only senior that Donald Trump cares about is the senior Donald Trump," the 77-year-old Democrat told a small gathering at a retirement community center in Pembroke Pines, north of Miami.
"He's never been focused on you," Biden said. "You are expendable, you are forgettable, you are virtually nobody. That's how he sees this."
Gamarra said he was nevertheless wary of the trend toward Biden because the election is still three weeks away and the situation remains "very volatile."
Nevertheless, he said there is no doubt that "there has been movement, especially among the over-65s...and that is probably due to the issue of the pandemic."
Florida, with 14 million voters, has historically had a high proportion of older citizens in the United States (20.5 percent) because of all the pensioners who come to its balmy climate for their retirement.
At the same time it is crucial in elections because it carries 29 of the 270 electoral colleges votes needed to win the White House, and, just adding to the suspense, its results are generally very difficult to predict.
For example, in 2000, the Republican candidate George W. Bush won the White House by just 537 votes in Florida, while in 2016 Trump won the state with a margin of 1.4 points.
- To see the grandkids or not -
That is why any movement in the polls, no matter how small, can be significant.
This year, said Gamarra, the difference could be made by the small voting community of Venezuelans, by the more numerous Cuban-America community or even with white Republican pensioners who have become disillusioned with their party.
"Florida seniors now hold the keys to the White House," said Lorraine Tuliano, president of the Orlando chapter of the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans.
"It’s been a rather devastating seven months. We are staying home, we only go out for necessities," she said. "I haven't seen my mother and my family for seven months… I don’t think the Trump administration understands how regular people live."
Seniors who backed Biden in Florida used to stage timid rallies in his favor with small golf cart rallies in The Villages, the largest retirement community in Florida and a bastion of Trump supporters.
Vice President Mike Pence went to The Villages on Saturday where he called on supporters not to heed the polls and to vote to ensure that "America remains America."
According to pictures posted on Facebook by Democrats in The Villages, a small airplane flew over the Pence gathering trailing a banner for the community's 100,000 residents to read.
It said, "Pence is why you can't see your grandkids."