Florida’s Worst COVID-19 Zone Is Reopening. It Could Go Horribly Wrong.
Complacency and glaring inequality could make for disaster in South Florida.
MIAMI BEACH—Late Tuesday afternoon, Andres Asion was standing on the corner of 17th Street and Convention Center Drive in Miami Beach, taking stock of a space that had been refashioned as a free COVID-19 testing site. Sporting a blue baseball cap, aviator sunglasses, and a white face mask, the 45-year-old real estate agent filmed a selfie clip with his cellphone.
The footage, which Asion uploaded to his personal and professional Facebook pages, showed a remarkable absence of bodies leading to the temporary tents where nurses waited to deliver testing swabs. Asion was able to breeze in and out. “There is not one person and not one car here right now to get tested,” he said on camera. “It is totally empty.”
In an interview the following day, Asion was still flummoxed by the convention center’s lack of activity. When told the city provided statistics showing 437 people were tested on May 12, the day he went by the site, Asion was not convinced.
“I would love for you to do a stakeout,” he said. “There is nobody there.”
Despite local grumbling about people failing to take advantage of tests, in a county with a population of 2.7 million people, some 125,961 tests had been conducted in Miami-Dade as of Sunday morning, according to data on the Florida Department of Health COVID-19 dashboard. That represents about 4.6 percent of Miami-Dade’s population, compared to tests amounting to about 6 percent of New York City’s population having been conducted there by Friday. Results for the last 14 days showed between 3.7 percent and 15.3 percent of Miami-Dade tests coming back positive, but that raw case tallies were holding fairly steady in the area at around 200 per day.
With a general consensus that 10 percent or fewer positive tests is an encouraging threshold for COVID-19 control, the terrain might seem ripe for an end to pandemic shutdown.
GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez sure think so.
Gimenez has so far held back on unlocking his county’s beaches. Still, he’s forging ahead with a plan to reopen a slate of shuttered nonessential businesses like restaurants, barber shops, and beauty salons starting Monday. The plan got the governor’s blessing on Thursday, even as local leaders in cities like Miami vowed to move more slowly.
“Today we take another important step for a very important part of the state of Florida,” DSsantis told reporters in the Miami-Dade city of Doral.
But epidemiological models have long anticipated a sobering increase in deaths as DeSantis and individual counties and cities relax safer-at-home orders and lift restrictions on public places such as parks, marinas, and beaches in the Sunshine State. In fact, some health experts believe Florida’s elected officials, from DeSantis to Gimenez, are making a calculated mistake by pushing to reopen the state’s economy so early, and that South Florida—long the COVID epicenter in the state—is uniquely set up for infection trouble. The beefs echoed concerns from Georgia to Texas to Nebraska that a thirst for economic reawakening was inviting needless death and suffering—and leaving people of color out to dry.
“The ones who will suffer the brunt of these re-openings are primarily black and brown people,” Bernard Ashby, a Miami-based cardiologist, told The Daily Beast. “Many of these folks are working service jobs or jobs that require them to come in contact with the public. Their ability to protect themselves is diminished because they can’t work from home and live in multifamily homes. And there is no plan to deal with outbreaks within the home.”
Despite his firsthand account of an ostensibly barren testing location, which could be a sign of COVID apathy on the part of asymptomatic Miami-Dade locals, Asion was not among those calling on officials to slow down. If anything, he was happy to see Miami Beach opening stores and other businesses on Wednesday and restaurants next week.
“As long as it’s done with proper restrictions and regulations, the people who want to go out can be the test pilots on how this works out,” Asion said. “Maybe the number of people who get the virus increases by default. But it’s a fine way to tiptoe into the new situation we are facing.”
Sean Cassidy, another Miami Beach resident who attested to passing by an empty testing site several times last week, said politicians and health officials—buoyed by a hysterical media—overreacted in shutting things down. “People are losing their businesses that they worked a lifetime to build,” Cassidy said. “The media is trying to scare the crap out of people.”
A 54-year-old native of Bethesda, Maryland, who moved to Miami Beach in 2014, Cassidy was skeptical about how the whole pandemic response has played out. Asked if he trusted the word of Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who has been under increasingly unhinged attack from the far right in recent days, Cassidy said firmly, “No, not at all.”
He also hypothesized that people left unemployed by the pandemic were, by nature, slackers more than they were wage earners. “The other part of this are the people making more money off unemployment than actually working,” Cassidy said.
“It annoys me because no one is using it,” Cassidy added, of the Miami Beach convention center testing site. “But I am not surprised at all.”
In fact, no one gathered there this weekend, but not because of a lack of interest. Citing a weather forecast of dangerous thunderstorms with wind gusts, Florida health officials announced late Thursday that the Miami Beach site and four other Miami-Dade testing centers would temporarily close and reopen on Monday—the same day reopening was set to kick into gear. (The inclement weather from the first named tropical storm of 2020 did not materialize, and Miami-Dade had one of its sunniest weekends of the year.)
Spokespersons for the governor and Miami-Dade’s mayor did not respond to requests for comment for this story. But Gimenez painted an optimistic picture in a statement on Wednesday, noting a downward trend in cases and hospitalizations over the last two weeks. “We were able to avoid the worst predictions of the effects of the pandemic on our community,” he said.
Still, people dining out, getting their hair done, and doing a little shopping for the first time in more than a month raises the odds in favor of an infection rate spike. “The more people congregate, the more likely they are to be exposed,” said William Haseltine, chair of the US-China Health Summit who played an integral role of the U.S response to the HIV/AIDS and anthrax crises. “Everybody needs to remember it took just one person to infect the world.”
Protective measures such as wearing masks, washing hands, and social distancing are only partially effective in slowing the spread of the coronavirus, he reminded. “It’s a mixture of complacency and desperation,” Haseltine argued of Florida’s push to advance its reopening. “You have the desperation of the business owner staring at bankruptcy and lost livelihood and the desperation of people who have been isolated without any human companionship.”
Ashby, who is a member of the Committee to Protect Medicare, said he feared the reopening would have a devastating impact on the Sunshine state’s poorest residents. According to Florida Department of Health data, African-Americans diagnosed with COVID-19 were dying at a higher rate than other residents who have tested positive for the disease in Miami-Dade, mirroring national trends.
Between the lack of protection for minorities and for residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, Florida’s elected leaders are making the same mistakes that occurred at the onset of the pandemic, Ashby argued. “We continue to underestimate the damage it can do to our most vulnerable populations,” he said. “Instead of using a thoughtful, proactive approach. We have been very reactionary.”
Paul Hernandez, city council president in Hialeah—Miami-Dade’s second largest city, one of the most Hispanic cities in America, and the Florida city with the second highest number of confirmed cases, just behind Miami—was mindful of how badly reopening could go. He pointed to Germany’s recent spike in confirmed cases as the country relaxed its coronavirus restrictions. Hialeah, with its large population of poor, elderly residents, many of whom live in public housing or assisted living facilities, was virtually destined to become one of Florida’s coronavirus hotspots. As of Sunday, confirmed cases there had nearly tripled to 1,946 since early April.
As of now, Hialeah is not reopening barber shops, beauty salons, and retail shops despite the county’s intentions to do so. In fact, Hialeah is joining Miami, Miami Gardens, Doral, and Hialeah in coordinating their openings on a slower timetable than the county, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said at a Wednesday virtual news conference. Cities can keep restrictions in place but cannot lift them without Miami-Dade’s consent.
“I have obvious concerns,” Hernandez said. “Our mayor has been talking with mayors from neighboring cities to put together some form of concerted effort.”
But he blamed inconsistencies in the county’s emergency orders defining essential and nonessential businesses, as well as the state’s woeful unemployment benefits system, for creating a situation where politicians felt forced to reopen, and thus help save small business owners from going out of business and workers from suffering.
“If I own a barber shop, I’ve been closed for the past two months and my employees can’t make $12 a haircut,” Hernandez said. “Yet the cellphone store next door is still open because it is an essential business. The local florist has to close, but people can still shop the garden section of Home Depot. That doesn’t make any sense.”
Meanwhile, thousands of Hialeah residents are among the 300,000-plus people who have been denied unemployment benefits or have been approved but have received little to no funds, Hernandez said. “This may not be the appropriate time to open up,” he added. “But we have to talk about it because of the financial hardships our constituents are facing.”
Ashby argued that was the problem: the rush to solve the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic rather than efficiently addressing the threat to public health. It wasn’t a problem that originated in South Florida, but he feared the worst for his community.
“There are likely going to be more outbreaks of coronavirus in businesses and facilities,” Ashby said. “Public health has taken a back seat to the economic interests, instead of vice versa.”