MIAMI — August is already a slow month in Miami. Between the oppressive heat, suffocating humidity, and frequent rain, the locals who haven’t already fled to a less tropical clime prefer to stay inside. Add news of a Zika outbreak to the mix and business can slow to a crawl.
Especially if you’re right in the middle of the area outlined by the CDC as a potential danger zone for transmission of the virus.
“It’s definitely very scary—especially at this time of year—to be running such a crazy budget with no revenue,” Della Heiman, the entrepreneur behind the open-air events space and food truck gathering spot Wynwood Yard, told The Daily Beast in an interview at a local juicery.
That’s what Heiman had to do for a week during Miami’s homegrown Zika crisis. When the CDC announced additional cases of transmission in the Wynwood neighborhood on Aug. 1, Heiman was on the phone until 4 the next morning, ultimately deciding to close up shop temporarily.
“Otherwise we could be exposing our team to a situation that’s unsafe and we could be exposing our customers to something that’s unsafe,” Heiman explained.
She paid her employees to stay home for the rest of the week and encouraged her tenants in the space to do the same, all while abating rent payments. Most importantly, she held prevention trainings and encouraged all of her employees to get tested for Zika, with so many showing up that the health department was shocked.
“They were like, ‘What did you do to coerce all of these people to come?’” Heiman laughed.
Two years ago, Heiman had no idea she would be at the helm of a fully outdoor business, let alone staving off a Zika crisis. The Harvard Business School grad first came to Miami in 2014 hoping to open an indoor fresh food bowl restaurant but she was ultimately deterred by the city’s challenging real estate market.
“I spent eight months trying to find a brick-and-mortar space and I just couldn’t find a single site that made sense,” she said.
Going mobile wasn’t necessarily a viable option, either, as Miami zoning and permit requirements make it difficult for food truck operators to find space. But after meeting other restaurateurs who were facing the same barrier, Heiman acquired four vacant lots in the trendy Wynwood area and opened the Yard as a “culinary incubation space” last November.
Now, the Yard plays host to several food trucks—with offerings ranging from omakase sushi to ice cream to fish and chips—all of whom have access to shared resources. At the middle of it all is a bar that gets its herbs from an on-site garden.
“It feels like a little neighborhood,” said Heiman. “People walk up and say, ‘Can I borrow a lemon?’ or ‘Can I borrow an egg?’”
The fully-outdoor space was part of the Yard’s appeal: Most Miami bars live or die by their patios anyway, so why not have a space that was all patio? As it turns out, however, the open-air operations have come with unexpected consequences.
Two Yard employees fell ill in mid-to-late July. At the time, Heiman said, their doctors didn’t suspect the Zika virus, as there were not yet any documented cases of local transmission in the continental U.S. Then, the CDC’s August announcement came, along with more rigorous testing, which has revealed the full extent of the problem.
So far, three Wynwood Yard employees have tested positive for Zika, with all of them reportedly doing well now. But the news came with consequences, like the perception that the Yard was “ground zero” for the virus, especially because there have only been 22 reported cases of local transmission to date.
“Geographically, we might be close to ‘ground zero’ but chronologically, there’s no way,” Heiman said. “I think it would be a huge stretch unless there’s something I don’t know.”
The CDC has stated that the suspected “ground zero” site is a small area in Wynwood with a 500-foot radius that includes two businesses. But Florida health officials have refused to give out the names of the businesses, as WSVN reported. The CDC has specified, however, that June 15 is the earliest possible date for mosquito-borne Zika in Wynwood, which falls about a month before the first two Yard employees got sick.
And as employees have tested positive, the Yard has had to point out that these are not newly-transmitted cases—a PR struggle that recalls Chipotle’s efforts to keep customers coming as the E. coli tally rose, even though the cases were not brand new.
“Every time that it comes out, it looks to the public like it just happened,” said Heiman, stressing that the Yard has “had no one else get sick” since the CDC’s announcement.
Heiman has installed some countermeasures of her own. Like many local business, the Yard is giving free bug spray and mosquito repellent towelettes to customers. And thanks to a donation from her landlord, Heiman had an expensive MosquitoNix system installed, which mists the area with the non-synthetic insecticide pyrethrum.
“We keep saying that Wynwood Yard is the safest place in Miami now because we’re so vigilant and we’re so concerned,” Heiman said. “That’s a very strong statement but it is quite safe.”
Business remains slow after the reopening but Heiman is still planning an expansion in October with more tenants, a fine dining restaurant, and a revamped garden.
“The pressure is still there and the losses are still there but [I’m] confident that we’re going to bounce back from this,” she said.
And on that upbeat note, the interview came to a close.
Heiman had to meet with her accountant.