As COVID cases surge, Miami-Dade changes course and requires masks outside at all times

The worsening spread of coronavirus across Miami-Dade prompted the county mayor Wednesday to mandate masks

The worsening spread of coronavirus across Miami-Dade prompted the county mayor Wednesday to mandate masks in all public places, the latest measure designed to reverse a trend that threatens to bring another wave of closure orders for businesses.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s planned order came the same day Broward announced a more permissive mask rule in what was described as a regional effort to reverse COVID-19 spikes that are hitting South Florida as part of a national resurgence of the virus. Miami Beach on Wednesday reimposed a curfew that had lasted from March until June, when beaches reopened after months of emergency COVID closures.

Gimenez faced criticism for not ordering a countywide mask decree sooner. Miami and other cities announced their mask requirements last week as COVID cases surged, but Gimenez maintained existing county rules were adequate. They require masks inside businesses, in transit vehicles and in other confined spaces, and in locations where social-distancing measures aren’t possible. “Does it really make sense for somebody who is walking their dog outdoors by themselves to wear a mask?” he asked in a press conference last week.

He began softening that position during a morning emergency meeting with Miami-Dade commissioners and faced calls there to require masks and expand other efforts to unravel the sources of the county’s worst COVID outbreak yet. In his statement, Gimenez linked the stricter mask rule to record numbers of COVID patients in county hospitals, which have begun canceling surgeries to create more room.

“Certain cities already require the use of facial coverings outdoors,” Gimenez said in a statement. “Although the masks haven’t been required in unincorporated areas of the county because there is more open space, I have made the decision to now require facial coverings countywide in an effort to help our hospitals operate with sufficient staffing to care for all patients.”

His reversal captures the urgency facing him and other government administrators, about six weeks after Gimenez began lifting closure orders on businesses first imposed in March during the start of the COVID emergency. Since the weekend, Gimenez announced the closures of beaches for the July Fourth long weekend and directed restaurants to close by midnight.

More July 4th restrictions

On Wednesday, he announced July 4th rules aimed at tamping down hotel pool parties, a staple of Miami Beach day drinking. His emergency order, which expires July 7, restricted hotel pools to guests and limits poolside alcohol sales to between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m., when they must close. It arrived the same day that Miami Beach re-imposed a COVID curfew, ordering people off the streets after 12:30 a.m. Alcohol sales at stores must end at 8 p.m. within city limits, too.

“The curfew doesn’t solve all the issues, but it certainly manages some of them,” said Mayor Dan Gelber, who had complained South Beach “feels like Bourbon Street at times” during the pandemic.

Businesses inside Miami city limits now risk a minimum 10-day shutdown for violating emergency orders meant to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The emergency order, signed at 9 a.m. Wednesday by City Manager Art Noriega, outlines mandatory closures for businesses found violating “New Normal” rules created by Miami-Dade County when officials reopened part of the local economy. The regulations range from capacity limits to prevent overcrowding and the wearing of face masks in most circumstances, measures to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Young people being blamed

At the online meeting with commissioners, Gimenez maintained the county’s capacity caps and mask rules for businesses would be enough to contain COVID if people didn’t flout them.

Miami-Dade hasn’t offered an analysis of the source of the latest COVID cases beyond state statistics showing known infections are growing fastest among residents between the ages of 18 and 34.

“We think what happened is that young people started doing what young people do. They did not maintain social distancing. They did not wear masks,” Gimenez said at the meeting. “They want back to business as usual.”

While government actions focus on nightlife, Florida data tracks the largest concentration of new COVID cases to some of the county’s working-class neighborhoods. Miami-Dade is sending “surge” teams to Brownsville, Little Havana and the Homestead area to distribute masks, hand sanitizer and educational materials on how to stop the spread of COVID. Miami-Dade also recently hired a company to provide mobile testing, allowing administrators to deploy the free services to areas where the virus appears to be spreading quickly.

Wendi Walsh, an executive at the Unite Here labor union, which represents hospitality workers, said the demographics of the COVID “hot spots” suggest Miami-Dade’s workplace rules aren’t strong enough to protect employees.

“They’re getting sick at work and taking it back into their neighborhoods,” Walsh said. She said the union gets notified several times a week about a new hospitality worker testing positive for COVID and that Miami-Dade should have waited longer before allowing hotels, casinos and restaurants to reopen.

“I think we went too quickly,” she said. “Unemployment benefits were given through the end of July. yet somehow in mid-May Everyone decided to reopen their doors.”

Numbers are bad news

There were no signs of relief in the latest COVID statistics Gimenez’s office released Wednesday. COVID patients are occupying more intensive-care beds than ever, with 232 occupied. That accounts for about 58% of the available ICU beds countywide, a number that crossed the 50% threshold Monday for the time since the county began tracking the stats in early April.

Demand for COVID testing has skyrocketed across Miami-Dade. While testing sites were completing about 1,000 tests daily at the start of June, Tuesday showed 4,000 tests performed. Maurice Kemp, the deputy county mayor overseeing the testing operation, said appoints fill up within minutes each morning.

“Just three to four weeks ago, we were at the point where we could comfortably say anybody in Miami-Dade who wants a test can get a test. We’re not there now,” Kemp said. “They can get a test, but they’ll have to wait.”

At the emergency meeting, commissioners pressed county officials on whether Miami-Dade was being aggressive enough in its virus response and conservative enough in reopening. Commissioner Barbara Jordan said she was considering legislation to regulate how the county-owned Adrienne Arsht center could operate during the presidential debate planned for Oct. 15.

The center’s director said the town hall format will feature 36 members of the public selected to ask questions of President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden, with an audience of less than 300. Jordan questioned why Miami-Dade should allow more than a few people inside, and whether it was safe to have dozens of questioners instead of just a few moderators. “If we’re talking about having sports events without audiences, then certainly we can talk about having a debate without an audience,” she said.

Part of Miami-Dade’s reopening strategy was to ramp up contact tracing — the process of tracking down people who have been in close contact with someone who recently caught the virus.

But the county has fallen short on an early Gimenez goal to hire hundreds of contact tracers for Miami-Dade to boost Florida’s effort to quickly notify people who had been in close contact with someone diagnosed with the disease. Florida reports having fewer than 200 contact tracers working in Miami-Dade, and Gimenez and his aides said they haven’t been able to reach an agreement to expand that number with county dollars.

“We are doing virtually no tracing at all,” said Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, a Gimenez critic and a candidate to succeed him in the 2020 mayoral race.

Jennifer Moon, the deputy mayor overseeing health operations, said confidentiality rules governing COVID tests make it more complicated to have Miami-Dade join Florida’s contact-tracing operation, which she said is growing. “It’s a little more complicated that it seems it should be to try and coordinate with the state,” she said, but Miami-Dade is benefiting from what Florida is doing. “Contact tracing is what’s helping guide us on our targeted testing.”

Jean Monestime, a county commissioner, said tougher enforcement hasn’t turned the tide on rising COVID cases and asked what Miami-Dade plans to do as the trend continues to worsen.

“It appears this is not working,” Monestime said at the emergency meeting. “Where do we go from here?”

GImenez said he hoped the numbers would improve once Miami-Dade got through the holiday weekend. He did not rule out the kind of broad shutdowns he began ordering in March. He said those would probably come in reverse order, with the last to reopen the most vulnerable to being closed again.

“Beaches, pools, then gyms and dance studios…until we just have the essentials open,” he said. “That’s not where I want to go. That would be devastating.”

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