As the coronavirus crisis hits a new peak, Miami-Dade is preparing to scale back one of its most expensive and ambitious programs to protect residents from the virus and isolation: a $70 million delivery operation that dropped off more than 8 million meals to the homes of elderly residents.
The planned July 15 “sunset” of the emergency effort has charities alarmed about their ability to pick up the slack and county commissioners pushing Mayor Carlos Gimenez to spend more to extend the program.
The Gimenez administration said meals will continue to be delivered but mostly through social-service agencies and charities. The county will continue with a smaller operation to fill in the gaps, a Gimenez spokeswoman said. “No one will go hungry,” said Patty Abril, Gimenez’s press secretary.
But charity leaders aren’t sure what the announced “sunset” of the program means.
“We’re very concerned about it,” said Max Rothman, director of Miami-Dade’s Alliance for Aging, an umbrella funding organization for charities serving older residents. “There’s not enough money out there to absorb it all.”
Administrators said Friday night the county is trying to bring more order to a program that started with an open invitation to every older resident in Miami-Dade to request home meals at the start of the start of the COVID crisis. Enrollment came through Miami-Dade’s 311 line and from client lists of closed senior centers that once provided daily meals.
With costs approaching $4 million a week, Miami-Dade is trying to shrink its client list by ending deliveries to residents who either already get meals from another non-profit or are eligible for that service. Maurice Kemp, the deputy mayor who oversees social services, said the county will continue delivering meals if replacement providers aren’t found.
“We are not abandoning our seniors,” he said.
The operation has been historic in terms of logistics and costs.
Using private companies, Miami-Dade paid for delivery crews to drop off seven meals a week to the homes of more than 80,000 residents over the age of 60. The program’s $69 million price tag was the top expense in a recent $153 million tally of the county’s COVID-related costs, almost triple the $25 million revolving loan fund set up to help local businesses.
With the elderly more susceptible to COVID deaths, Gimenez credited the home-delivery program with helping the county protect older residents from the virus.
Recent statistics from Florida’s Health Department showed that after businesses reopened in the middle of May, residents over 75 were the only age group to see COVID cases decline — a 6% drop, compared to a 152% spike for adults under 35. “It has saved lives,” GImenez said in a June statement announcing the planned “sunset” of the program.
Optimism replaced by worry
At the time, Gimenez said the program was ending as businesses were reopening and the county was “tamping down the virus.” With COVID spread soaring and hospitals’ ICU beds nearly at capacity, Gimenez is under pressure to extend the program longer.
“I don’t want to create the possibility of those seniors having to come out to supermarkets to buy food,” said Commissioner Rebeca Sosa, who proposed legislation to extend the delivery program until senior centers and their cafeterias can reopen.
They’ve been closed since early March under one of the first emergency orders Gimenez issued when COVID-19 cases showed the virus was spreading in the county.
On Friday, Kemp and program administrator Annika Holder said the spike in COVID cases has the administration reworking its original assumptions about winding down the bulk of the deliveries by July 15. “I think if the numbers weren’t trending up, we’d be on that path,” Holder said.
Kemp said the county told vendors Friday morning that deliveries would continue at least through Sunday, July 19, as Miami-Dade’s Community Action and Human Services Department works out the next steps as surging COVID cases have more older people afraid to leave their homes. “We were in pretty good shape three weeks ago,” Kemp said. “Things have changed very quickly.”
Kemp said money wouldn’t be a factor in deciding the future size of the program, but the costs have been eye-popping even in a county where the budget approaches $9 billion. The current cost estimate of $69 million is enough to fund the Elections Department through two presidential years, and could sustain the entire library system for 10 months.
Miami-Dade plans to cover most of the meal costs with disaster reimbursements through the Federal Emergency Management Administration, and use other COVID-relief funds to cover any extension of the program. While the county has been spending about $17 million a month on the program, it’s budgeted only about $15 million to cover deliveries between July and December.
One senior doesn’t have another option
Domingo Dominguez, 66, said he doesn’t have a backup provider for meals next week.
He said he and wife received a notice in early July that their weekly delivery of 14 meals to their Cutler Bay home would be ending July 15. They usually stretch them into lunch and dinner for the two of them, and Dominguez said he hasn’t been to a grocery store in months.
“Sometimes it comes with powdered milk. Or juice,” he said Friday. “For lunch, we’re splitting the meatball one. Fried meatballs, corn, and broccoli. ... They’re like TV dinners.”
He said health problems, including diabetes, have him reluctant to make regular trips to the grocery store. “They’ve kept me inside,” he said of the free meals. “I’ll have to reach out to people to see if they can drop off groceries at the front of the house.”