Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s office issued a statement Monday announcing sweeping closures of restaurants and gyms coming within 48 hours to reverse weeks of rising COVID cases and hospitalizations. Then Gimenez spent Monday night and much of Tuesday watering down that plan as business owners begged for relief.
After threatening legal action, gym owners beat back a planned closure in exchange for agreeing to lose current mask exemptions for strenuous indoor exercise. Restaurant owners still must close dining rooms, but Gimenez agreed to spare outdoor seating.
And his office announced another change Tuesday, when a spokeswoman said the promised Gimenez order was delayed a day and would take effect Thursday.
The series of changes, dropped in press releases, television interviews and Twitter posts, captured the new challenges Gimenez faces as he tries to pull back on a May reopening plan that hasn’t prevented record levels of COVID spread.
“This isn’t a game,” Miami Lakes CrossFit owner Dominick Maurici said at a press conference organized by some of Gimenez’s fellow Republican officeholders to criticize the closure announcements. “We open, close. You’re not just playing with the lives of the owners. ... These places keep people sane, they keep them healthy.”
That event had a Gimenez ally, Miami-Dade Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, urging the county mayor to let dining rooms stay open and just boost enforcement for existing mask and social-distancing rules.
“The businesses here have complied with everything. ... Now we are asking them to close their doors. That’s not right,” said Bovo, a 2020 candidate for Miami-Dade mayor as Gimenez seeks the Republican nomination for Florida’s 26th Congressional District. “My fear is, ultimately, we’re going to turn law-abiding people into criminals. Because they need to put food on the table for their families.”
Another county commissioner running for mayor, Democrat Daniella Levine Cava, issued a statement criticizing Gimenez’s “mixed messages and piecemeal approach” and said the county needs to focus on isolation options for COVID cases and more investigators to track down contacts that could be infected, too.
“The lack of leadership from the mayor means we have more confusion, and businesses are being ordered to scale back their operations,” she said.
A third candidate in the race, former county mayor Alex Penelas, criticized Gimenez for not building support from city leaders before announcing the countywide closures. “Unfortunately, we have seen conflicting messages that have only confused the community,” he said at an event announcing his endorsement by Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez.
Tuesday was also the day beaches reopened after a temporary closure by Gimenez during the Fourth of July weekend.
A focus on risky areas
Gimenez said he’s trying to focus closures on high-risk areas where large groups gather, and remains opens to ideas from industry to minimize the economic damage. He closed down beaches, strip clubs, movie theaters and casinos last week ahead of the Fourth of July holiday weekend, and imposed early closing times for restaurants and hotel pools.
Restaurant dining rooms, he said, are too risky as hospital intensive-care wards near capacity with 8 out of 10 otherwise available ICU beds occupied by COVID patients.
“It’s unfortunate that the way they do business, you have to take off your masks. ... It’s not that they did anything wrong. It’s just the nature of the business,” he said after taking off his mask before speaking at an afternoon press conference with Gov. Ron DeSantis in Miami. “In terms of the gyms, we came up with a compromise.”
With hospitalization rates at all-time highs, COVID test results continue to surge above thresholds Miami-Dade set as safe when restaurants and other businesses reopened May 18. While the county’s target is to keep the two-week average of positive tests at 10%, the latest daily figure showed 27% of all tests were positive for COVID.
The county’s ambulance squads are seeing a growing number of COVID calls, too. About one in four patients are suspected COVID cases, according to statistics released Tuesday. A month ago, only about 10% of patients were suspected of COVID.
There are now 175 patients on ventilators, more than doubling since 6/27 (84).
All-time high for Miami-Dade Fire Rescue suspected COVID calls yesterday. pic.twitter.com/DPcOOyMROu
— Ben Conarck (@conarck) July 7, 2020
About 8% of the fire department’s staff is unable to work because of contracting COVID or being exposed to it. Most of the 65 employees who tested positive are first-responders, spokeswoman Erika Benitez said.
Order released Tuesday night
Gimenez’s office released the order late Tuesday. It stills mean an end to indoor dining, disruption to exercise routines at gyms across the county, and restrictions on Airbnb operations and other short-term vacation rentals.
The order only allows outdoor seating at restaurants with more than eight seats inside. It also mandates that outdoor music be kept at “a decibel level below that of a normal conversation” and that tables can seat no more than four people. The four-person cap applies to members of the same household as well.
It requires masks for everyone inside a gym, and shuts down Airbnb and other short-term rentals as hotel alternatives. The order requires all new short-term rentals to be for at least a month. Occupancy is capped at two people per bedroom, plus an additional two people per property. No more than 10 people can be in a short-term rental as well.
The new short-term rental rules are under fire from Airbnb and local owners, who are pushing for exemptions. “Hotels can stay open, and the short-term rental licenses have to close?” asked Alex Steuben, a Miami Beach owner who wants short-term rentals in condo-hotel buildings exempted. “There’s no logic to it at all.”
Tongelia Milton, executive director of communications for the YMCA of South Florida, said the new rules will make it harder for the YMCA to return to normal and may even cost the organization memberships.
“We feel that it will make some of our members uncomfortable, exercising with the mask on,” Milton said. “And while we hope that our members will continue to support the Y, we know that some people are going to want to put their memberships on hold or cancel because they’re not going to feel comfortable working out in those conditions.”
Milton said that while the YMCA is exploring more outdoor activities for its members, making that move is difficult because of the South Florida heat.
But Dennis Lobon, who owns the Miami Strength and Fitness Club near The Falls, said he’s required his gym junkies to wear masks since he reopened his facility in June, to minimal complaints.
“Actually, people have complained when they see someone not wearing a mask,” Lobon said.
Lobon said that while some gyms shouldn’t open because “they don’t take the guidelines and the rules seriously,” overall, he said he thinks gyms are safe to operate, suggesting they may be safer than supermarkets or other stores, where items or areas are wiped down less frequently.
“It’s kind of hard to grasp why they would leave Total Wine open during a pandemic, that would just tear down people’s immune systems, and close down studios like mine,” Lobon said.