Miami-Dade’s new mayor faces growing COVID cases with shrinking playbook to stop them

·7 min read

A week into overseeing Miami-Dade County’s response to an unprecedented health and economic crisis, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava faces a discouraging combination: COVID-19 cases are rising, and she has fewer options than her predecessor did to reverse the trend.

As the new mayor assembles her senior management team — on Monday she announced Miami Beach’s city manager, Jimmy Morales, would take over as the county’s chief operations officer — she’s also faced with trying to tamp down the COVID spread that’s bound to arrive with the Thanksgiving holiday. And if coronavirus cases accelerate after the weekend, her administration will face its first crisis with a thinned-out playbook.

When COVID-19 cases surged in July, then-Mayor Carlos Gimenez imposed a 10 p.m. curfew and closed restaurant dining rooms. Levine Cava inherited a curfew rolled back to midnight and thrown into a legal gray area by a court challenge that prompted the city of Miami to stop enforcing it.

An order from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in late September forced Miami-Dade to reopen bars and nightclubs, and prevents Levine Cava from closing them back down if coronavirus hospitalizations spike again. County police haven’t issued a single citation for mask violations this month, on the heels of a related DeSantis order barring counties from collecting fines on tickets tied to COVID orders.

Gimenez’s guru on emergency COVID-19 orders, former deputy mayor Jennifer Moon, is leaving the Levine Cava administration to take on an advisory role with the County Commission. While the Gimenez administration had about $1 billion in federal coronavirus aid to bolster the transit budget and provide relief across the economy, much of the money runs out by the end of the year.

“That is a critical, critical feature. If you ask businesses to make sacrifices, you have to give something to keep them going,” Levine Cava said Monday afternoon, six days after taking office on Nov. 17. “And we’re limited by the governor in terms of what we can do.”

This week presents an early test for Levine Cava, who based her campaign in part on steady criticism of the Gimenez approach to COVID-19. So far, she’s stuck with the same messaging as her predecessor: Wear masks, maintain social distancing and avoid social gatherings at home.

Levine Cava faces the toughest test yet on the risks from spread at family gatherings with Thanksgiving days away. The county’s official messaging discourages celebrations beyond the immediate household. A county-produced video campaign on Thanksgiving encourages viewers to “share a virtual dinner with family and friends.”

The chief medical officer

The new mayor plans to ramp up the messaging at a Tuesday afternoon press conference with the doctor she’s tapped to be the medical voice on the county’s COVID-19 response, Jackson Health System’s Dr. Peter Paige.

“We will reinforce the messaging,” said Paige, named Miami-Dade’s chief medical officer during Levine Cava’s swearing-in speech last week, “to point out that this is going to be a higher-risk time.”

Paige’s role as Levine Cava’s chief medical officer fulfills a campaign promise to create the post, though it’s unclear how involved he’ll be on a day-to-day basis with the administration. Paige said he’s retaining his role as a senior administrator at Jackson, which will continue to pay him for full-time work. His office will remain at the county-funded hospital system.

“I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing,” he said. “I’m going to weave this into my daily duties.”

In an interview, Levine Cava said she’s confident Miami-Dade can continue pressing residents and businesses to take the steps that will slow COVID spread by wearing masks and reducing crowds. She noted Miami-Dade police continue enforcing some emergency orders that now carry her signature, including requirements that people inside restaurants wear masks and that businesses close by midnight.

“We know certain things work,” she said. “We know masking works. We know distancing works. ... But people are always letting their guard down. We need a united voice to say this is not the time to let your guard down.”

County police had been actively enforcing a countywide mask order since July, when Miami-Dade commissioners created a $100 civil penalty for violations instead of the harsher option of issuing a criminal penalty. DeSantis’ Sept. 25 order prevents local governments from collecting those fines, and that move slowed county citations to a trickle.

County police issued 517 mask citations to individuals since the fines started in July, county police spokesperson Alvaro Zabaleta said Monday. That’s a pace of at least three a day. In November, though, county police have issued zero mask citations. Zabaleta saw the drop-off in citations as a sign of compliance and not as a result of the DeSantis order. “People get the hint,” he said.

Levine Cava’s chief administrators

Monday saw Levine Cava announce two major hires that will oversee agencies involved in Miami-Dade’s COVID response.

Morales — like Levine Cava, a Democrat and former county commissioner who ran for county mayor himself in 2004 — announced his exit from the city before Election Day. He’s being hired for a new position created as part of Levine Cava’s switch from a layer of deputy mayors to “chiefs” overseeing agencies.

Also on Monday, Levine Cava promoted Morris Copeland from director of Juvenile Services to chief community services officer — a position that will oversee the county’s housing and social services departments, Juvenile Services as well as Libraries, Animal Services and Cultural Affairs.

Copeland’s hire displaces Michael Spring, who did double-duty under Gimenez as head of cultural affairs and as a deputy overseeing the Libraries and Parks departments. Rachel Johnson, a spokesperson for the new mayor, said Spring would remain as cultural affairs director.

Parks will be part of the Morales portfolio, which includes Miami International Airport and other county airports, along with PortMiami, Transportation and Public Works, the county’s trash-hauling division, the Water and Sewer Department, Elections and the arm of county government that includes the building, zoning and permitting division known as Regulatory and Economic Resources.

So far, Levine Cava’s representatives have declined to reveal how much the new senior administrators are being paid and the county has not provided documentation sought by record requests that may contain that information.

Morales and Copeland join a senior leadership team that includes J.D. Patterson, the former county police director hired to be chief public safety officer; Ed Marquez, a former Gimenez deputy mayor being retained as chief financial officer; and chief of staff Johanna Cervone.

Levine Cava’s statement on the new hires doesn’t mention COVID, though the agencies Copeland and Morales supervise are active in the coronavirus response. The county’s transit agency went fare-free to try to slow the COVID spread, Miami-Dade’s social services arm runs the emergency meal-delivery service for seniors to discourage them from taking trips to the grocery store, and Regulatory Resources helps enforce emergency COVID orders.

“Our community faces urgent infrastructure and operations challenges including the need to connect all corners of our county with reliable, efficient public transportation, and upgrading our water system to withstand the impacts of climate change and sea level rise,” she said. “Jimmy Morales brings forward-thinking leadership and nearly 25 years of experience in public service and city operations ... to help us tackle these challenges and build a more resilient Miami-Dade for the 21st century.”

On Copeland, she said he “has devoted his entire professional life to creating strong social programs to support at-risk youth and their families in our community. In this new role he’ll bring his experience and innovative, compassionate leadership” to the agencies he oversees.