The foreseeable future of dining out in Miami-Dade County — come heat, humidity or hurricanes — is outside.
Restaurants will be limited to offering only outside seating, along with takeout and delivery, starting July 9, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said during a Tuesday press conference alongside Gov. Ron DeSantis. Gimenez said he intends to sign an emergency order to close inside dining areas at all county restaurants to suppress recent spikes in the county’s coronavirus cases.
“Taking off your mask in an interior space, according to our experts, is dangerous because the virus spreads as people talk,” Gimenez said during the press conference. “It’s not that [restaurants] did anything wrong. It’s just the nature of the business and the number of people and the percentage of positives that we have in Miami-Dade.”
Gimenez initially said July 6 that he intended to close all on-site dining but changed his mind later that night after speaking with medical experts and a group of restaurateurs in his committee to reopen the county. Leading experts still say that, after takeout, dining outdoors remains the safer option. And the World Health Organization has said the most recent science says crowded, closed, poorly ventilated spaces pose the greatest risk, according to a New York Times story.
Reopening part 2?
How long restaurants will have to keep their dining room closed depends on how quickly the number of positive tests for the coronavirus drop in the county.
Gimenez said he is following medical guidelines that say it is unsafe to reopen inside dining areas until fewer than 5 percent of all coronavirus tests come back positive. That standard is set by the WHO.
As of June 6, more than 21 percent of all people tested for the coronavirus in Miami-Dade came back positive, according to the Florida Department of Health. The county now has 51,058 confirmed cases and 1,057 deaths, the highest in the state.
“Once we get back down to 5 percent, then we can start to again open up the interior spaces of restaurants,” Gimenez said. “Until then, we are going to have to go with what we’ve got right now.
Not for five to six weeks, if past performance is any indicator, Dr. Mary Jo Trepka, chair of the department of epidemiology at FIU’s college of public health, wrote the Miami Herald in an email Tuesday.
She pointed to Miami-Dade’s 19 percent positive tests when the “Safer at Home” order was issued March 26. It didn’t drop below 5 percent until May 7, she wrote, citing the Miami-Dade COVID Project, which analyzes the county numbers to track the virus’ trend.
“So about six weeks later. And that was with the complete shut down,” she wrote.
And Miami-Dade is certainly not completely shut down.
The mayor initially planned to close gyms Monday, as well as restaurants. But he changed his mind again Tuesday, allowing gyms to allow people to work out with masks. Hair salons, stores, offices and beaches also remain open.
Restaurant owners have bristled at that back and forth.
A group of more than 50 Miami-area restaurant owners sent a letter to Gimenez’s office Tuesday, asking to see the specific scientific data the mayor used to determine that spikes in COVID-19 cases came from restaurants. They are also asking for revisions to the county’s reopening plan to address those spikes — and to remain open while their questions are answered.
“We are, of course, as citizens, concerned about the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in Florida, and especially Miami-Dade. However, the entire restaurant industry cannot be held accountable for the rise in coronavirus cases without concrete proof that coronavirus is highly transmittable in a restaurant setting.”
Restaurants go al fresco
Some Miami restaurants have long been preparing for outdoor dining.
Wynwood’s high-end Asian-style barbecue restaurant Kyu (pronounced like the last syllable in barbecue) set up 14 tables in former parking spaces in front of the restaurant, copying a model that is being used in New York City, where inside seating has not yet reopened. Soon, the popular Zak the Baker will follow.
The Wynwood Business Improvement District has been filing applications for its member restaurants for city of Miami permits to allow seating in parking spaces. Permission is approved though the middle of August and the BID is asking the city to extend those permits indefinitely.
“We got ahead of the curve,” said Manny Gonzalez, executive director of the Wynwood BID. “We see this as the future.”
Kyu’s outside tables are covered with tents and arranged with fans and lighting. The tables are protected from traffic by heavy, water-filled plastic barriers. Kyu’s first dinner service at those tables will be Wednesday.
They know the weather will be an issue. “We’re right in the middle of Miami in the middle of summer,” said Kyu co-owner Steven Haigh.
And they know not all South Florida restaurants have the luxury of turning outside spaces into dining rooms.
“It’s a logistical challenge for sure,” chef-owner Mike Lewis said. “But we’re pretty good at rolling with the punches.”