Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach say lack of state guidance delayed their response during spring break
People walk down Ocean Drive on March 14 at the peak of spring break. Two days later, the city of Miami Beach started restricting beach activities. Now, city officials say they would have acted sooner if the state had shared information about the spread of COVID-19.
As spring break crowds packed Miami Beach in early March, Mayor Dan Gelber asked the Florida Department of Health for advice on whether to shut the party down as coronavirus infections spread across the state.
He said he never got an answer.
“I felt like we were walking into this blindfolded with both hands tied behind our back,” Gelber said Thursday. “We know that spring break spread this all over the community and all over the nation. Of course, we should have canceled it.”
Days earlier, the city of Miami canceled the popular Ultra Music Festival and Calle Ocho Music Festival over coronavirus concerns, and Miami Beach anticipated that those who had already booked tickets to Ultra would come to the seaside city.
Officials in Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale have faced criticism for not shutting down their beaches or banning social gatherings sooner as spring breakers crowded the city’s beaches in March.
Now, following a Miami Herald report Wednesday that revealed Florida officials were quietly mobilizing in February to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and were monitoring residents for possible exposure, Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale leaders say they wish state officials had given them more information at the time.
Cases of the novel coronavirus were not reported in Broward and
Miami-Dade counties until March 6 and March 11, respectively. Popular stretches of public beach in South Beach and Fort Lauderdale did not close until March 16. A day later, Miami-Dade forced bars, restaurants and other businesses to close their doors.
As of Thursday, the state has reported 16,367 cases and 602 deaths in MiamiDade County.
In February, the state had already assembled an emergency response team to contain the spread of the virus and had begun monitoring hundreds of people in Florida who may have been exposed to the disease. But state officials didn’t share that information with local authorities. Now, city officials in Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale argue that greater communication from the state to local governments could have sparked quicker action.
“This really upsets me. In early March when we were trying to get info from
DOH on whether we should cancel major events, no one told us that we were on the precipice of a crisis,” Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales wrote in an email to the City Commission on Wednesday evening, hours after the Herald posted its article.
“If DOH was assembling an emergency response team on February 13th, we might well have acted sooner on spring break and winter party,” Morales said, referring to the LGBTQ celebration Winter Party Festival, to which several positive COVID-19 cases and at least two deaths were later linked.
On March 8, Gelber emailed an administrator with the Department of
Health’s offices in MiamiDade seeking “advice and direction regarding meeting and gatherings” in Miami Beach.
Apart from an initial email confirming that the DOH received Gelber’s message, he said the state never responded to his request.
“Is there a metric we should be using when deciding whether to cancel, curtail or limit these events?” Gelber wrote in the email. “Can we expect any direction from our state health officials?”
A spokeswoman for Gov. Ron DeSantis did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis said his city didn’t receive any guidance from the governor’s office in February either.
“It would have been important for us to have been included in those discussions and those findings,” Trantalis said Thursday. “We probably could have saved more lives if we could have been able to invoke our emergency powers earlier than we did.”
In mid-March, DeSantis was advocating for socialdistancing practices, but he had yet to declare a statewide shelter-at-home order. DeSantis raised concerns about spring break in South Florida on March 15, saying he had spoken with the mayors of Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale about imposing curfews and restricting beach access.
But lacking information from the state, Trantalis said Fort Lauderdale had to rely on national news instead to start implementing measures to limit social contact.
“If [DeSantis] was privy to information about the potential spread of the virus [in February], none of that was shared,” he said.
The governor acknowledged the state’s monitoring activities at a Jan. 27 news conference, calling the coronavirus a “significant public health threat.” But he stayed largely quiet on the topic for the next month. At a Feb. 27 news conference, he said the state was preparing for the disease and stressed that there were no confirmed cases.
In fact, the Florida Department of Health had received its first positive test result on Feb. 26, the day before the news conference, according to internal records obtained by the Herald, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had not yet confirmed the result. Another would come on Feb. 28.
Without a health department of its own, Miami Beach and Miami-Dade County rely on the state for guidance, Gelber said.
“There is no way for a local government to know that there is a virus spreading unless [another agency] with the healthcare bandwidth is able to give you that information,” he said. “The first 10 days or
March, there was zilch guidance other than to urge social distancing, which is what we did. But there was nothing more than that. In retrospect, it was obviously absurd.”
On Feb. 26, the day before DeSantis addressed reporters, a memo from the Florida Hospital Association had been delivered to DOH with a serious warning: “The potential public health threat posed by COVID-19 is high, both globally and to the United States.”
For Gelber, the decision not to react sooner to the pandemic still bothers him. As one of the state’s greatest tourism and hospitality engines, Miami Beach moved quicker than much of the rest of Florida in shutting down its economy.
“Even as we go forward now it weighs on me,” he said. “Our city may have been the first to do everything in Florida but we were a couple weeks late.”