Fort Laud­erdale and Mi­ami Beach say lack of state guid­ance de­layed their re­sponse dur­ing spring break

Miami Herald - - FRONT PAGE - BY MARTIN VAS­SOLO AND AARON LEIBOWITZ mvas­solo@mi­ami­her­ald.com alei­bowitz@mi­ami­her­ald.com

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.”

MA­TIAS J. OCNER moc­ner@mi­ami­her­ald.com

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