The Florida Department of Health will extend its lease at the Miami Beach Convention Center for a testing site and temporary hospital through September 6 with an option to continue for another 30 days.
The Convention Center continues to prepare for Art Basel in December while also seeking accreditation from the Global Bio-Risk Advisory Council for its response to the coronavirus in an effort to set it apart from other venues.
The extended closure is creating budget challenges for one of the City’s gems – the Miami Beach Botanical Garden which remains closed due to the proximity of the testing center.
As reported cases of COVID-19 continue to soar in Florida, the state Department of Health has indicated to the City that it wants to extend its lease for a testing site and temporary hospital at the Miami Beach Convention Center through September 6 with an option to extend to October. The site has seen robust numbers of people seeking coronavirus and antibody tests but the treatment facility remains empty as area hospitals continue to have capacity to treat patients. It’s the second lease extension since the original lease was signed in April.
During a time when large gatherings are not allowed, the lease provides some income for the Convention Center which has had to cancel a number of events since the pandemic began to hit the U.S. Under the terms of the lease, the monthly rent paid by the Department of Health is $228,750, a 75% discount from the going rate which would normally be approximately $915,000 per month.
Convention Center General Manager Freddie Peterson had expected a “breakout year” following a long period of construction. Now, “It’s very unpredictable,” he said.
Some events have cancelled – including SeaTrade, ZenDesk and Florida Supercon – while others have rescheduled. On the calender in September is Florida Culture with the American Society of Landscape Architects scheduled for early October. The lease isn’t the only thing impacting those events, Peterson said. “Cancellations are being driven by the state of the industry so if you think of any type of travel and any type of gathering, there are restrictions around that.”
On everybody’s mind is the upcoming Art Basel show the first week in December. Load-in begins a few weeks before. Despite cancelling its shows in Hong Kong and Basel, the Miami Beach event is still on the calendar.
In his budget presented to the City Commission, Miami Beach CFO John Woodruff said representatives of the local hospitality industry have told him “it’s critical” for the area to host Art Basel and the College Football Playoff National Championship in January if at all possible.
“Everybody around the table wants to make it happen,” Peterson said of the annual art fair. “We continue to plan and review any logistics so that we’re prepared.”
“We’re in constant communication with them which is great. We’re in kind of that wait and see mode like everybody else,” he added.
In the meantime, the Convention Center is seeking accreditation from the Global Bio-Risk Advisory Council (GBAC), which offers “education, training, certification, response management and crisis consulting for situations where environments require a much higher level of cleaning, disinfection, and restoration,” according to the group’s website.
“There’s not a lot of convention centers nationally or globally that are doing it,” Peterson said. “As we talk about restoring confidence and being confident in what we’re doing, this GBAC accreditation is a step in that direction. Not just right now but as a venue moving forward.”
“Normally, we say safety and security is our number one priority. We’re expanding that even more into health, safety, security and well-being,” he explained.
In addition to restoring the confidence of clients, the City, and the employees who work in the Convention Center, Peterson said, “It also will set us apart from the rest when it comes to taking it to the next level” in terms of health and well-being when the venue is able to open again to large events.
The Miami Beach Botanical Garden sits Immediately adjacent to the drive-through testing facility. Closed since the middle of March, the garden has not been able to reopen despite being an outdoor facility with lots of room for social distancing. A parade of cars passes directly by the garden’s east fence with tests administered just steps away from the front gate.
Miami Beach Botanical Garden: Forgotten collateral damage?
As a conservancy that depends on public and private funding, the extended closure is proving challenging. Eighteen events – weddings, corporate bookings, and photo shoots – have been cancelled and deposits refunded. About 30% of the garden’s $750,000 budget comes from outside events, another 20% from events the garden hosts including Taste of The Garden. Another 20% comes from City funding. The remainder is made up through grant funds, membership, the gift shop and plant sales.
The garden has been through some challenges in recent years according to Executive Director Sandy Shapiro including the impact of Zika, severe damage from Hurricane Irma, and operating around major construction at the Convention Center for nearly three years.
“Last year we had our first year without a full-frontal disaster and then this came,” she said referring to the coronavirus pandemic.
Shapiro believes in “being part of the solution” which the garden could be in this case given that it’s a large outdoor space, but with the testing center right outside, “The gates are shuttered. There’s police presence around the clock. We’re not allowed outside to even attend to the perimeter,” from 9 to 5 during testing hours.
Employees still come to work to tend the gardens. “You can’t leave it. Every day is constant maintenance,” she said. “Mind you, it’s never looked more beautiful. The grass looks like a hillside of Ireland.”
Shapiro received PPP loans and was able to initially keep her staff of 10 working a full schedule. With new rules allowing her to stretch the money over 24 months, she’s reduced some staff hours for employees who handle events and the gift shop.
Despite the budget challenges, Shapiro said, “I don’t want to be open now.” She worries if it were open to the public, the garden might attract people visiting the testing center, including those with COVID symptoms, who would decide to stroll the gardens after getting tested. “I can’t do that to my staff.”
She thought about using the service entrance on the west side of the garden, but that isn’t ADA compliant and, she said, “You don’t want people walking into a garden next to the dumpster.”
During the initial reopenings, Shapiro contemplated finding a way to host events for members only “to see how people behave” or socially distant yoga or a movie night to help fill the coffers but, ultimately, she said, “I don’t want to be encouraging group gatherings.”
While there is no charge to enter the garden, many leave donations. “The donation box is awesome.” And the quarter to feed the fish? “We really do have a line item for the fish feeder in our budget!”
Prior to the closings the gift shop “was doing phenomenal year over year.”
Shapiro said there are many challenges to opening, including how you accomplish the fish feeding without a high-touch feeder. (They’re considering providing cups of food.) Or operate what is a very small gift shop. (One customer at a time, probably.)
“We have a lot of concerns,” she said, “but the biggest thing right now is the testing outside.”
Not only is that a safety issue, but it’s increasingly becoming a budget issue. “No one’s conscious that I’m operating a business in there,” she lamented. “We’re doing our jobs, maintaining an asset to its peak without question. We’re crazy passionate about this.”
“I’m trying to hold onto our principal balance, holding tight, not putting out expenditures except salary costs,” she said. An SBA loan is set aside in the event there’s a major hurricane. She hopes things will be better a year from now and she can return that money without penalty.
“I’m really frugal so, at this point, I can go a little while longer.”
There are weddings booked in October and Shapiro is hoping Art Basel will still take place in December. She realizes, though, “Everyone’s in the same boat,” when it comes to the financial impact of the closures.
Though eligible for State cultural arts grants, with the budget cuts made by Governor Ron DeSantis this week, she doesn’t expect to see any money. One bright spot, she learned that the garden will receive $46,000 from the City of Miami Beach in emergency grant money set aside for cultural institutions.
In the meantime, work goes on. The staff has taken care of projects around the garden including resurfacing the Lapidus fountain. The compost hub in collaboration with the City at 85th and Collins is expected to open in two weeks (delayed from April).
As part of a stormwater project in the area, the grounds of the garden were expanded to Collins Canal. That project was completed during the closures but its public debut will have to wait.
Despite the uncertainty, Shapiro remains hopeful things will get better in the next year. “In the meantime, we’re doing our job. It’s essential and she looks gorgeous,” she said.
If you want to learn more about the Miami Beach Botanical Garden and how to support it, click here.