Miami Beach Debates Reopening Plan

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Miami Beach Debates Reopening Plan:

Health advisory team appointed to guide decisions on how and when

Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales has named a Health Advisory Team made up of medical professionals to help guide the City’s decision-making process on how and when to gradually reopen the economy following the COVID-19 shutdown. At a City Commission meeting Friday discussing what comes next, Morales said while the number of cases and hospitalizations shows a “downward trend, we’re still not where we need to be.”

Dr. J. Glenn Morris, Jr., Director of the Emerging Pathogen Institute at the University of Florida and one of the members of the new Health Advisory Team, told Mayor Dan Gelber and Commissioners that Miami Beach has been “very successful” in “bending the curve… we’ve really slowed it down.” But, he added, the “universal consensus in the scientific community” is that without continued precautions, the virus will “take off” in a second wave.

He urged “aggressive testing and contact tracing” to track down the people an infected person has come in contact with and ask them to self-isolate. 

What will be important as the City's reopens, he said, is managing it “so that there is ongoing vibrant economic activity combined with sufficient controls in place so that it doesn’t explode on us to a point where we overwhelm our hospitals.”

“I think it has to be an ongoing flexible process driven by data,” he said. 

Commissioner Ricky Arriola who has pushed back recently on the City's measures, seeking a plan and timeline for reopening, said, “We have other competing interests to balance. Economic activity is not just about dollars but health [concerns too]... this is becoming a health crisis because of the economic crisis.” 

Citing the number of unemployed, those losing health insurance, and long lines at food drives, he said, "People are desperate."

“We have to make decisions when to reopen the economy," he implored. "We don’t have the luxury to wait for a vaccine."

"By the tone of this conversation, we’re not going to be reopening Miami Beach any time soon," Arriola said.

Morris responded the goal is “to find an appropriate balance.” He said, “There’s no question we have been successful” in stopping or significantly slowing the transmission of the virus. “What we now need to find is where the level point is, what economic activity we can permit… within a setting that doesn’t allow for a significant increase in cases,” the “magic middle of the road.”

When ready, he said, it’s a matter of trying some openings and “monitoring things closely so that you know with data when to back off” if the numbers start to increase. “It’s a process of taking measured steps.”

Noting that 80% of the Florida deaths from COVID-19 involved people over 65, he said it would be important to take “aggressive steps to protect that population.”

“Let’s work on this together,” Morris told Commissioners. “Let’s get the economic issues and the scientific and medical issues on the table, plot out a strategy, [and] move forward,” adding “The strategy may change… this is an ongoing process.”

When Morris finished, Morales discussed the use of the Miami Beach Convention Center as a new testing facility. The National Guard is now staffing an alternate care facility at the Convention Center in the event there is a spike in the number of cases and need for more hospital beds. At the request of the City, the location will also soon serve as a walk-up and drive-through testing facility capable of doing 400 tests daily. The facility will be funded by the State and tests will be free. 

"I believe this could turn into a critical piece" of the City's reopening plan, Morales said. By casting a "wider net" more people will be tested, providing more information to the decision-making process.

Morales also told Commissioners the opening of parks this week is a good learning process for the City to see how people are handling social distancing and requirements for facial coverings. In two days, he noted a couple of “trouble spots” in South Pointe and Lummus Parks where “some folks have been fairly aggressive and hostile to park rangers as they try to enforce [the rules],” though he said Day 2 was better.

To Arriola’s concerns about how and when to reopen, Morales said, “We acknowledge that you have both the danger of the virus but both the danger and challenges of a community that is shut down… We are trying to strike the right balance.” 

Arriola asked for clarification on what “signals” the Administration is looking for saying, “The goal posts keep moving.”

“The medical experts will help me figure that out,” Morales said. With the parks reopening, he added, “We’re going to get some data." If the key indicators over the next 14 days continue to go down “and the experts agree,” he said, “we’ll be ready to open phase one” which he indicated last week could include limited operations of restaurants and non-essential retail.

Commissioner Mark Samuelian said while he agreed with “our measured approach,” he urged the Administration to “start to paint the picture for the public and the community of how this is going to start to unfold… so people say ‘I see where we’re going’ because I don’t think the public has seen that vision.”

Morales reminded Commissioners, “We can’t move without the County” acting first. While cities can impose stricter rules, they cannot be more lenient than the County’s.

“Parks were possible because the County opened the parks,” he said. Any plans, he noted, would be "hypothetical" but he said he would “talk a little bit more about how we envision that" at the Commmission meeting on May 8.

Commissioner David Richardson said, “I think the public and the business community are anxious to get a read on what we're thinking, on where we are in terms of reopening.”

“I think the public is really looking for some benchmarks and some guidelines,” he said. “My concern is that if we wait another 14 days and then have a plan we’re really talking into June” before it could begin to be implemented.

Richardson pushed for Morales to come back with a specific plan that included "tentative dates for various types of businesses to reopen" but he was met with resistance from the Mayor and all of his fellow Commissioners except Arriola on setting even tentative dates.

Gelber said, “I think it’s really important to let the healthcare community tell us what to do.” He also noted the County may not be willing to move by any set dates.

“We have time,” he said. “I think it would be a mistake” to put deadlines on any reopening. “It changes our approach from one of ‘Let’s be cautious’ to one that says ‘We’re going to go as fast as we can’ and I don’t think that’s a good message to send.”

“We get the economic pressures that are out there but I don’t think we should be sending the message that we’re going to be opening up in the next week or so,” he added.

Richardson responded, “I’m not suggesting we can go ahead of the County order… but I’m anticipating that by the 15th the County may have relaxed its order and I want to be ready.”

Commissioner Michael Góngora said he thought dates, even if only as tentative points, would set expectations that might not be met. “That is not a good idea and has unintended consequences.” He said he would support a resolution “based on data and medicine.”

Arriola said if the City was going to be guided by medical experts, it needs “a broad perspective” from professionals, “not stacking the deck and getting the perspectives we want.” 

“If we’re going to get advice, I think it’s very important to get a good balance of opinion from medical experts and not just one-sided,” he said referring to the Health Advisory Team.

“We’re all eager to get back to some normalcy,” Commissioner Micky Steinberg said. “We have to be measured and we have to think about this in phases and we have to consider the science.” While not ready to set any dates, she said, “We do need to keep the ball moving and we do need to look towards that” reopening.

Gelber said, he would support a weekly updating of a plan but not one with dates. “Putting in dates immediately sends the message that this is what we’re doing. No one will care if we say this is aspirational.”

Arriola pressed further. “It is now up to us to make decisions… We’re going to lag the rest of Florida and we’re going to have to justify that,” he said referring to Governor Ron DeSantis’ plan to begin reopening Florida (which did not include Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties).

“We’re not going to be able to hide behind the Governor and, pretty soon, I don’t think we’re going to be able to hide behind the County Mayor," Arriola said.

Without a response, Gelber moved the discussion to the item extending Morales' emergency powers for another week to May 7. While voting in favor of the measure, Arriola said, “I’m going to start objecting in the future [to further extensions] because this can’t go on forever.”

Lyle Stern, President of Koniver Stern, a retail leasing company which also owns commercial real estate in Miami Beach, told Commissioners during the public comment period, “You don’t need to create a new set of guidelines… the County is doing that with medical professionals.”

The City, he said, “should be following not only the County guidelines but the County timeframe to not create confusion.” 

“We can open in parallel with them and not lag behind,” Stern said. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel on guidelines because they will be quite well thought out.”

Item to open beaches for limited hours fails
Arriola had an item on the agenda to request Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez open the City’s beaches for a limited period of time each day for exercise and beach cleanups. His proposal would have allowed those activities from 6 am to 10 am and 5 pm to 8 pm. Arriola was unable to get a second on his motion which meant there was no discussion on the item.

“This is embarrassing,” he said. “We don’t have the guts to vote on this… This body doesn’t have the courage and the trust of our residents to walk on the beach and go for a swim. I think it’s disgusting.”

Gathering at religious facilities under emergency orders
Following up on questions last week about the need to allow religious institutions to open with limitations, City Attorney Raul Aguila said, at this point, maintaining the closures is “defensible” in the event of a constitutional challenge but when some businesses are allowed to operate again, he said, “I think we have to consider some sort of standards for reopening houses of worship as well” to include social distancing requirements, gatherings of ten people or less, and “other sanitary measures that they could reasonably implement.”

The Commission will meet again next Friday to continue the dialogue.

Morales' memo to the Commission including the names of the members of the Health Advisory Team along with Governor DeSantis’ plan for reopening the state is here


Photo courtesy City of Miami Beach

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