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South Florida cities pressure counties to issue shelter-in-place orders amid COVID-19

City officials in both Miami-Dade County and Broward County are pressing county leaders to issue decrees telling people to stay home to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Both counties have already taken steps to close non-essential businesses and to push for social distancing measures, and on Wednesday, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez pleaded with residents to stay home in his latest video address. “I urge everyone to stay at home — I repeat, stay at home — unless you are performing an essential activity as outlined in my executive orders,” he said.

But the counties have yet to put into law when residents can and can’t leave their homes, leaving cities to draft their own emergency orders in recent days.

In Miami-Dade, a wave of municipalities, including Miami Beach and Miami, have come forward to either urge or order their residents to stay home, spelling out various exemptions, including ones for people who work “essential” jobs as defined by Gimenez.

And in Broward, city officials are pushing their county administrator to take the lead in South Florida and enact a countywide directive for residents to shelter in place.

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The effort in Miami-Dade started Monday when a group of cities along the county’s east coast, led by Miami Beach, enacted so-called “Safer at Home” measures modeled after an order last week by the city of Los Angeles. On Wednesday, Coral Gables, Doral, North Miami Beach and Pinecrest enacted similar measures. Several cities have also issued curfews, with Homestead becoming the latest to announce one Thursday between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. nightly starting Friday.

Gimenez took a new step of his own Wednesday evening, issuing an emergency order urging people to stay home if they are over 65 or have health conditions that make them vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. It mirrored a similar directive from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis from Tuesday urging people in that age group statewide to remain home.

Still, some municipal leaders are looking to the county to do more. In a letter to Gimenez on Wednesday, Cutler Bay Mayor Tim Meerbott argued that a countywide shelter-in-place order “is our best chance to flatten the curve and save as many lives as possible.”

“Due to the risk of the rapid spread of the virus, and the need to protect the most vulnerable members of the community, this Order will assist in securing that all individuals anywhere in Miami-Dade County are to shelter in place — that is, stay at home — except for certain essential activities and work,” Meerbott wrote.

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Gimenez has argued against a countywide shelter-in-place order, saying in a memo Monday to County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava — who has also pressed him to issue such an order — that although shelter in place “is the buzz phrase of the day, telling residents to do so could be confusing, especially to our seniors.”

Miami-Dade Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, who represents the Hialeah area and is a 2020 candidate to succeed a term-limited Gimenez, said he agrees, calling the discussion “a lot of semantics.”

“The cities are doing the same things we’re doing,” he said. “Now we’re in this trap of: ‘Oh, I said something stronger than you.’ ”

But some local leaders say the current situation, with a hodgepodge of municipal curfews and shelter-in-place directives from one city to the next, is too confusing and difficult to enforce.

Anthony DeFillipo, the mayor of North Miami Beach, said he’s hoping Miami-Dade’s League of Cities can soon convene a call with all 34 municipal mayors in the county to unify their message.

“We want to try to get together as 34 mayors and go to Mayor Gimenez and say, ‘Look, all of us as mayors would like to adopt this same protocol,’ ” DeFillipo said. “We want the county to work in conjunction with us and be on the same page.”

Similar tensions have bubbled up in Broward, where city managers from across the county spoke by phone Wednesday with county administrator Bertha Henry about their desire for the county to enact a shelter-in-place order, rather than having each city implement its own.

After the call, the city managers, acting as the Broward County City Managers Association, sent a letter to Henry saying they “implore” her to immediately issue a countywide “Safer at Home” order.

“The difference between flattening the curve and hospital overload depends on sheltering in place now,” read the letter from Pompano Beach City Manager Greg Harrison, the president of the managers’ group. “It is our greatest chance to have the least number of people infected and prevent stretching our public health resources way beyond their capacity.”

In a separate document, the managers indicated that officials in at least 25 of 31 municipalities in the county would support the move.

“The general feeling among the municipalities is it’s really not effective if you’re just gonna do it municipality by municipality. You have to do it as a county,” Joseph Napoli, the city manager for Cooper City in Broward, told the Miami Herald.

Napoli acknowledged that such an order might be hard to enforce, but he said it would make it easier to educate the public if the message is the same across municipalities.

“If it’s countywide, it’s much easier to educate people,” he said.

But Broward has so far been reluctant to take that step. Napoli said county officials have indicated that they prefer to issue any shelter-in-place orders in conjunction with Miami-Dade County.

Broward similarly followed Miami-Dade’s lead in ordering the closure of all “non-essential” businesses on Sunday after Miami-Dade had already done so last Thursday.

Henry and a county spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday evening.

Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.

This story was originally published March 25, 2020 8:32 PM.

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