Miami-Dade County ramped up its effort to halt the spread of the coronavirus Tuesday by announcing a series of extraordinary measures to discourage tourism and large gatherings and by imposing the shutdowns of restaurants, bars, movie theaters and other businesses where gatherings could increase the risk of exposure.
On Miami Beach, a worldwide tourist mecca and a hot spot of youth activity with all its bars and nightclubs, it will soon be illegal for groups of 10 or more to gather on the beaches, some of which have already been closed . City Manager Jimmy Morales said though it would be considered criminal activity, police would do everything feasible to disperse the groups before making any arrests.
The Miami Beach announcement at a press conference at Joe’s Stone Crab in South Beach dovetails with an order announced by Gov. Ron DeSantis Tuesday morning barring clusters of more than 10 people on Florida beaches as the state tries to turn the tide of spring break during the pandemic.
Speaking from the empty dining room at the height of tourist season in one of the most iconic restaurants on the eastern seaboard, Miami Beach and Miami-Dade leaders and local restaurateurs spoke of the need to shut down businesses and the harsh reality of how it will affect employees. Their main goal: To halt the spread of the deadly, easily communicable disease and return to business as normal as soon as possible.
“We are organized. But we all can’t just cross our fingers. Hope isn’t a plan,” said Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, who went on to explain just how difficult a decision it was to close most venues. “We’re not a community built for social distancing. We’re a community built to break down social distancing.”
Before noon Tuesday, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez signed an order to close all the bars, restaurants, taverns, pubs, nightclubs, movie theaters, concert halls, gyms, bowling alleys and other similar businesses in the county by 11 p.m. Tuesday. Kitchens at the restaurants can remain open, but only for takeout and delivery.
The order, which goes into effect at 11 p.m. Tuesday night, does not affect grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations and convenience stores. Also exempt from the order are restaurants and bars at Miami International Airport and PortMiami. The order covers all the municipalities in Miami-Dade, though cities may implement stricter rules.
The restaurateurs who spoke inside Joe’s Tuesday — at the height of South Beach’s tourism season — explained the new measures and tried to quantify the economic carnage unfolding as Florida faces an extended crackdown on social interaction and commerce.
“This is a terrible moment for us,” said Felipe Valls, Jr., president of the Versailles restaurant chain, which employs about 2,000 people. If business can’t get started in a matter of weeks, “it absolutely is going to be the most destructive thing ever to happen to hospitality in Florida.”
The countywide orders announced Tuesday by a deputy to Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez — as he remained in self-isolation over possible COVID-19 exposure — expanded previous efforts to keep crowds down by requiring restaurants to reduce their seating capacity by half and close by 11 p.m.
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They were the latest emergency action against a pillar of Florida’s economy: its hospitality industry. DeSantis also ordered restaurants statewide to reduce their capacity by 50 percent, instructed all bars and clubs to close for 30 days starting Tuesday afternoon. The deadline for bars and clubs to close starts arrives at 5 p.m.
Monday, the White House called for restaurant closures and limits on gatherings in states like Florida where COVID-19 is spreading throughout the community.
“The sooner we can control the spread, the flatter the outbreak will be,” said Miami-Dade Deputy Mayor Jennifer Moon, referring to graphs showing coronavirus on track to overwhelm hospital capacity nationwide if more people don’t isolate themselves and reduce transmission.
The countywide order applies to establishments with at least eight seats that are selling food or alcohol for consumption on the premises, and with seating for more than eight people. Kitchens can stay open for carry-out and delivery. Grocery stores and convenience stores are exempt from the restrictions, though they would have to close dining areas that meet the criteria. The gym rules also exempt facilities inside residential buildings and those inside hotels with a capacity of 10 people or less.
Tuesday’s grim press conference highlighted the remarkably sudden dismantling of Miami-Dade’s service economy this week as emergency measures and warnings to avoid contact sent sales plunging, emptied dining rooms and had businesses enacting sweeping layoffs.
Even before the announcements, some nightclub owners said they were preparing and knew what was in store.
“We are already in full shutdown mode, which is to fully disinfect everything and put everything into a clean storage mode,” said David Wallack, owner of Mango’s Tropical Cafe on Ocean Drive.
Wallack, who employs 250 people, said his venue will likely stay shuttered until late August or September. That means his employees may have to look for work elsewhere. He doesn’t plan to offer takeout or deliver food.
“None of us have been in anything like this in our lives,” he said. “Even in our memorable history, it’s something that’s uncharted waters. We have to really prepare for the unknown in that sense.”
On Ocean Drive alone, 50 restaurants and 40 hotels — many with lobby bars — rely on tourists to keep their restaurants and rooms full. The restaurants have no experience with deliveries, so changing their business model for the foreseeable future is challenging, said Ceci Velasco, the executive director of the Ocean Drive Association.
“Some of these businesses are not going to be able to survive if this goes on too long,” she said. “The fact that this is indefinite is the hardest part. You can’t run a business without planning.”
News of the closures also rippled through Miami’s food and beverage industry, which has sprawling operations in Wynwood, on Brickell and in Coconut Grove. In the Grove, some restaurants like Tigertail and Mary and Harry’s Pizzeria have chosen to shutter rather than try and deliver or offer takeout.
“We have been torn in two; wanting to stay open for the community and our employees who are our family. But the the time has come to make the call, which is the right decision,” restaurant owner Michael Schwartz posted on Instagram.
Meanwhile, Valls and Joe’s owner Stephen Sawitz said they’d help employees as best they could, but explained that the shutdown will affect many more people than employees and restaurant visitors.
“We’re going to pay everybody for two weeks,” said Sawitz. “We’re shutting down indefinitely. ... Our fishermen are going to have to start pulling in their traps in the Keys.”
He said the restaurant’s popular carry-out operation would continue. “There will be a light on at Joe’s,” he said. “And there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”