Hospital beds began filling up with more COVID-19 cases this week as ambulances picked up more and more people suspected of having the coronavirus, a worrying trend that matches predictions of a third wave of coronavirus spread hitting Miami-Dade in the coming weeks.
Unlike the last two times this happened — at the start of the pandemic emergency in March, and during a more intense summer resurgence — Miami-Dade’s government has far fewer options to control the spread.
A countywide $100 fine for not wearing masks was rendered toothless on Sept. 25 when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis barred cities and counties from collecting fines for violating emergency COVID rules. The city at the center of Miami-Dade’s dining and nightclub scene, Miami, no longer enforces Miami-Dade’s midnight curfew as county lawyers fight to keep it viable amid a court fight with a strip club.
While Mayor Carlos Gimenez closed restaurant dining rooms when COVID cases surged in July, the September DeSantis order that blocked mask fines also shielded indoor dining from local crackdowns beyond capacity restrictions and social-distancing rules.
“It’s a virus. It’s invisible. And it’s really, really hard to control. Especially when people think, ‘Hey, maybe it’s over now.’ And they go back to their normal behavior. It’s not over,” Mayor Carlos Gimenez told county commissioners this week ahead of a vote ratifying his latest COVID emergency rules. “We’ve got to keep our masks. We’ve got to keep our distance. We’ve got to keep washing our hands.”
Miami not enforcing Miami-Dade’s COVID curfew
Gimenez, who has regular calls with Dr. Anthony Fauci and other COVID experts, said the medical experts are telling him to expect the next surge to peak in late November, a time frame coinciding with Thanksgiving weekend.
He’s facing a resurgent nightclub circuit as Halloween weekend approaches, with nightclubs and bars in Miami staying open past midnight and the city’s mayor saying police won’t enforce the closing-time rule that remains in place countywide.
Miami-Dade’s public hospital network, Jackson Health System, held a virtual press conference Monday stressing caution as Florida’s reopening continued at a pace that left public health experts nervous.
Dr. Lilian Abbo, the hospital system’s chief infectious disease doctor, said she thought the curfew had a “good and positive impact” on helping to curb virus spread over Miami’s blistering pandemic summer.
Using emergency powers tied to a state of emergency declared in March and approved by county commissioners, Gimenez imposed a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew in July.
Restaurants, already ravaged by rules requiring closed dining rooms through August, called the restriction unfair and an anchor on their dinner sales. By mid-October, Gimenez had moved back the curfew to midnight. On Monday, he told commissioners more loosening may be on the way.
“We can probably push it back an hour or so,” he said.
Gimenez is under pressure from some commissioners to loosen the rule. Commissioner Sally Heyman, whose district includes parts of Miami Beach, said forcing restaurants to close at midnight makes life even harder for people working overnight shifts.
“Allow a restaurant that has late-night patrons to serve them. Especially people who work — law enforcement and hospital workers,” she said. “Restaurants that are still being responsible...Why are we punishing them...Their rent is the same, even if they close early.”
Miami-Dade lawyers are awaiting word from Florida’s 3rd District Court of Appeal on whether a lower court’s ruling striking down the curfew would be overturned. Miami-Dade won a stay of the Oct. 16 ruling in Circuit Court, when Judge Beatrice Butchko ruled the DeSantis order barring restaurant closures also meant Miami-Dade couldn’t order Tootsies — an adult club that also sells food — to shut down for six hours after midnight.
The ruling suspended the curfew for more than 48 hours before county lawyers were able to freeze the decision while they appealed. But the court win emboldened curfew critics. Mayor Francis Suarez announced Miami police wouldn’t enforce the rule until the legal matter was settled.
“We’re going to look at it day-to-day,” Suarez said Tuesday night when asked if a worsening COVID picture would prompt a change in Miami’s curfew stance. “All the epidemiologists we talk to are concerned. We’re not out of the woods.”
Jackson’s Abbo said without curfews, mandates and other measures, preventing COVID spread will fall even more on residents taking the threat seriously.
“This will all depend on how we behave as a society, and if people understand this is not the time to have parties, take off our masks and share droplets,” Abbo said.
More than 4,200 Florida COVID cases reported Tuesday
Florida’s Department of Health on Tuesday confirmed 4,298 additional cases of COVID-19, bringing the state’s known total to 786,311. Also, 56 resident deaths were announced, bringing the resident death toll to 16,505.
One new non-resident death was also announced, bringing the non-resident toll to 204.
The county’s COVID statistics worsened as the week began. Hospitalizations for COVID are up about 20% compared to two weeks ago, with admissions crossing the 400 level for the first time since mid-September.
COVID cases rising in Miami-Dade hospitals
While the 420 cases in hospitals countywide leaves plenty of room for more — the latest count by Florida’s healthcare agency says about 27% of Miami-Dade’s 6,200 hospital beds are available — the upward trend coincides with a national COVID rebound.
Another closely watched indicator at County Hall shows reason for concern. The seven-day average for suspected COVID ambulance calls hit 60 per day, its highest peak this week since the first week of September. A third statistic, the rate of COVID tests that come back positive, has flirted with staying below the 5% level that the Gimenez administration considers a benchmark of whether the spread of the virus has receded to a safer level.
Mary Jo Trepka, an epidemiologist and professor at Florida International University who advises Suarez on the pandemic, said that the virus metrics for Miami-Dade are still not accelerating as fast as other parts of the state, but have been more troubling over the last few days.
“I’m worried that we’re going to start exploding again,” Trepka said. “I hope not, but it’s a little worrisome.”
COVID’s recent climb on the statistical charts followed a White House conference call with Gimenez, Suarez, and Fauci, Dr. Deborah Birx and others leading the federal COVID response. Participants said Fauci warned numbers would probably be getting worse in Florida this fall.
“They’re very concerned,” said Jennifer Moon, a deputy mayor on the call. “They said that repeatedly.”
Eric Toner, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the idea of nightclubs reopening in the midst of an uptick was especially hard to fathom. As Gimenez and other public health experts have noted: The clubs are generally indoors, where largely maskless people crowd together for hours — ideal conditions for spread.
“One would have thought that Florida learned from its experience of just a couple of months ago with the incredible surge,” Toner said. “And of all the things that we can imagine that would drive a new outbreak, nightclubs have got to be right near the top.”
Miami Herald staff writers Devoun Coute and Michelle Marchante contributed to this report.