The confirmation Friday that mosquitoes have infected locals and tourists on South Beach with Zika was the news many had been dreading to hear since last month’s outbreak in Wynwood: a strike directly at the core of Miami-Dade’s tourism industry.
Wynwood, where restaurants and other businesses were hard-hit, at least initially, is still a bit player when it comes to tourism despite its growing popularity. South Beach, on the other hand, attracts far more visitors than any other area of the county and is widely considered to be the driving force behind the $36 billion tourism industry. As South Beach goes, so does the rest of Miami-Dade tourism.
Because out-of-towners often don’t distinguish between Miami Beach and greater Miami — or even Fort Lauderdale, for that matter — word of an exotic virus outbreak centered on South Beach could have repercussions across Biscayne Bay and up the sandbar. That worry was amplified Friday when the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised pregnant women and those planning on getting pregnant to avoid all of Miami-Dade County.
“I’m afraid,” said Maria Fernandez, 33, as she and her husband, German Sanchez, sat outside a Starbucks on Lincoln Road Saturday morning. On vacation from Argentina, the couple also is trying to have a baby. They had heard there was Zika in Miami before arriving two weeks ago, but figured they would be safe staying on the Beach.
Fernandez, wearing shorts and a tank top, has been applying heavy doses of insect repellent, but said she was surprised to find a U.S. city hit by a mosquito-borne virus. “It has a lot more tools than Latin America,” she said. “Or at least that is how it seems to us.”
Local Zika cases in South Florida began in Wynwood last month, then moved over to the Beach with the five new cases stemming from an area spanning Eighth Street to 28th Street, from Biscayne Bay to the Atlantic Ocean, state health department officials said Friday. There are now 36 Zika infections spread by mosquitoes in Florida, mostly in Miami-Dade County.
The couple said they expected more and better prevention efforts in a U.S. city like Miami.
“It can happen to the less-developed countries and the more-developed ones,” Fernandez said. “The only difference is whether the United States is prepared on the more advanced economic level it has. It has a lot more tools than Latin America — or at least that's how it seems to us.”
From Florida Gov. Rick Scott down to Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, the message from local leaders has been that health officials are working aggressively to contain the outbreak, unleashing an army of inspectors and backpack-equipped pesticide sprayers to scour streets, yards and alleys for the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that spread the virus and their larvae.
Scott also announced a package of measures to help tourist-oriented businesses such as hotels, attractions and restaurants, including free spraying and materials on prevention and education.
For a visitors’ magnet like South Beach that has thrived despite hurricanes, an international financial crisis and occasional bad news about crime, civil disorder or police misbehavior, a public-health emergency like that represented by the Zika outbreak poses an unprecendented challenge. Among some business owners, the worry is visitors will stay away out of fear of getting sick, even if the chance is small and symptoms are mild for most people.
“First this was in South America, then we’ve been hearing it’s across the bay,” said Joshua Wallack, whose family owns the well-known Mango’s restaurant and nightclub on Ocean Drive. “Wynwood took a big body shot, being kind of ground zero for it.
“The thing to remember is the symptoms are fairly benign unless you’re a pregnant woman. But people don’t understand that. They just see ‘Zika,’ and that’s it.”
The South Beach outbreak has already upended the story line tourism officials had been hewing to while locally transmitted Zika was a problem confined to Wynwood: that the area with infected mosquitoes was but a tiny piece of Miami real estate.
“There’s only one square mile,” Bill Talbert, president of the Greater Miami Visitors and Convention Bureau, said in an interview earlier this month. “That’s one square mile in 2,400 square miles. You can go to South Beach, you can go to downtown, you can go to Doral.”
Leslie Ames, owner of Golden Bar, a clothing and home-decor shop on Washington Avenue, said she already put on hold plans to open a second store in Wynwood after the Zika outbreak there. She had not heard about the CDC warning Friday afternoon, but now she’s worried about her business.
Like Wallack, who said Mango’s is putting spray bottles with insect repellent on its sidewalk cafe tables, Ames said she would take measures of her own to protect customers.
“We are going to spray lavender and incense,” she said. “If you’re not pregnant, it’s nothing. Just wear repellent.”
Her son, Sebastian Fonseca, working behind the counter, said he had not been to Wynwood since the locally transmitted cases were announced. He said it’s too soon to know whether Miami Beach will experience a similar dip to Wynwood’s, or any dip at all.
“If we had something like a weekend where we have less customers, that’s when we’ll be able to tell,” he said.
So far, hoteliers and others say, the Wynwood business fallout doesn’t appear to have spread beyond the hipster district.
“I’m still running pretty high numbers,” said Robert Lacle, general manager of the Double Tree by Hilton Grand Hotel in downtown Miami. “No cancellations yet.”
But in a 2015 survey by the convention bureau, Wynwood fell near the bottom of a list of the county’s most popular places for visitors, with just 5 percent of tourists saying they went to the emerging arts and entertainment district. South Beach is an entirely different universe: 77 percent of Miami-Dade tourists visited South Beach, making it the county’s most popular destination.
To be sure, few people were willing to venture a prediction — or even offer up speculation — about the Zika outbreak might mean for South Beach tourism.
“It’s hard to say,” said Stuart Blumberg, retired head of a hotel association based on Miami Beach. “I can’t even guess. It’s too early.”
But unlike past tourism crises — the busy hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005 that chased off conventions statewide, or the tourist murders of the 1990s — the broader travel market might shrug off the narrower risk posed by Zika, even if no one’s counting on that just yet.
Arun Sharma, a marketing professor at the University of Miami with expertise in tourism, said he doubts Beach tourism will be hurt much given that the warning is restricted to pregnant women, and that people seem to be absorbing that message. He notes that last week’s monthly Wynwood Arts Walk was as mobbed as always, suggesting the district has already begun to rebound from the Zika scare.
“We have not seen any major effect of Zika on Miami,” Sharma said. “Will this continue? Most probably. Based on what’s happening in Wynwood, I don’t anticipate a dramatic shift.
“If you’re young and carefree this may not make much of a difference. That’s sort of the South Beach crowd. It doesn’t seem to bother them in the least.”
Separate interviews with a couple of tourists on South Beach on Friday afternoon appeared to support that possibility. Both said they were unworried by Zika.
“I don’t feel too concerned because it only affects pregnant women,” said Mike Morris, who arrived in Miami Beach from Columbus, Ohio, on Thursday for a vacation. “We probably won’t wear more spray.”
Diana Chiaravalloti of Milan, Italy, on her fourth visit to Miami Beach, said Friday’s announcement would not change her plans.
“I’m not afraid,” she said. “I’ve been to Brazil and in Italy we have more mosquitoes. The situation in Italy and Brazil is worse. It’s not so dangerous here. We haven’t seen any mosquitoes.”
Some officials say one big concern is that meeting planners, who can choose from scores of other locations across the country, will do so in an abundance of caution. That could echo for years because meetings and conventions are planned well ahead of time. The Beach convention center, the only one in the county, is now undergoing renovations and is not hosting events, but sits well inside the outbreak boundaries defined by the state department of health.
“The question is, will it affect future bookings, convention bookings?” Levine said.
Cem Onur, is co-owner of Nexxt Cafe, one of Lincoln Road’s more popular restaurants. It also relies on dozens of outdoor tables for the bulk of its business. On Saturday, Onur said the Zika news was too fresh for Miami Beach to draw any conclusions about long-term threats to tourism. But that test is coming.
“The next few days,” Onur said, “will show what happens on Miami Beach.”
Another worry: That leisure visitors who would normally be booking their winter visits to South Beach soon will also look elsewhere, depressing business long after the start of the high season. That could lead to a drop in prices and special deals to lure hesitant visitors or bargain-seekers — something local operators prefer to avoid.
How long the outbreak lasts could be the crucial factor. The CDC typically will lift travel advisories 45 days after the last recorded transmission. That means a transmission in mid-October would likely keep a travel advisory in place into early December for the Art Basel Miami Beach fair, and its satellite fairs in the Wynwood and Midtown Miami area, both also contained in the Wynwood advisory zone.
One month beyond that, and the warnings would spill into the high tourism season, which runs from New Year’s Eve through Memorial Day, with a peak in March.
One silver lining in the South Beach advisory is that it comes during a relatively slow time for local tourism, and any fallout would not be felt immediately. By the time Art Basel rolls around, some are optimistic that the outbreak will be contained.
“I’m sure our elected officials will use all their resources to contain this and eliminate it,” said Mango’s Wallack. “Everybody needs to not panic. The best of the best are working on it. You would hope they would be able to contain this thing and have no new cases very, very soon.”
Herald writers Alex Daugherty and Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.