Florida health officials reported no new local Zika infections and 15 more travel-related cases statewide on Friday as Gov. Rick Scott met with community leaders for the first time in Miami Beach since identifying a section a section of the resort city last week where mosquitoes are spreading the virus.
With mosquitoes spreading Zika in South Florida and threatening the region’s tourism industry, Scott promised to commit state resources to help local businesses hurt by the public health crisis. But the governor offered little more than his word to follow up on suggestions from local elected officials for helping them in the fight against Zika.
About 150 people packed a conference room at the Chamber of Commerce offices across from the Miami Beach Convention Center, including members of Congress, local elected officials, hoteliers, restaurateurs and tourism officials.
“My goal today,” Scott said, “is to make sure we share information. I think everybody involved wants to make sure we solve this issue as quickly as we can.”
Scott, who has repeatedly asked for more federal help, plans to go to Washington on Sept. 6 to lobby for Zika funding.
“The federal government has not been a good partner,” he said.
Concern over the virus continues to ripple across the country. The Food and Drug Administration on Friday recommended universal testing of donated blood for Zika virus in the United States and territories.
“There is still much uncertainty regarding the nature and extent of Zika virus transmission,” Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said in a statement.
Florida has reported 42 local infections so far. Most have been linked to Miami-Dade, the only county identified as having active spread of Zika, though isolated cases also have been reported in Broward, Palm Beach and Pinellas counties.
The number of local cases dropped by one Friday after the health department discovered that a person initially categorized as having been infected in Wynwood had traveled recently to another country where the virus is widespread.
At the meeting with Scott — who also convened a Zika conference in Wynwood on Monday — were Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado and U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz Balart of Florida.
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, a Democrat with gubernatorial aspirations, invited Scott to visit Miami Beach earlier this week. He attended, as did the consular generals from Spain, Chile, Italy, Japan, Canada and Mexico — all of whom opened their remarks by commending the governor for communicating with them about the threat of Zika in South Florida.
“I want to praise the transparency of the information,” said Candido Creis, the consular general of Spain in Miami.
But Ros-Lehtinen did not appear to be in the loop with the governor’s office. The Miami Republican said she learned of the meeting through social media on Thursday night: “I found out about it through a Herald tweet.”
Asked if she was satisfied with the governor’s communication on Zika, Ros-Lehtinen said, “It’s not time to point fingers, but let’s get this coordinated so that when [federal] funding is approved, the response happens in the right way.”
Yet there’s evidence that state and federal officials are not seeing eye-to-eye on the Zika threat and the best way to inform the public.
Scott repeated on Friday that the state health department has reduced by half the formerly one-square-mile area in Wynwood where mosquitoes are spreading Zika.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised pregnant women to stay away from the area. That guidance hasn’t changed — and it applies to the entire square mile area.
Ros-Lehtinen said the CDC’s guidance is probably best.
“Mosquitoes do not respect boundaries,” she said. “This fallacy that it’s contained ... that mosquitoes respect boundaries and lines on a city map is a fallacy.”
With mosquitoes transmitting Zika in sections of Miami and Miami Beach, the local mayors asked Scott to use his executive power to help them combat the virus on the ground and take control of the message to locals and visitors.
Regalado said the area of Wynwood identified July 29 as the first location in the nation with active transmission of Zika by mosquitoes has fallen into an economic tailspin.
“I’m very happy with the optimism here, and what I read about Miami Beach,” Regalado said. “But I can tell you as a fact that business in Wynwood is down. It’s down dramatically.”
Regalado asked Scott if the governor could use his executive power to allow city code compliance inspectors to enter private property and issue citations when they find mosquito breeding grounds at homes and businesses.
“State law says that a code compliance officer cannot even go to the next property, look over the fence and take a picture of the situation,” he said. “So, my question to you is: Does the governor have an executive power to waive that requirement in the areas that are considered Ground Zero, like Wynwood and Miami Beach?”
Scott said he would find out.
Levine, the Miami Beach mayor, had two questions for the governor. First, he proposed that the state dedicate money for an international campaign to promote Miami-Dade tourism and “talk about where we’re at and kind of overcompensate and get through this period.”
Scott replied that the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity was assessing the needs of businesses in Wynwood and Miami Beach, and that Visit Florida, the state’s public-private partnership for tourism, had about a $75 million annual budget to promote the industry.
Scott also told Levine that the state provides loans to businesses impacted by Zika, referring to the Florida Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan Program that provides $1,000 to $25,000 interest-free loans.
Erin Gillespie, a DEO spokeswoman, said that as of Monday a total of 30 small businesses in Wynwood and Miami Beach had completed a damage assessment survey with the agency.
Levine’s second request involved elections in Miami-Dade. “Is there any way you could look at extending the early voting in all these affected counties so people are not standing outside as long and exposed to these mosquitoes?”
Scott responded that voters can still uses absentee ballots, and that Florida has more early voting days than most states.
“Where we’ve seen lines in the past is where they have a whole bunch of ballot initiatives,” Scott said. “I’d have to go back and look. But it’s something I can look at.”
After the meeting, Levine said that while the Beach’s tourism industry has yet to feel a downturn due to Zika, locals are bracing themselves for an expected impact. He’s looking to the governor for help.
“We need to get the word out,” Levine said. “He’s all about jobs, right? We know this has the potential to kill jobs.”
Chamber president Jerry Libbin said the business group is buying $28,000 worth of insect repellent to distribute to businesses in the Zika zone.
“We’ll be distributing it through our visitor center at the convention center,” he said. “We’re getting 10 pallets of bug spray about a week from Monday.”
Zika infections reported in Florida as of Aug. 26
Number of Cases
Total cases not involving pregnant women
. . .
. . .
Cases involving pregnant women regardless of symptoms*
* Counties of pregnant women are not identified.
** Does not include local cases.
Source: Florida Department of Health