She was dressed fearlessly, or maybe obliviously, with more flesh exposed than a grandmother would find appropriate or an epidemiologist would find prudent.
But, hey, this is Wynwood, hippest ZIP code in Florida and epicenter of America’s nascent Zika outbreak. “Huh? Mosquitoes?” the defiantly attired Gabby Lopez, 19, responded with a shrug. “Is that why all those TV guys are around? I thought there must have been a shooting.”
Indeed, TV trucks were lined up along Northwest Second Avenue, where the camera crews could use the iconic Wynwood Walls as a zany backdrop for the 6 o’clock news.
It was like old times, when Miami was so often central to the big national news story. Except this time, the big story was squeezed into the Wynwood arts district. Nationally televised images of old warehouses reconfigured into funky bars, restaurants and galleries, done up in wild and startling graffiti art, might have made for splendid publicity. Except for the Zika.
The square mile including Florida’s artsiest neighborhood has been saddled with the ignominious distinction as ground zero for America’s Zika outbreak, where local mosquitoes have infected at least a dozen people. (Most of the other 400 or so cases in Florida have been attributed to travelers who were infected while abroad.) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an unprecedented warning, advising pregnant women and their partners to stay the hell away from Wynwood. It was reportedly the first time the CDC has warned travelers away from an American community, artsy or otherwise.
Miami, thanks to those damn bugs, has been reduced to a kind of risky third-world status. Or maybe an otherworldly status, as national TV news audiences could watch the surreal images of masked exterminators spraying clouds of insecticide as they crept along Wynwood’s fantastical decor.
The Zika outbreak, with its awful threat to unborn children, has been devastating to Wynwood’s businesses. This in a summer when Florida tourism was already suffering from national stories about fish kills and huge, stinking, blue-green algae outbreaks clogging the polluted waterways flanking Lake Okeechobee. Destination Florida, in the summer of 2016, has begun to look like a Technicolored health hazard.
The Zika threat may be new, at least to Florida, but the state and its tourist-dependent image has suffered other, brutal, mosquito-borne horrors in the past. The Tampa Bay area, home in those days to so many frail and vulnerable retirees, suffered deadly outbreaks of mosquito-borne St. Louis encephalitis in 1959, 1960 and 1962.
In 1990, Mosquito-borne encephalitis infected 223 Floridians and killed eight.
In the fall of 1990, another outbreak of encephalitis spread from Indian River County through most of central and southern Florida. Eight people died, including a 62-year-old Miami woman. Some 223 infections were reported.
High school football games were rescheduled from nights to afternoons. Outdoor festivals were canceled. South Florida cities decided against luring crowds to Christmas tree lightings. The South Florida Re-enactors Association abandoned their civil war-style camps in a Broward County park and spent their nights indoors, safe from marauding mosquitoes.
The national and international publicity was not exactly the stuff of the chamber of commerce. British tabloids featured headlines like, “Brain-Bug Terror Strikes Brits in Florida.” The Sunday Mirror of London warned, “A killer disease caused by mosquito bites is sweeping a holiday hot spot loved by thousands of Britons.”
But by December of that year cooler, drier weather had enveloped Florida. The swarms of Culex nigripalpus mosquitoes, the encephalitis-carrying vectors, dwindled. The crisis was over in three months.
I doubt we’ll be so lucky in 2016. Our perpetually dysfunctional Congress still hasn’t managed to allocate the $1.8 billion President Barack Obama requested in February to stave off Zika and develop a vaccine. Gov. Rick Scott visited Wynwood Thursday where he reiterated a complaint about the lack of federal financial help in beating down Florida’s Zika crisis, but as Politico reported Friday, his own administration has slashed state funding for mosquito control by 40 percent. A tattooed young guy outside the Wood Tavern on Wednesday evening put all this down to a very Miami conspiracy theory. “It’s like a national plot to keep Wynwood from partying,” he said, surveying a disappointingly sparse promenade of fellow hipsters.
But it may get worse. Much worse than 1990. We now live in a modern global city dependent on commerce with Zika-stricken regions, including the travelers who’ll be returning from the Rio Olympics by way of Miami International Airport.
And Miami’s Zika outbreak (spread by the notoriously hard-to-kill Aedes aegypti mosquito) struck at the end of July, during what will likely be the hottest summer and fall on record. We’ve got months to go in mosquito season.
Who knows? With global warming, Miami’s scariest mosquito season may never end.