Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood Zika-free on Monday — urging visitors to return to the struggling entertainment district even as federal health officials continued to advise that pregnant women and their partners consider postponing “nonessential travel” to all parts of Miami-Dade County.
“Everybody should be coming back here and enjoying themselves,” Scott said during a news conference at Wynwood Walls, an outdoor venue showcasing colorful street murals, where he was joined by business owners, elected officials and representatives from the health department.
Scott’s visit to Miami came as the Florida Department of Health announced that no new local infections of Zika have been reported in the Wynwood area for 45 days — meeting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s standards for suggesting that mosquito-borne transmission of the disease is no longer occurring.
In late July, the Wynwood neighborhood, which has nurtured a reputation as an arts destination, became the first place in the nation identified as having mosquito-borne spread of Zika, which poses the greatest risk to pregnant women and their developing fetuses because it is known to cause severe birth defects and neurological disorders.
Since then, state health officials have identified two additional areas in Miami Beach where mosquitoes are spreading Zika. The first area, between Eighth and 28th streets from the ocean to Biscayne Bay, was identified Aug. 19. The second area, announced on Friday, , extends the zone north to 63rd Street.
In addition, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has reported finding five batches of mosquitoes in Miami Beach that tested positive for Zika virus. State and county officials have refused to identify all but one of the locations where they found the Zika-positive mosquitoes — the Miami Beach Botanical Garden, which had been closed three days prior to the agriculture department’s first announcement on Sept. 1.
The Miami Herald filed suit on Sept. 16 against Miami-Dade seeking to force the county to disclose records showing the locations where mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus have been trapped.
As more local Zika infections have cropped up in Miami Beach and other unidentified areas of Miami-Dade, Wynwood-area business owners say they have suffered through a significant slump as a result of the unprecedented domestic travel advisory from the CDC warning pregnant women and their partners to avoid the area.
So the state’s announcement Monday came as good news to local entrepreneurs and politicians — even if no one from CDC was present at the governor’s news conference, and the agency continues to urge caution.
CDC Director Tom Frieden issued a written statement shortly after the governor’s appearance on Monday, announcing that the federal agency was adjusting its travel advisory and acknowledging the economic impacts that such a declaration can bring.
“Still, we encourage people not to let down their guard,” Frieden said in the statement. “We could see additional cases.”
The CDC’s guidance for Wynwood, first adopted on Aug. 1, did not change significantly following the governor’s announcement.
The federal agency still advises men and women who are asymptomatic and who have traveled to the Wynwood area between June 15 and Sept. 18 wait at least eight weeks before trying to get pregnant.
Men who had signs or symptoms of Zika or were diagnosed with Zika and who traveled to the area from June 15 to Sept. 18 should wait at least six months before trying to get their partner pregnant, the CDC said. The virus lives longer semen.
Prior to Monday’s declaration from the governor, the state health department had been reducing the size of Wynwood’s Zika zone until it covered less than half of the original area. But during that time, the CDC’s guidance remained unchanged that pregnant women should avoid the entire one-square-mile zone.
Florida health officials said they are “closely monitoring” Wynwood for any new mosquito-borne Zika infections, but declined to say they had officially closed their investigation. Mara Gambineri, a spokeswoman for the health department, said there are no more Zika test results pending from the agency’s Wynwood investigation.
Florida’s health department has been overwhelmed by a spike in Zika testing ever since the governor mandated free testing for all pregnant women in Florida. The spike in demand for Zika tests has resulted in long waits — in some cases as much as five weeks — for results.
The most recent Zika infection in Wynwood was reported on Sept. 13 — based on test results for an individual who had been symptomatic in early August. The health department has not reported details of its active investigations, including numbers of people tested for Zika and their outcomes, since removing that information from its website on Sept. 1.
On Monday, Florida health officials reported two more local Zika infections in Miami-Dade, with one case linked to Miami Beach and the second to an unidentified area. The health department launched an investigation to determine where that infection occurred.
At total of 842 Zika infections have been reported in Florida this year, including 95 local cases (85 involving Florida residents, and 10 to out-of-state residents) and 747 travel-related cases (86 involving pregnant women).
Prior to the CDC’s adjusting its travel advisory for Zika in Wynwood, local business owners expressed optimism that the health department had not reported any new infections in the area in 45 days, or the time it takes for three mosquito incubation periods. On Monday, even with the measured response from the CDC, they said the state’s removal of its health advisory was a crucial, positive step toward recovering their lost business.
“We served as the welcome mat for Zika, and today we say ‘Thank you for visiting, carry on,’” said Albert Garcia, vice chairman of the Wynwood Business Improvement District.
Likewise, Scott’s main message during his visit to Wynwood, which he’s scheduled to visit again on Sept. 30 for a weekend event, was that the neighborhood is in the clear for all visitors.
“Moving forward this is great news. This is a really great day for Wynwood,” Scott said from within a paint-splattered gallery.
Afterward, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said the county will continue to monitor Wynwood and pursue efforts to keep down mosquito populations that countywide are on track to cost the county about $10 million by the end of the month. Aerial spraying will continue over South Beach, but he said ground crews will be used in the northern portion of the city and elsewhere in the county unless the state and CDC recommend expanded aerial spraying.
Bill Talbert, president of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he’s confident given Monday’s news that Miami Beach will be able to put Zika in the past before the virus puts too much of a crimp in the region’s tourism industry.
He said Wynwood may even find down the road that Zika served as a sordid marketing tool.
“They know that in the long-run this is good for Wynwood,” he said. “And now the world, many who didn't know about Wynwood, they're going to know about it now.”
Zika cases reported in Florida as of Sept. 19
Number of Cases
Total cases not involving pregnant women
Cases involving pregnant women regardless of symptoms*
* Counties of pregnant women are not disclosed.
** Does not include local cases.
Source: Florida Department of Health