Florida Gov. Rick Scott will lift the Zika warning over South Beach on Friday, ending the county’s last local transmission zone for the mosquito-borne disease that has rattled the region’s tourism industry and upended the lives of pregnant women and their partners.
Scott is scheduled to hold a press conference at 10 a.m. Friday in the Betsy Hotel in South Beach to declare an end to the Zika “transmission zone” that currently stretches from Eighth Street to 28th Street, overlapping Miami Beach’s Art Deco District and Lincoln Road — two of the county’s top tourist attractions.
South Beach is the last of four Zika zones remaining since health officials identified the nation’s first active transmission area for the virus in Wynwood in late July. Florida has since lifted all of the zones except for the 1.5-square-mile zone in South Beach, which was identified on Aug. 19.
Health officials lift a Zika zone after 45 days pass without someone in the area being confirmed as having contracted the virus from a mosquito within the boundaries. The rule comes from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has maintained a broad warning for pregnant women, and women who may become pregnant, to consider postponing non-essential travel to all parts of Miami-Dade County.
Since late July, state, local and federal health officials have dealt with the local spread of the virus, which can be transmitted sexually and through mosquito bites. CDC scientists have linked Zika to birth defects such as microcephaly, and researchers continue to study the effects of the virus in infants as they develop.
As of Thursday, eight new travel-related cases had been detected statewide. Four of the cases are in Orange County, while the other four are in Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough and Osceola counties. All told, Florida had 1,244 Zika cases reported as of Thursday, according to the Florida Department of Health, with 249 of those cases locally acquired.
The expected lifting comes as South Florida’s busy winter tourism season ramps up, which traditionally begins with Christmas and Hanukkah and typically peaks in the spring. But the good news also tracks with the end of the region’s mosquito season in December, as the rainy summer weather gives way to a drier, cooler South Florida.
Public health experts predict that Zika is likely to resurface in 2017, in part due to the high rate of travel in Miami-Dade to and from places where the virus has been widespread, such as Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
That possibility leaves local leaders with the delicate task of celebrating the end of Zika transmission zones in Miami-Dade while knowing there is at least a chance there will be new cases months from now.
Since officials confirmed in August that Aedes aegypti mosquitoes were actively spreading Zika in Miami Beach, tourism boosters have waited anxiously for health officials to lift the zone over the heart of South Florida’s tourism business.
That $24 billion-a-year industry, a juggernaut for the local economy, has taken some hits since Zika surfaced.
Local spread of the virus began in Wynwood, where businesses suffered a short dip in sales soon after the first zone was identified in July. Then in Miami Beach, hotel bookings slowed down and cancellations went up in September.
As the virus spread in Miami-Dade, the Florida Department of Health was inundated with requests for Zika testing following Gov. Scott’s declaration that all pregnant women would receive free screenings. The spike in demand caused a backlog at Jackson Memorial Hospital and other local hospitals, while creating confusion about who should get tested.
After months of the virus spreading locally, a sobering “new normal” settled over South Florida as CDC Director Tom Frieden, a physician, said in October that Zika will become endemic.
Zika’s spread did not appear to hamper Miami Art Week, a signature cultural event that drew hundreds of thousands to South Beach last week to see and buy high-end art. The premier fair at the Miami Beach Convention Center, Art Basel Miami Beach, reported matching its 2015 attendance totals.
Still, the virus has disrupted life in South Florida. In particular, pregnant women faced difficult choices and abrupt changes to their routine.
“I had three or four friends who had the ability to send their loved ones out of state,” said Miami Beach Commissioner Ricky Arriola, whose girlfriend gave birth to their son just this week. “And that’s not a solution for most people.”
Arriola and his partner stayed in town but stopped going for walks outside. When it was necessary, they doused themselves in insect repellent.
Businesses and residents in Miami Beach, Wynwood and the Little River neighborhood in Miami all endured the Zika transmission zone label, which came with a warning to pregnant women to avoid travel to those areas. Following code enforcement and sanitation blitzes, along with rounds of controversial aerial insecticide spraying in Wynwood and South Beach, each zone has been lifted at the end of a 45-day window recommended by the CDC.