Zika infects Miami politics, with little action

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, right, reaches to shake hands with Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine as Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez looks on prior to a roundtable about the Zika virus at the De Hostos Senior Center in Wynwood.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, right, reaches to shake hands with Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine as Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez looks on prior to a roundtable about the Zika virus at the De Hostos Senior Center in Wynwood. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

One by one, the politicians sat before a flock of TV cameras and went around the table, commending each other for their arduous work to fend off the Zika virus.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott lauded the state’s “very good coordination” with the Miami-Dade County health department. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam praised the “extraordinary job” of local mosquito control. “Thank you on behalf of the citizens of the state of Florida,” Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera told Miami-Dade health administrator Lillian Rivera.

It all sounded very Kumbaya. But to some people waiting for their turn to speak Monday, the words seemed to ring a bit hollow.

“This roundtable that we’re sitting at now is really what we would’ve liked to have seen several weeks ago,” said Joseph Furst, chairman of the business improvement district in Wynwood, the Miami neighborhood hardest-hit by the mosquito-borne virus.

Politicians have seized on Miami’s Zika outbreak this election year to get their faces on TV camera and show hands-on involvement in a crisis. It’s a role public-health experts say elected leaders need to play, keeping the virus in the news and helping educate constituents on what to do about it.

Yet the talk has done little to help municipal leaders tasked with battling Zika day to day. And it’s led to zero action in Congress to fund a long-term Zika response — suggesting Florida, the nation’s largest swing state, may not wield any serious legislative clout.

As a result, most days in Miami politics this month have seemed like déjà vu: Congressional Democrats blame congressional Republicans for failing to pass President Barack Obama’s $1.9 billion Zika request; congressional Republicans blame congressional Democrats for the same thing, and the Republican governor — who five years ago slashed mosquito-control funding but later increased it — comes to town over and over again to assert he’s got things under control.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz condemned congressional Republicans for blocking a $1.9 billion federal funding package earlier this year to combat the spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus during a news conference Monday, Aug. 22, 2016, in Miami

“Zika should not be a partisan issue,” Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy of Jupiter, who’s running for U.S. Senate, declared to reporters on a conference call Tuesday, moments before he went partisan on the GOP incumbent he’s hoping to unseat. “Republicans and Marco Rubio spent precious time with partisan games and then sent Congress back to recess.”

“Patrick Murphy owes Floridians an explanation for why he’s the only candidate in this race who has repeatedly voted against every Zika funding measure that has come before him in Congress,” Rubio spokesman Michael Ahrens shot back.

Florida’s entire congressional delegation has urged Congress to return early from summer break and pass a Zika-funding bill. The legislation could have gotten approved in July. But Democrats didn’t want it because Republicans added language excluding funds for a Puerto Rican branch of Planned Parenthood. Republicans countered that Democrats had no interest in compromise.

Neither side has budged from its position, and there’s no apparent bipartisan coalition in the works for when Congress returns to Washington after Labor Day.

Meantime, political campaigning continues, with Zika popping up ever more frequently. Miami Democrat Scott Fuhrman, vying to challenge Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, mailed a flier featuring photos of his wife and infant daughter: “My wife is pregnant and we live just a few miles south of Wynwood, where the first cases of Zika were reported.” Another flier, sent on behalf of Miami Republican state Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, offers “Zika awareness tips”: “Hang this letter on your fridge to make sure your family stays safe!”

In a bit of potentially dangerous quackery, a little-known candidate for county mayor named Alfred Santamaria even went to Wynwood to promote a spray he claimed would “neutralize” Zika’s effect — even though no such medical treatment for the virus exists.

Rubio’s office has taken to adding a timeline to his Zika-related news releases showing the senator’s actions on the virus since January. At the Wynwood roundtable Monday, Scott’s staff offered a similar handout, highlighting the governor’s efforts since February. Ros-Lehtinen’s congressional office recently mailed a 10-page letter to constituents outlining her Zika work.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio talks to the Miami Herald / el Nuevo Herald Editorial Board about the Zika funding bill.

Randall Packard, the director of the Institute of the History of Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University medical school in Baltimore, who has studied the spread of malaria and dengue, said politicians should be warning people about the Zika threat — preferably with a unified message.

“We’ve been getting mixed signals out of the government. On one hand, the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] for months has been saying, ‘This is a small problem. We’ll take care of it. We have air conditioners. We have screens.’ Then you have Congress saying, ‘Why should we fund it?’” Packard said. “So you need to have that alarm and that real threat. This is the moment where you can focus the attention and say how you need the resources to do what it takes.”

The country that’s had perhaps the most success in getting rid of the Aedes aegypti mosquito that transmits dengue and Zika, Packard said, is Cuba — in part because the island’s authoritarian regime forced residents to eliminate almost every potential mosquito-breeding site. That’s nearly impossible to do in a democracy — not to mention in a more densely populated country, with a far more complex urban environment.

But Miami has tried. When the first local Zika cases were suspected, Mayor Tomás Regalado said he took a call from Rivera, the local health department administrator. She wanted to send her staff door to door in Wynwood to hunt down breeding sites — and she wanted cops to go with them so residents would feel safe enough to open their doors. They did.

City and county staff say they’ve been forced to act on their own, drawing on the experience of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, when they learned not to rely on immediate state and federal assistance. Local staffers privately say they’re frustrated with the state’s tight grip on Zika information and lack of clear guidance for businesses struggling in the areas affected by the virus. The staffers gripe they often learn the latest Zika news through press releases from the governor’s office.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine — the first running for reelection Tuesday, and the second interested in running for governor in 2018 — chided Scott at the roundtable Monday for leaving them out of the loop.

Regalado wasn’t even there. The governor’s office said it sent him an email invitation, but Regalado said he never got it.

“I don’t know who’s running this show,” Regalado said. “I can’t complain about the governor, because he calls me. I don’t think that, in 20 years as an elected official, I’ve gotten so many calls from a governor.

“But we feel that we are on our own,” he added, “and we’re doing what we have to do.”

This story has been updated to reflect the state increased mosquito-control funding after slashing it.

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