Miami’s Community Newspaper: Commissioner’s Rapid Response Team helps agriculture community, distributes masks

To help tackle the recent surge of positive COVID-19 cases in South Dade, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava activated the District 8 Rapid Response Team and partnered with the local agriculture community to distribute masks and provide critical resources in hotspot areas.

On Friday, July 3, Commissioner Levine Cava teamed up with the Coalition of Florida Farm Worker Organizations (COFFO), University of Florida Ag Extension, and Dade County Farm Bureau to host a drive through mask distribution to help protect farmworkers. Reusable/washable face masks, signage for packing houses and information on safety precautions were provided to help prevent further spread of the coronavirus.

Representatives from more than 50 farms and other agriculture businesses attended the event to get materials to help protect themselves and their employees.

Commissioner Levine Cava activated the District 8 Rapid Response Team on Thursday, July 2, to canvass neighborhoods that have been identified as hotspot areas with a high number of positive COVID-19 cases. The Rapid Response Team — consisting of District 8 staff, volunteers and local community groups — went door-to-door with the commissioner to talk to residents about how to best protect themselves from the coronavirus. The team provided kits with masks, sanitizers and resource materials on hand-washing, social distancing, staying safer at home, testing and more.

“Recent data shows the corona virus spreading rapidly and, unfortunately, several areas in my district have been identified as hot spots with a surge of positive COVID-19 cases,” Commissioner Levine Cava said. “It is absolutely critical that we all wear a mask in public, avoid large gatherings, maintain social distancing, and get tested if feeling sick. I’m very grateful for our Rapid Response Team and community volunteers for helping us get this critical information out to our most vulnerable residents. Together we can combat this pandemic.”

These are a few of the ongoing activities planned for the next three weeks to help tamp down the spread of COVID-19. Anyone interested in volunteering with the District 8 Rapid Response Team should send email todistrict8@miamidade.gov or call 305-378-6677.

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MIAMI HERALD: In Miami-Dade, the challenge of rolling back an economy twice to fight new COVID spike

Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s office issued a statement Monday announcing sweeping closures of restaurants and gyms coming within 48 hours to reverse weeks of rising COVID cases and hospitalizations. Then Gimenez spent Monday night and much of Tuesday watering down that plan as business owners begged for relief.

After threatening legal action, gym owners beat back a planned closure in exchange for agreeing to lose current mask exemptions for strenuous indoor exercise. Restaurant owners still must close dining rooms, but Gimenez agreed to spare outdoor seating.

And his office announced another change Tuesday, when a spokeswoman said the promised Gimenez order was delayed a day and would take effect Thursday.

The series of changes, dropped in press releases, television interviews and Twitter posts, captured the new challenges Gimenez faces as he tries to pull back on a May reopening plan that hasn’t prevented record levels of COVID spread.

“This isn’t a game,” Miami Lakes CrossFit owner Dominick Maurici said at a press conference organized by some of Gimenez’s fellow Republican officeholders to criticize the closure announcements. “We open, close. You’re not just playing with the lives of the owners. … These places keep people sane, they keep them healthy.”

That event had a Gimenez ally, Miami-Dade Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, urging the county mayor to let dining rooms stay open and just boost enforcement for existing mask and social-distancing rules.

“The businesses here have complied with everything. … Now we are asking them to close their doors. That’s not right,” said Bovo, a 2020 candidate for Miami-Dade mayor as Gimenez seeks the Republican nomination for Florida’s 26th Congressional District. “My fear is, ultimately, we’re going to turn law-abiding people into criminals. Because they need to put food on the table for their families.”

Another county commissioner running for mayor, Democrat Daniella Levine Cava, issued a statement criticizing Gimenez’s “mixed messages and piecemeal approach” and said the county needs to focus on isolation options for COVID cases and more investigators to track down contacts that could be infected, too.

“The lack of leadership from the mayor means we have more confusion, and businesses are being ordered to scale back their operations,” she said.

A third candidate in the race, former county mayor Alex Penelas, criticized Gimenez fornot building support from city leaders before announcing the countywide closures. “Unfortunately, we have seen conflicting messages that have only confused the community,” he said at an event announcing his endorsement by Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez.

Tuesday was also the day beaches reopened after a temporary closure by Gimenez during the Fourth of July weekend.

A FOCUS ON RISKY AREAS

Gimenez said he’s trying to focus closures on high-risk areas where large groups gather, and remains opens to ideas from industry to minimize the economic damage. He closed down beaches, strip clubs, movie theaters and casinos last week ahead of the Fourth of July holiday weekend, and imposed early closing times for restaurants and hotel pools.

Restaurant dining rooms, he said, are too risky as hospital intensive-care wards near capacity with 8 out of 10 otherwise available ICU beds occupied by COVID patients.

“It’s unfortunate that the way they do business, you have to take off your masks. … It’s not that they did anything wrong. It’s just the nature of the business,” he said after taking off his mask before speakingat an afternoon press conference with Gov. Ron DeSantis in Miami. “In terms of the gyms, we came up with a compromise.”

With hospitalization rates at all-time highs, COVID test results continue to surge above thresholds Miami-Dade set as safe when restaurants and other businesses reopened May 18. While the county’s target is to keep the two-week average of positive tests at 10%, the latest daily figure showed 27% of all tests were positive for COVID.

The county’s ambulance squads are seeing a growing number of COVID calls, too. About one in four patients are suspected COVID cases, according to statistics released Tuesday. A month ago, only about 10% of patients were suspected of COVID.

About 8% of the fire department’s staff is unable to work because of contracting COVID or being exposed to it. Most of the 65 employees who tested positive are first-responders, spokeswoman Erika Benitez said.

ORDER RELEASED TUESDAY NIGHT

Gimenez’s office released the order late Tuesday. It stills mean an end to indoor dining, disruption to exercise routines at gyms across the county, and restrictions on Airbnb operations and other short-term vacation rentals.

The order only allows outdoor seating at restaurants with more than eight seats inside. It also mandates that outdoor music be kept at “a decibel level below that of a normal conversation” and that tables can seat no more than four people. The four-person cap applies to members of the same household as well.

It requires masks for everyone inside a gym, and shuts down Airbnb and other short-term rentals as hotel alternatives. The order requires all new short-term rentals to be for at least a month. Occupancy is capped at two people per bedroom, plus an additional two people per property. No more than 10 people can be in a short-term rental as well.

The new short-term rental rules are under fire from Airbnb and local owners, who are pushing for exemptions. “Hotels can stay open, and the short-term rental licenses have to close?” asked Alex Steuben, a Miami Beach owner who wants short-term rentals in condo-hotel buildings exempted. “There’s no logic to it at all.”

Tongelia Milton, executive director of communications for the YMCA of South Florida, said the new rules will make it harder for the YMCA to return to normal and may even cost the organization memberships.

“We feel that it will make some of our members uncomfortable, exercising with the mask on,” Milton said. “And while we hope that our members will continue to support the Y, we know that some people are going to want to put their memberships on hold or cancel because they’re not going to feel comfortable working out in those conditions.”

Milton said that while the YMCA is exploring more outdoor activities for its members, making that move is difficult because of the South Florida heat.

But Dennis Lobon, who owns the Miami Strength and Fitness Club near The Falls, said he’s required his gym junkies to wear masks since he reopened his facility in June, to minimal complaints.

“Actually, people have complained when they see someone not wearing a mask,” Lobon said.

Lobon said that while some gyms shouldn’t open because “they don’t take the guidelines and the rules seriously,” overall, he said he thinks gyms are safe to operate, suggesting they may be safer than supermarkets or other stores, where items or areas are wiped down less frequently.

“It’s kind of hard to grasp why they would leave Total Wine open during a pandemic, that would just tear down people’s immune systems, and close down studios like mine,” Lobon said.

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MIAMI HERALD: Miami-Dade’s new COVID plan: hotel rooms for the infected, ‘surge’ teams to hot spots

With coronavirus spread on the rise, Miami-Dade plans to provide free lodging for the infected and dispatch “surge” teams with masks and hand sanitizer to neighborhoods hardest hit by the virus.

The new steps announced by Mayor Carlos Gimenez on Wednesday followed news last week of a crackdown on businesses not enforcing existing mask rules. Police said Wednesday that its officers so far have closed fewer than a dozen establishments for COVID violations.

With more hospital beds filled with COVID cases and daily testing reports smashing through levels the county considers safe, Gimenez said he’s hoping a more localized response can slow the spread five weeks after he began lifting closure orders on the economy.

“This surge team will be going into neighborhoods and speaking to residents and businesses about the importance of wearing masks,” Gimenez said at an online press conference. “They’ll be knocking on doors.”

He said the effort would focus on five neighborhoods that are considered COVID “hot spots”: Allapattah, Brownsville and Little Havana in Miami, and Cutler Bay and Homestead in South Dade. About 100 county workers and contractors will visit those areas for a targeted education campaign on COVID precautions, and to hand out safety kits with masks, sanitizer and other supplies.

Wednesday brought more alarming news on coronavirus statistics in Miami-Dade, part of a worsening trend across Florida and in other parts of the country.

The county’s daily report on COVID tests showed 27 percent came back positive — more than double the 10 percent threshold that Miami-Dade set as a goal during the reopening process that began May 18. COVID hospitalizations also hit a new record, with 870 admitted patients countywide.

“It’s a serious situation,” Dr. Aileen Marty, an infectious disease specialist at Florida International University, said of the rising number of COVID patients in hospitals and their intensive care units.

For hotel rooms, Miami-Dade plans to offer free lodging to people who have COVID symptoms or have tested positive but don’t have a way to isolate themselves at home. That could be because their homes are too small for someone to isolate themselves. Gimenez said hotel rooms would be offered on a case-by-case basis.

The county is already paying for more than 200 hotel rooms for people who were living in homeless shelters and at risk of COVID. For now, Miami-Dade has about 100 hotel rooms to offer people with places to live but unable to socially distance, said Jennifer Moon, the deputy mayor overseeing the effort.

“We’re going to be working with the hospitals and Florida’s Department of Health so we can identify people who have no other way of being able to isolate,” Moon said. “We want to really be able to tamp down the spread of the disease. Especially [with] people who have been tested, have symptoms, but we don’t know whether or not they are positive yet. They don’t have to be in the hospital. But they really should be self-isolating.”

The Gimenez administration was under pressure to take similar steps early in the coronavirus crisis. On March 23, Daniella Levine Cava, a county commissioner running to succeed a term-limited Gimenez in 2020, wrote the mayor and asked him to identify hotels that could be used to house COVID patients “that have mild symptoms and require minimum healthcare monitoring.”

The county did secure two hotels in April, but used those rooms for residents from homeless shelters and healthcare workers. Miami-Dade also may use hotel rooms to isolate people with COVID who would otherwise evacuate to a county hurricane shelter during a storm.

At the press conference, Gimenez defended his decision not to impose a blanket requirement for wearing masks in public after the mayors of Miami and other cities announced plans for that kind of rule. The county already requires masks inside businesses, in transit vehicles and any “location” where social distancing isn’t possible.

“Does it really make sense for somebody who is walking their dog outdoors by themselves to wear a mask?” Gimenez said.

He said he would consider allowing Marlins Park to reopen under an existing order requiring customized COVID plans for large entertainment and sports venues. But Gimenez said Miami-Dade won’t be lifting its remaining closure orders until the current spike in cases recedes.

“We’re not opening bars. We’re not opening clubs,” he said. “That’s just asking for trouble.”

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NBC Miami: ‘We’re Not Going Back’: Miami-Dade Won’t Shut Down Despite COVID-19 Trends

Barry Sanders tested positive for the coronavirus multiple times.

“It just really knocked you out. Other than that, I really didn’t know what was going on,” Sanders said, adding he felt lightheaded, disoriented, and had “no energy whatsoever.”

Sanders has since recovered, but he is still concerned about people not taking social distancing seriously by congregating in large groups and not wearing a mask.

“Unless you’re 20 feet tall and bulletproof, why push your luck?” Sanders said.

The number of coronavirus cases continue to tick upwards in the state of Florida, including in Miami-Dade. But the county’s Mayor Carlos Gimenez said Thursday an economic shutdown is not going to happen for now.

“We’re not going back at this point. We need to enforce the rules that we have because we think the rules that we have will work, and we need to give that a chance,” Gimenez said at a news conference for the antibody company BioReference.

The county’s goal was to keep the percentage of positive cases of daily tests below 10%. But for four days in a row, the positive percentage has been over that.

According to the “New Normal” daily report from the county, 13% of tests came back positive Thursday. The 14-day average is about 9%.

There’s also an increase on the self-reported hospital admissions: 607 patients were admitted on Monday versus 644 on Thursday.

Miami-Dade is increasing its enforcement of coronavirus safety rules and is threatening to shut down any businesses that don’t follow the safety rules. NBC 6’s Stephanie Bertini reports.

“We knew we were going to get a bump when we reopened the economy because you have people interacting with more people. We understood that,” Gimenez said.

The mayor said Miami-Dade Police will have a “zero-tolerance” approach when it comes to wearing masks, social distancing and capacity rules.

In a video message released in the afternoon, Gimenez said businesses should refuse service to people who don’t want to wear masks and ask to “call the police if you (they) have any problems.”

“We’re not going back. We’re going to get tough,” he added.

A bar in Jacksonville, Florida, was forced to close its doors due to 16 reported coronavirus cases. NY Medical College Professor of Medicine’s Dr. Bob Lahita weighs in on the importance of social distancing for people of…Read more

It’s another reminder South Florida is still in the grip of a pandemic. There is no vaccine for the coronavirus.

In Florida, 40 more people have died from the coronavirus since Wednesday and more than 3,000 additional cases have been confirmed, according to health authorities.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava sent a letter Thursday to Mayor Gimenez asking him for a briefing on the county’s contact tracing program and containment strategies related to nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

Cava, who is a candidate for mayor in 2020, wrote she wants the county government to “dig deeper” to find the cause of the increase.

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Miami Herald: Miami-Dade mayor orders crackdown to protect reopening plan as COVID infections spread

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said he won’t revive old business restrictions to fight worsening COVID numbers but will order county police to crack down with stricter enforcement.

“We’re not going back,” Gimenez said in a video address Thursday, his second in two days as coronavirus statistics continue to worsen in Miami-Dade. “We are going to get tough.”

The statement was the latest effort by the mayor to blunt Miami-Dade’s worsening coronavirus numbers with a call for residents and business owners to follow emergency rules crafted by his administration to reopen much of the economy during the coronavirus pandemic.

After four weeks of businesses operating under the county’s detailed restrictions on capacity, social distancing and mask requirements, the statistics show a reversal in the COVID-19 statistics the mayor had tied to reopening.

Miami-Dade started June with only about 5 percent of the thousands of daily COVID-19 tests coming back positive. Gimenez’s reopening plan set a target of keeping that number to an average of 10 percent over two weeks. Almost every day in June saw the positive rate climbing higher, and the average now stands at just under 9 percent.

Hospitals also are seeing more COVID-19 cases, with 644 patients in the county’s latest daily report. That’s up 10 percent from the number of admissions two weeks ago.

Miami-Dade police have identified only scattered enforcement issues. The agency, which reports to Gimenez, said Thursday that its officers have visited businesses more than 370,000 times since the coronavirus emergency began in March, and issued 1,045 warnings. That meant offending businesses represented far less than 1 percent of the visits.

The agency also reported no citations tied to violations of Gimenez’s coronavirus emergency orders, which carry criminal penalties if violated. In his video message, Gimenez said police handed out “citations for non-compliance” with COVID rules, but his office later said the mayor was referring to warnings issued by police.

Police have required some warned businesses to close on the spot, but most generally reopen the following day once violations are fixed, said Gimenez spokeswoman Patricia Abril. The police business checks will continue, but Gimenez said he will be issuing a new order requiring county approval of a reopening plan once a business is closed for a violation.

“Miami-Dade’s education period is over. No more warnings,” Gimenez said. “From now on, when we see a violation, we close a business immediately. … They won’t get a free pass to simply open again the next day.”

The week began with the mayors of Miami and Miami Beach warning that the countywide numbers looked troubling. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said the city may ramp up its own efforts to have more businesses and residents comply with regulations.

“We are definitely looking at an enforcement campaign that deals with enforcement of all the rules,” he said.

At an appearance at a Doral coronavirus testing site earlier in the day, Gimenez said he planned to ask protest organizers to put more emphasis on anti-COVID measures during future events.

“Is there a direct correlation? Don’t know yet. But I’m worried about it,” he said, according to NBC 6 footage. “We will begin to give organizers some requirements, talk to them and say, ‘Look, we’d like for you to do this. Tell your participants to keep social distancing. We’re not going to limit the amount of space that you have.’ ”

Gimenez, a Republican candidate for Congress in Florida’s 26th District, is under pressure to do more to reverse recent COVID-19 trends. Daniella Levine Cava, a Democrat running to succeed him in the nonpartisan mayoral race, urged Gimenez to “dig deeper” and beyond protests at the causes of worsening COVID-19 numbers. She asked for more information on the county’s effort to prevent coronavirus spread at nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

“We cannot let our guard down now,” she said.

Rebeca Sosa, a commissioner who has warned against Miami-Dade reopening businesses too soon, said she backed stronger calls for enforcement. “We have to make sure the rules are followed,” she said. “If not, the numbers will continue to get worse.”

Mark Trowbridge, president of the Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce, said enforcement of social-distancing and mask-wearing rules has become a significant part of every business owner’s job. They have to walk a fine line between following guidelines for the safety of all and not offending non-compliant patrons. The last thing they want is another shutdown caused by rising case numbers.

“Enforcing the rules is completely contrary to the ‘customer-is-always-right’ mentality,” he said. “Instead you have to appeal to the ‘do-the-right-thing’ mentality, but people are frustrated and exhausted and one more perceived personal invasion could send them over the tipping point.

“If they walk in not wearing a mask, do you confront them and risk them walking out and never coming back? If they refuse to have their temperature taken, do you tell them to leave?”

Jill Hornik, owner of Jae’s Fine Jewelers on Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, said she has a “Masks Required For Entry” sign on the front door of her store and restricts the number of customers inside to six at a time. She offers masks to customers who don’t have them, and only a few have resisted by asking, “Do we have to?”

“The answer is yes but it’s all about how you say it,” Hornik said. “Most people are willing to comply,” she said. “We haven’t had to ask anyone to leave.

“The vast majority of people will be conscientious but there are others who don’t care. It only takes one to infect many.”

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MIAMI HERALD: “At Miami-Dade mayoral forum, talk of transit for frontline workers and budget cuts”

With about two months until Miami-Dade voters receive mailed ballots for the 2020 mayor’s race, candidates are ready to try and land some blows if given the chance.

Seven candidates fielded questions online Monday afternoon during a forum sponsored by the Miami Foundation, with newcomers promising a fresh approach to politics and veteran office holders urging the audience to blame others for unaddressed problems and lingering challenges.

The sharpest conflict came when Esteban “Steve” Bovo, one of three county commissioners running, turned to the other candidate with political roots in Hialeah and mocked the idea of former Mayor Alex Penelas returning for another stint in office.

He also targeted Commissioner Xavier Suarez, a former Miami mayor, for a platform that includes permanent elimination of transit tolls and lifting tolls on roads across Miami-Dade.

“I hear one candidate talk about all the things he did in the ‘90s. … We had to literally elect a police director after eight years of Alex Penelas after the bad situation he left us with,” Bovo said, referring to Penelas’ successor Carlos Alvarez, who was recalled in 2011. “I hear my good friend and colleague, Commissioner Suarez, talk about free stuff for everybody. I don’t know when he became Bernie Sanders.”

The latest installment of the nonprofit foundation’s “Our Miami: The People’s Forums” captured a mayor’s race both upended and overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Rather than gather in an auditorium where they could interject and play the crowd, the candidates waited by their computer cameras for a chance to speak from moderator Nancy Ancrum, editor of the Miami Herald’s Editorial Page.

Ancrum challenged Penelas on his transit legacy from eight years as mayor between 1996 and 2004, asking if he promised voters “too much” from the half-percent sales tax voters approved in 2002, only to see most major transit projects attached to the effort never get built.

“Absolutely not,” Penelas said, blaming administrations that succeeded him for not securing the federal dollars needed to expand Metrorail. “The thought that that half-penny alone was going to fund all of those projects was not true. … Unfortunately what has occurred is that that money was grossly misspent … basically to balance the county budget.”

Three candidates seeking their first elected offices — Monique Nicole Barley, Robert Ingram Burke, and Ludmilla Domond — pitched themselves as the change Miami-Dade needs to finally tackle big problems.

“I’m running to end corruption,” said Barley, a law-firm supervisor. “I’m running to represent the under-served African-American community.”

Asked how Miami-Dade government can balance its budget during the pandemic, Burke said expenses must be reduced. “There’s definitely going to have to be some cuts,” said Burke, a former Miami police detective and frequent candidate for office who participated by phone during a visit to California. “We’re just going to have to minimize the effects of the cuts.”

Domond, a real estate agent, said she wanted to see Miami-Dade’s next mayor bolster public transit’s image in the community and position buses as favorite options even for people heading to South Beach for an expensive meal as they would in New York. “Right now you have the residents of Miami-Dade County feeling like it is a shame to use public transportation,” she said.

Daniella Levine Cava, the third commissioner in the race, received some heat when Barley accused her of only riding Metrorail for “picture purposes.” Levine Cava said she uses transit when it’s convenient while Miami-Dade needs to make it a priority for riders with no other options.

“Especially right now,” she said. “Our healthcare workers are commuting to Jackson by train and bus. We owe it to them, and they deserve, a highly functioning transit system.”

Races for Miami-Dade offices are officially nonpartisan, and all candidates compete in a single primary to be held Aug. 18. One candidate can win with more than 50 percent of the vote. Short of that, the top two finishers face each other in a runoff on Election Day.

Suarez, the father of Miami’s current mayor, Francis Suarez, used his closing comments to try and separate himself from two county mayors: Penelas and incumbent Carlos Gimenez, who is barred by county charter from seeking a third term in November.

He pointed to his nine years as a top foe of the mayor on the commission as what distinguishes him fromBovo and Levine Cava, who mostly voted to approve Gimenez budget proposals. “They basically stood with the mayor all these years. They’re business as usual,” Suarez said. “As far as Alex Penelas, he invented business as usual.”

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Seven candidates fielded questions online during a Miami-Dade mayor candidate forum sponsored by the Miami Foundation. 
THE MIAMI HERALD VIA FACEBOOK

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MIAMI HERALD: “Alarmed by COVID-19 outbreaks, Miami-Dade considers sick pay for nursing home workers”

“You’re making an impossible choice, especially for someone without savings,” said Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, who was one of several commissioners listening in to Gimenez’s call with top aides. “We have to find a way to mitigate the risk for those people. Should county taxpayers pick up the tab? … Why wouldn’t nursing homes provide paid sick leave?”
Last week, Gimenez opposed a proposal by Levine Cava to require paid sick leave for private firms hired by Miami-Dade to provide county services, including security at airports and transit stations. The bill failed for lack of support in a County Commission committee.
“We had an opportunity to set an example,” Levine Cava said Tuesday.

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MIAMI HERALD: “During coronavirus pandemic, Miami-Dade deciding whether transit guards need sick pay”

Miami-Dade’s fight over extending paid sick leave to county contractors happens to fall in the middle of a global pandemic that’s shut down much of the economy over fears more people will catch a virus at work.

The timing is helping fuel the campaign to change county law and require sick leave for employees of private companies providing security guards at Miami International Airport and Miami-Dade’s transit system, along with workers for contractors across county government.

“We know when people show up to work sick, they get other people sick,” said Dr. Lily Ostrer, a doctor at the county’s Jackson hospital system and an advocate of the legislation backed by her union, SEIU. “That’s how pandemics start.”

Opponents call it a financial burden for companies using government dollars to pay workers. They say the extra costs will end up costing jobs along with forcing Miami-Dade to pay more to run its airport, operate buses and trains and provide other services at a time of economic turmoil.

“It’s very difficult for us to quantify what the actual fiscal impact of this legislation will be,” Jennifer Moon, the deputy mayor overseeing budgets, told commissioners during a February hearing on the legislation. “It will increase the cost of the county’s services.”

Commissioners will have a chance to kill the legislation Thursday or advance it to a final vote when the proposed ordinance comes before the Policy Council led by commission Chairwoman Audrey Edmonson.

The legislation sparked an early fight in the 2020 mayoral race, which includes two commissioners on opposite ends of the issue who are also running for the county’s top job.

Sponsor Daniella Levine Cava said the county should be “ashamed” for not making contractors provide sick pay. Rival Esteban “Steve” Bovo said ignoring the proposal’s costs to taxpayers reminded him how a “Bernie Sanders world” would operate.

The rules requiring seven days of paid sick leave a year would apply only to new contracts and exempt companies with fewer than 15 employees.

An analysis by the auditor’s office of the County Commission concluded the ordinance would boost contract costs up to 3 percent. It also cited research showing employers don’t cut wages when required to offer sick leave. The analysis noted the risk of workers feeling compelled to be “present” at work when they don’t have the option to call in sick.

“When coupled with health threats such as coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) presenteeism poses the potential for grave public health consequences,” the report said. “In light of the current pandemic, paid sick leave has come to the forefront of national concern given that many employees without paid sick leave cannot afford to stay home when sick, increasing the likelihood of contagion.”

Hamlet Garcia, a security guard for a firm assigned to Miami-Dade bus stations, joined a press event this week put on by the SEIU, which represents him and other outsourced employees in Miami-Dade.

He described having a high fever in March and being forced to decide between losing a day’s pay or coming to work sick with a symptom considered a tell-tale for COVID-19.

He said he opted to stay home one day, even though the lost hours tossed his budget into turmoil.

“I had to call my credit card companies, because I couldn’t make ends meet,” he said.

His employer, Delta Five Security, said it is temporarily offering paid sick time, but only for workers with COVID-19 symptoms. It also disputed Garcia’s account of missing a day’s work and said he did not tell supervisors he was feeling ill.

The owner, Joe Diaz, said he would welcome offering paid sick time to workers but that the contracts his firm competes for almost always come down to price. By paying more benefits, he’ll lose out to competitors. “That happened to me the other day at a luxury condominium complex in Coral Gables,” he said. “They went with a company paying $9 to $10 an hour. I wanted to pay $12 or $13.”

Because Miami-Dade already requires contractors to pay the county’s living wage to employees, Diaz said the guards working for transit earn more than those assigned to private-sector jobs. Adding a sick-leave requirement would force Delta to charge even more.

“It would add a substantial amount of money to the rate,” he said. “The county is already complaining about the rate being too high.”

That highlights an argument unions and others make for the sick-leave legislation: that once Miami-Dade requires it, bidders will fold the extra costs into their proposed prices and be on an even footing with competitors.

“The county is the one that sets the economics,” said Ana Tinsly, an SEIU spokeswoman. Without a requirement for paid leave, “you’re basically taking the employers who want to do good and asking them to price themselves out of competition.”

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TAMPA BAY TIMES: “Contact tracing can help reduce coronavirus infections. How much is Florida doing?:”

The state’s silence about any long-term plan to map the spread of the virus through contact tracing — a measure most public health officials agree is an essential tool to help parts of the economy safely reopen — has frustrated some elected officials.

A smartphone belonging to Drew Grande, of Cranston, R.I., shows notes he made for contact tracing. Grande began keeping a log on his phone at the beginning of April, after he heard Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo urge residents to start out of concern about the spread of the coronavirus. [STEVEN SENNE  |  AP]
A smartphone belonging to Drew Grande, of Cranston, R.I., shows notes he made for contact tracing. Grande began keeping a log on his phone at the beginning of April, after he heard Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo urge residents to start out of concern about the spread of the coronavirus. [STEVEN SENNE | AP]

By Ben Conarck, Daniel Chang and Douglas Hanks

While some states preparing to reopen their economies have hired armies of people to trace novel coronavirus infections, Florida won’t say if it has a long-term plan to keep the virus at bay through contact tracing — a labor-intensive method of tracking down newly infected people and their close contacts in an effort to isolate them and stop the disease from spreading.

Contact tracing is considered by public health experts as a critical part of suppressing a possible second wave of COVID-19, but at a news conference Wednesday, Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees offered little detail on the state’s efforts despite saying that “this is a way that we actually stop the cycle of transmission.”

Standing with Gov. Ron DeSantis at the Hard Rock Stadium coronavirus testing site in Miami Gardens, he described the efforts only in the broadest terms: “This is something we have in place. We’ve been doing it from the very beginning and are continuing to expand.”

Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees acknowledged the importance of contact tracing but offered little detail on the state’s long-term plan on Wednesday, May 6, 2020, at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens. [DAVID SANTIAGO | Miami Herald]

What that expansion consists of remains a mystery. The health department Rivkees oversees has not described its plans or even explained its process for contact tracing, despite repeated questions.

The number of people the state has working on contact tracing remains unclear. A spokesperson for the department said the agency has hired hundreds of additional staff members, including epidemiologists and students, but health officials and the participating schools won’t answer questions about how many infections they have traced, and how many new infections have been isolated as a result.

After the Miami Herald initially published this story online Wednesday — and after two weeks of mostly unanswered questions about contact tracing plans — the department provided a new number of contact tracers, saying in an email that “more than 1,000 individuals, including students, epidemiologists and other staff from across the department are currently involved in contact tracing.” The email said the state’s newly announced staffing number is “meeting the current operational demand.” The state didn’t explain how it nearly doubled the size of the staff from the number the agency provided a week earlier.

Michael Lauzardo, a pulmonary disease specialist and chief of the University of Florida College of Medicine’s division of infectious diseases, said it’s hard for states to hire and train enough people to trace every case. But he said that accurately tracing even a fraction of cases can help.

“Even if you get 20 percent of them right,” he said, “you can have a significant blunting effect.”

Contact tracing efforts in hard-hit South Florida are slightly clearer than the state’s. Health officials in Miami-Dade County said they have 175 employees performing the critical work, including 16 students.

In Broward County, contact tracing efforts are unknown: Broward’s health department didn’t respond at all to a question about how many employees are contact tracing there. However, a college student who had been employed by that health department to contact trace until mid-April said there were about two dozen employees plus 10 students doing the work in his office when he left the job.

The state’s silence about any long-term plan to map the spread of the virus through contact tracing — a measure most public health officials agree is an essential tool to help parts of the economy safely reopen — has frustrated some Miami-Dade elected officials. Commissioner Dennis Moss said the county can only do so much to supplement a state effort that hasn’t matched the crush of COVID-19 cases in the county that has more known infections than anywhere else in Florida.

“We’re willing to help in any way we can, but that’s the Department of Health’s responsibility,” he said. ‘We’re talking about it on the county level because we haven’t seen enough movement.”

Miami-Dade also is exploring a technological answer by considering joining the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Safe Paths initiative, which uses cellphone apps to warn people when they’ve come in close contact with somebody who tested positive for COVID-19.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez has discussed the possibility during briefings with county commissioners, participants said. The Safe Paths app would use a cell phone user’s location history to see who they’ve crossed paths with and whether that exposed them to anyone infected.

Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava said she supports bringing Safe Paths to Miami-Dade, but added that the county needs to adhere to the White House guidelines that call contact tracing one of the “core state preparedness responsibilities.”

“You’ve got people who say they’re going to adhere to these guidelines, then they kind of waive their hands and talk about reopening,” said Levine Cava, a candidate for mayor in 2020 to succeed a term-limited Gimenez. “We’re not meeting the thresholds. And we need to be honest with the public about that.”

Why not here?

Florida has confirmed about 17,000 more COVID-19 cases than Ohio so far, but when it comes to assembling the infrastructure needed to perform contact tracing, the Buckeye State seems to be outstripping Florida, announcing plans to hire 2,000 people to do the work.

Other states, including Massachusetts, California and New York, have announced plans to hire and recruit thousands of new workers and volunteers to do the tracing.

Florida is using its existing epidemiologists — 300 staff members — plus 223 new hires and additional college students to track down the contacts of residents who have tested positive for COVID-19, said Alberto Moscoso, communications director for the Department of Health.

The governor mentioned contact tracing when announcing the state’s reopening plans last week, but DeSantis has not laid out a comprehensive plan for addressing future outbreaks. The Centers for Disease Control warns that the U.S. could see a second wave of the novel coronavirus, particularly in states such as Florida that have begun to reopen businesses and lift stay-at-home orders.

Contact tracing is key, experts say, because it gives health departments the ability to quickly identify and contain an outbreak. Epidemiologists at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security estimate that each infected person can, on average, infect two to three others, which means one case can turn into more than 59,000 cases in 10 rounds of infections and incubation.

There are efforts to establish a contact tracing force at the national level. A bipartisan group of former government health officials also released a letter last week calling for a national contact tracing workforce of 180,000 people. Other experts predict the nation will need 100,000 to 300,000 people to perform contact tracing until a vaccine is developed, which could take until 2021.

The National Association of County and City Health Officials says states need about 30 contact tracers per 100,000 people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Florida would need to have more than 6,400 contact tracers to meet that need.

In the long term, Florida must demonstrate that it can keep people safe from future outbreaks, said Roderick King, a physician and CEO of the Florida Institute for Health Innovation, a nonprofit that advocates for public health.

“Contact tracing, as well as testing, has got to be vitally important to be able to both build public confidence that it’s safe to come out,” he said, “and to be able to have a sense of the scope and spread, or at least the decrease in the scope and spread of the virus.”

“Those two pieces, what you’re doing is building an infrastructure that you can use for next year,” King said.

Angel Algarin, the student who helped health officials contact trace in Broward County through mid-April, said his job was to call newly diagnosed patients, ask about symptom history and recent close contacts, and then reaching out to those persons to find out if they ask had experienced illness.

Algarin, who attends Florida International University’s Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work, said the work made him feel as though he was part of a team trying to stop the coronavirus pandemic.

“We have our health providers — front line doctors and nurses,” he said. “The public health people are the second line of defense. We’re trying to help more people from becoming sick.”

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