Even Record High Florida Cases Can't Keep Miami's Beaches Empty

(Bloomberg) -- The scene along South Beach’s Ocean Drive looked just like any other pre-pandemic South Florida Saturday: music blasting out of busy restaurants as cars moved along the stretch of Art Deco buildings, looking for an empty lot next to the crowded beach in the 90-degree heat.

The only exception: the few people who were wearing masks among the thousands of beachgoers.

In the first weekend in more than two months that crowds have returned to the greater Miami area’s best-known beaches, little has changed from pre-pandemic times -- even as Florida reports a record number of new Covid-19 cases.

Even Record High Florida Cases Can't Keep Miami's Beaches Empty

“I think it’s a matter of people being unaware,” Julie Fornary, a Miami Beach resident who wore a mask while walking outside her building near Ocean Drive. “I give them the benefit of the doubt: some people are unaware, some people are selfish, some are following really bad examples from some of our leadership.”

Local authorities shut down beaches in March to prevent the spread of the virus. The original June 1 reopening date was pushed back as protests over police brutality spread to downtown Miami and other adjacent beachfront areas in Dade County. The beaches officially opened to the public Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Florida reported 73,552 on Saturday, up 3.6% from a day earlier and well above the average increase of 2.1% in the previous seven days. Hospitalizations, deaths and the number of people testing positive for the first time among overall tests done in a day-- also rose Saturday.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis spoke in nearby Coral Gables as he downplayed concerns Friday about the rising tolls, saying it was a reflection of increased testing and isolated outbreaks in long-term care facilities, prisons and agriculture communities. The governor also appeared maskless at an event in the past week.

Low Numbers

In spite the state’s numbers, confirmed Covid-19 cases remain relatively low in Miami Beach at 947, or around 1% of the population, and only 22 new cases have been reported in the past week. But it is a short drive -- or boat ride -- from the City of Miami, the center of Florida’s outbreak with 12,766 cases and significantly faster case growth.

In Miami Beach, beachgoers were greeted by social-distance ambassadors who said part of their job was to ensure people wore masks while walking through the narrow beach entrances. According to the city’s guidelines, facial coverings are not required at the beach if social distancing can be maintained, and the few people who wore masks entering the area promptly removed them after spreading out in the sand.

A park ranger estimated that 70% of beachgoers didn’t wear a mask Saturday. Several blocks in the South Beach neighborhood were shut from traffic to provide more space for pedestrians.

For Miami Beach’s tourism-driven economy, the reopening of beaches is a respite after it took a hit from the pandemic, with service restrictions and travel plummeting because much of the world was quarantined. After what appears to be a second wave spreading in the state, the shops that weathered the first round of lockdowns fear they won’t be so lucky if another one’s in the horizon.

“As any other business, we’re just like, ‘we either stay open or we close for business,’ so there’s not much to feel other than we want to stay open,” Alessandro Alvino, co-founder of Gelato Go, said at the franchise’s flagship store along Ocean Drive. He said he received three-day notices from landlords in Florida locations during the lockdown, threatening to evict them for not paying their rent. “They didn’t because we paid, so imagine other businesses that are not as structured as we are.”

Although people can be removed from the beach if they don’t follow the rules, no incidents were reported as of late Saturday afternoon, Melissa Berthier, a spokeswoman for the City of Miami Beach said by phone.

“It was a successful first weekend, for a Saturday, and we appreciate those who brought their face masks and are using them when needed,” she said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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