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As Coronavirus Spreads in Hialeah, Residents Beg Mayor for Stronger Action

Positive cases of COVID-19 are on the rise in Hialeah.
Positive cases of COVID-19 are on the rise in Hialeah.
Photo by Juanmonino / Getty Images

Hialeah sits close to the top of the list of South Florida cities with the highest number of coronavirus cases.

The numbers don't tell the whole story — testing is not widely available because of supply shortages, and many sites have strict screening requirements. Results come back in a slow trickle. Still, positive cases in Hialeah have jumped from 19 to 243 over the past nine days, according to daily reports from the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

One of the people who tested positive for COVID-19 is a Hialeah firefighter, according to Eric Johnson, president of the local firefighters' union.

Those who worked with the firefighter have been notified and tested; the results are pending. It's unclear if members of the public who came into contact with the firefighter have been notified.

While COVID-19 cases have stacked up in the city — the sixth-largest municipality in Florida and second-largest in Miami-Dade by population — some residents have been wondering where Mayor Carlos Hernandez has been.

While leaders in other municipalities provide daily updates on local cases and are ordering or urging people to stay home as much as possible, Hialeah residents have perceived a noticeable absence from the person with near-total administrative authority over the city.

For at least a week, people have left comments on Hernandez's Facebook and Instagram pages imploring him to provide more information to residents and take stronger action in response to the growing threat of the coronavirus pandemic in South Florida.

"Carlos Hernandez, come out and speak," one wrote.

"He doesn't talk to his people," another stated in Spanish. "He's in hiding."

The mayor did not respond to multiple requests for comment from New Times. But in recent days, Hernandez has posted videos on social media reminding people to wash their hands, stay six feet from one another, and go out only for essentials. He announced Monday that the city would enforce an 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew until further notice.

Yet some Hialeah residents worry the city is behind the curve and have asked for more serious measures, such as an order for people to stay home for two weeks. Scores of residents on social media have expressed that a curfew is too little, too late.

Monica Perez, a Hialeah city council member, tells New Times the 11 p.m. curfew doesn't make much sense because residents are generally home at that hour.

"I would've preferred 9 or 10 p.m.," she says. "But I think we have to assess this week and see how the community responds to the curfew. We're not a big nighttime crowd. Here it's during the day at the bakeries and the ventanitas."

City council president Paul Hernandez (no relation to Mayor Hernandez) agrees there needs to be more of an effort to tell residents they shouldn't be out as often during the day.

"I wish everyone were staying home right now," he says. "I wish everyone were making a good-faith effort to stay home and realize we're in this together even if it's just for a couple of weeks."

He calls Hialeah "the biggest small town that's ever existed."

"Everyone seems to know each other," he says. "Everyone has contact with each other despite how large a city this is. But perhaps now we can look at that connectivity as something that can negatively affect us."

Abel Iraola, a 28-year-old Hialeah resident, has been outspoken on Twitter about what he views as a lack of leadership in the city. Iraola says he's been keeping track of the daily COVID-19 counts in Hialeah but wishes there were broader dissemination of statistics and stronger language about what residents should be doing to comply with social distancing guidelines.

"Either tell people not to go out at all, or tell them where the virus is being transmitted," Iraola says.

Iraola says he thinks a lot of people his age are heeding warnings, but many worry about older family members who aren't taking the pandemic seriously. He's especially concerned about an elderly relative he lives with who, like others in Hialeah, knows not to go out but picks up pastries and coffee at crowded bakeries anyway.

"They certainly don't feel that pressure that it's absolutely imperative you don't leave the house," Iraola says.

Florida Rep. Cindy Polo, whose district includes part of Hialeah, sent a letter to the city's mayor last week about better protecting and informing seniors. According to U.S. Census data, Hialeah's population in 2017 was 237,523. Nearly 48,000 residents were aged 65 or older — about 20 percent.

"Many of my constituents have shared that because they are more difficult to reach, they are not getting the information necessary to protect themselves from the virus," Polo wrote in the letter to Mayor Hernandez.

Johnson, the firefighters' union president, says firefighters who have been visiting dozens of the city's assisted living facilities to check on residents fear the facilities could experience the spread of COVID-19 seen in Broward nursing homes.

"I think the city could be doing a better job of communicating with its residents," he says. "Identify the hot spots and start to isolate and quarantine. But that's an administrative decision. I can only comment from a firefighter and union perspective. The firefighters remain vigilant and ready."

The city announced the launch of its first drive-thru COVID-19 testing site at Larkin Community Hospital Palm Springs this past March 20, but testing there comes with a $150 price tag. For low-income residents, seniors on a fixed income, and the newly unemployed, dropping that much money on a test might not be an option. (Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has directed Attorney General Ashley Moody to investigate Larkin for charging for tests that are supposed to be free.)

The data coming from Larkin shows that the zip code 33012 has the highest number of cases. Per Census data, the area houses 75,992 residents — a significantly higher population than Hialeah's other zip codes.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Esteban Bovo and former Florida Sen. Rene Garcia announced on Twitter that a free testing center will open tomorrow morning at Amelia Earhart Park in Hialeah. Testing is offered to Northwest Miami-Dade residents aged 65 or older who are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. Testing is by appointment only. Residents should call 305-268-4319 to schedule.

Polo, the state representative, says that leading up to an election, candidates will make every attempt to reach as many people as possible and go to great lengths to secure votes. But in times of crisis, elected officials should be working as hard as, if not harder than, they work when they're trying to get elected, she says.

"There's a vulnerable part of our community, a sensitive part of our community, that feels they're not being spoken to and that there's no sense of urgency," Polo says. "You gotta do something about it."

That said, the Hialeah council members who spoke with New Times say that the pandemic is a fluid situation and that everyone is figuring it out as they go. Members of the council are helping with food distribution, sharing information about the outbreak on their own social media pages, and hosting online town halls. Hialeah TV Channel 77 on Comcast airs public service announcements, and city officials have been delivering food to seniors in public housing so they can stay home.

"This is new for all of us," council member Perez says. "We are learning as we go. I think the main turning point here is being more vocal, sharing more information and statistics with our neighbors, and letting them know what is around them."

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