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Hundreds of Hialeah Residents Crowd Unemployment Help Center

Positive cases of COVID-19 have more than doubled in Hialeah in the past six days.
Positive cases of COVID-19 have more than doubled in Hialeah in the past six days.

This week, the City of Hialeah announced it would open four sites to hand out unemployment forms and provide help to people who couldn't apply for benefits through Florida's broken unemployment website or hotline.

Today it's clear that many residents of the city — which has the third-highest number of coronavirus cases in Florida — are desperate for assistance. Local 10 reporter Hatzel Vela tweeted a video from outside the John F. Kennedy Library showing a long line wrapped around the building. Though most residents were wearing masks, the site's organizers apparently were not enforcing social distancing measures:

"Everyone is on top of each other," Vela tweeted. "This is crazy!"

Mayor Carlos Hernandez tells New Times that the centers opened at 11 a.m. but that residents began lining up at 7.

"I'm not gonna lie: We were not expecting people there at 7 a.m.," Hernandez says. "The need was overwhelming, even more than what I expected. We have everything under control now."

Hernandez says Hialeah police officers and city staff told people who drove to the library to wait in their cars because the intention was for the site to operate as a drive-thru. Nevertheless, many walked or rode a public bus to the site.

"We had hundreds of people show up on foot, so we did our best to try to keep them separate," Hernandez explains.

Census data shows that between 2014 and 2018, about 22 percent of households in Hialeah didn't have access to a computer and about 31 percent didn't have an internet subscription. Hernandez says that phenomenon is now in plain sight, as evidenced by the long lines this morning.

"What it showed today was the incredible need of the hardworking people in our community who don't have computers, who can't download [the forms], who don't know how to figure everything out online," he says.

City Council President Paul Hernandez (no relation to Mayor Hernandez) says he shares the concerns about the library site. Though he believes it's important to help people navigate the unemployment system, he says those efforts need to be more organized.

"I honestly have no idea how this happened and how we let it get to that point," he says. "Hialeah is number three in the entire state of Florida in terms of confirmed patients with this virus. We can't be setting up situations where people are going to be in crowded areas like that."

The latest data from the Florida Division of Emergency Management shows Hialeah has 597 COVID-19 cases. Positive cases have more than doubled in the city in the past six days.

This morning, Paul Hernandez says, he drove to a second site, at Slade Park on West 74th Street, to check for crowds. That site was set up as a drive-thru, and residents were able to pick up unemployment forms from their cars.

"There seems to be a lot of order, so that's good," he says. "It looks like people are being very cautious."

He says the city should hit the reset button on the library site. If the other locations — which include Babcock Park and Goodlet Park — operate well, they should be allowed to continue.

"There is a demand and a need for this," he says.

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