Just after 11 a.m. today, a former Columbia University professor, who now serves as dean of Florida International University's Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work, stood in front of a packed crowd at Miami Beach City Hall. Opening his speech, Dr. Tomas R. Guilarte thanked everyone in attendance for voicing their concerns about the Zika virus — both the city commissioners and the ardent group of protesters gathered to stop Miami-Dade County from spraying naled, a controversial pesticide, over their city.
Staring at the group of angry residents, he smiled and suggested that more public-health debates ought to be settled this way.
"All the stakeholders are here," he said from the lectern.
But almost none of those stakeholders were happy. Miami Beach residents are currently quarreling over whether Naled, which is banned in the European Union, ought to be sprayed from planes over South Beach to kill Zika-carrying mosquitoes. City Commissioner Michael Grieco had suggested the city take legal action to stop the spraying — today, the city's other four commissioners shot that idea down.
The city did, however, pass resolutions urging the county to develop non-naled mosquito control solutions.
Ahead of the debate, protesters flooded the commission chambers, and some reportedly even stood in the wings after the seats filled up. The meeting was, by any measure, a circus: Protesters, who say spraying the organophosphate pesticide does more harm to the environment than Zika does, audibly booed and shouted over commissioners as they tried to speak. Commissioners Michael Grieco and Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, who disagree about whether the county should use naled, took potshots at one another from the dais all morning. Rosen Gonzalez has repeatedly accused Grieco of using the naled debate to further his own political career, a charge Grieco steadfastly denies.
"No more spraying! No more spraying!" many of the protesters chanted while city officials tried to speak.
But Guilarte, who specializes in studying nerve-affecting chemicals like naled, gave one of the few even-handed, rational critiques offered all day. Zika, he said, does cause microcephaly. (His comments were met with boos from some of the conspiracy theorists in the audience, who incorrectly believe Zika does not harm fetuses.) If the government says there is simply no other option to fight the virus, the city should reluctantly use naled.
But, he added, "naled is a neurotoxin." As such, he urged all governments to commit resources to developing nontoxic ways to fight the Aedes aegypti mosquito. That comment was met with cheers.
But Guilarte's speech was one of the few calm moments of the day.
When discussing his proposal, Grieco immediately accused Gov. Rick Scott of selling out Miami Beach residents to protect the city's tourism economy.
"Rick Scott does not care about the well-being of Miami Beach residents," he said, to a round of applause.
Then, he denied that he was using the debate to gain free publicity.
"The health of Miami Beach residents has been politicized not by me, but by those who want to appear to be taking action," he said, taking a clandestine shot at Rosen Gonzalez. He stressed instead that he was simply fighting to protect his family and constituents from what he believes to be a toxic chemical:
Earlier this week, Rosen Gonzalez attacked Grieco on Facebook for opposing naled spraying:
Today, Rosen Gonzalez again said she disagrees with Grieco, and believes the county ought to use naled. After protesters booed her, she sarcastically added she was advocating "poisoning herself." She then said she'd feel awful if any residents in Miami Beach were diagnosed with Guillan-Barré Syndrome, an adult neurological disorder linked to the Zika virus.
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Both county and U.S. Centers for Disease Control officials told the commission tnaled spraying had worked well in Wynwood. They added that active Zika transmissions are still ongoing in Miami Beach.
Grieco, an attorney, argued the city should take legal action to stop the spraying. But Miami Beach's city attorneys warned the case would be difficult to win — and could cost the city thousands in fines if they lost. Acting on this advice, the city's four other commissioners shot down the plan.
But one person in attendance was, it seemed, trying to "politicize" the debate. County mayoral candidate Raquel Regalado, who has no official position in the county government right now, showed up today to speak in front of the commission. (Her runoff with incumbent Mayor Carlos Gimenez is set for November.)
She demanded the county stop spraying naled. Mayor Philip Levine instead suggested she stop using the controversy to score political points.