On Monday, July 6, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez announced his intention to issue an emergency order re-closing indoor restaurant dining rooms owing to a surge in the spread of COVID-19.
Within hours, a cadre of restaurateurs gathered in Coral Gables to decide how to deal with a collective case of government-induced whiplash.
To business owners like Nick Sharp, it seemed like only yesterday that they'd scrambled to bring back laid-off staff and invest in hand-sanitizing stations, signage, and personal protective equipment in order to adhere to the county's 182-page "New Normal" reopening plan.
"A few local restaurants had formed groups, mostly to support each other and talk about where to get supplies like hand sanitizer," says Sharp, who owns Threefold Cafe, which operates locations in the Gables, South Miami, and Brickell.
The "New Normal" lasted a month.
"This time we were furious," Sharp says. "So we used the groups to organize a meeting."
About three dozen restaurant owners and managers gathered to discuss the emergency closure and formulate a plan. Calling themselves "Support Our Local Restaurants," they aired their grievances about the mayor's plan to close down restaurant dining rooms — particularly in light of the fact that Gimenez has cited no quantifiable proof that the recent spike in COVID-19 cases can be traced to eateries.
"We're not scientists, but we can expect some real data before we allow the county to shut us down," says Sharp. "The county mayor is making sole decisions. He's not consulting with anyone and he's not communicating with anyone."
The group drafted a letter to Gimenez and the mayors of the cities that comprise Miami-Dade, demanding that restaurant owners be provided with a rationale for targeting them when retail stores, beaches, and pools remain operational. "Before you shut down an industry, there has to be some factual information given," Sharp says. "Are you tracing the virus back to restaurants?"
The café owner says he's also concerned about the future.
"What's the plan for the next six to nine months? Should I be taking out an SBA loan? Should I just close? Is this closure part of a bigger plan?"
Sharp adds that the employees he recently rehired will now have to refile for unemployment. "We have no information on how long they may be out of work. I have nothing to tell them."
Fiorella Blanco, a partner in Fratelli Milano in downtown Miami and Vista in Little Haiti who's taking part in Sharp's ad hoc group, says she has spent thousands of dollars to follow Gimenez's reopening plan, only to have to shut down again.
"We invested so much to get us up to code. I am paying for COVID testing for my staff," says Blanco. "Customers have told me how safe they feel, but the strain of closing again is going to end our industry. You're asking me to close, but what options are you giving me? What am I going to tell my employees? I don't know how long we're going to close."
Blanco says that as a mother of a 15-year-old and a 7-year-old, she's concerned about the rising number of COVID cases but she fails to see Gimenez's logic in singling out the restaurant industry. "Supermarkets are OK? There's no social distancing there. We have followed the reopening guidelines to the letter, but we are being demonized."
Blanco says the group intends to start demanding answers from local government officials immediately. "As we speak, many more restaurant owners are joining the conversation," she says. "We want answers. We want to remain open."
She says the message to Gimenez is a simple one: "You created the 'New Normal' guidelines, but you never enforced them. And now we are the ones paying the price by being closed down."
Lee Brian Schrager, a senior vice president at mega-distributor Southern Glazer's Wine & Spirits and founder of the South Beach Wine and Food Festival (SOBEWFF), penned his own letter to Gimenez and the mayors of Miami and Miami Beach.
"The initial shutdowns of restaurants at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic were devastating to our industry," Schrager wrote. "Many people were furloughed or laid off permanently, some restaurants unable to keep doors open. Others made do with limited staff, offering takeout and delivery, and surviving with the help of charitable donations and/or relief grants from our SOBEWFF & FIU Chaplin School Hospitality Relief Fund. Through it all, the industry remained resilient and supportive of protecting our fellow citizens."
Schrager questioned the wisdom of keeping gyms open while closing dining rooms. "Why can a person exercise inside a gym, while social distancing and wearing a mask, but a restaurant patron cannot eat a meal inside with those same restrictions? Vigorous exercising with hard, rapid breathing in moist, warm confined spaces like gyms is scientifically proven to increase the risk of person-to-person transmission of the coronavirus. What scientific evidence points to restaurants having a greater risk than that?"
Schrager then forwarded his letter to 600 industry professionals in South Florida, asking them to write letters of their own.
"Gimenez needed to do something, but I don't think it needed to be so extreme," Schrager tells New Times. He suggests the mayor form a task force of industry professionals that could work with government officials to find ways to safely navigate the new coronavirus reality.
"We're just asking that we be able to help resolve the issue," he says. "I think there's a solution, but shutting down the industry is not the answer."
The industry professionals didn't have to wait long for an answer.
At 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Gimenez took to Twitter to publicly respond to his critics.
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"I was asked today when we can return to indoor dining at restaurants and I said when we reach about 5% positivity rate for COVID-19 testing," the mayor tweeted. "I misspoke referring to the CDC as the guide. The recommendation is from the WHO and from some of #OurCounty’s public health experts.
"That said, I want to clarify that our New Normal plan, based on state and federal guidance, sets 10% as the maximum positivity rate and we started opening businesses when we were well below that. Today our 14-day testing average is at 22.6% positive for the virus.
"At that rate it will overwhelm hospitals, which is why I'm forced to roll back business openings that cater to large gatherings & limit dining to outdoors or takeout, require masks for moderate exertion at indoor gyms and continue the 10pm-6am curfew to avoid further spread.
"It’s the only responsible thing to do to save lives and get back on track to open our economy safely."