On the Sunday after Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced that five cases of the Zika virus had been locally transmitted in Miami Beach, it appeared to be business as usual for Lincoln Road. The day is one of the peak times during the week regardless of season for locals and tourists alike to visit the pedestrian mall’s stores and outdoor cafés; it lies in the heart of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s newly designated Zika zone, a 1.5-square-mile area from the beach to Biscayne Bay and Eighth to 28th Streets. But below the carefree veneer expressed by many people who were out in droves all weekend (at Soho Beach House on Friday night, a diner wished amused parties “happy Zika,” which has become a catchphrase here), business owners said a health crisis is the last thing they need.
The Olympics, global terrorism, record-breaking heat and back-to-school are also chipping away at summer sales. A Lincoln Road retailer, who wouldn’t go on record, said August sales decreased 40 percent from last year, though it’s typically a strong month on par with April, while a casual dining institution a few blocks east said business has been down quite a bit for the first time ever.
“We definitely noticed a significant drop in sales the first week of August after the initial Zika warning in Wynwood [a retail and arts district on the mainland],” said Bruce Cannella, cofounder of Base Superstore, a men’s wear and lifestyle concept that has operated on Lincoln Road for 20 years. “It leveled off the following week, but independent businesses like us without multiple locations and corporate backing face the biggest threat in an already challenged retail market.”
Greg Melvin survived dengue fever twice in Bali before relocating his beauty and lifestyle emporium Babalu to a 400-square-foot, open-air space in the breezeway of 1111 Lincoln Road. Though July sales increased 15 percent from last year, and mosquitoes have never been an issue in his location, whose higher elevation further protects it from Miami Beach’s notorious flooding, he called Zika the last straw.
“We’re getting pummeled this August, but I think it’s an anomaly with the Olympics drawing tourists who may have come here, as well as Brazilians who stayed home for the games.”
With Zika’s prominence in Latin America and the map of travel-related cases spreading across the continental U.S., Melvin doesn’t understand why the news media has singled out Miami. He fully understands the media’s impact on tourism having weathered terrorism and natural disasters in Indonesia.
“I’ve also learned that news cycles fast, and travelers have short-term memory. I hope that all is forgotten by October.”
Patricia Costa, owner of Beach boutique in the emerging Sunset Harbour neighborhood northwest of Lincoln Road, is being more mindful by wearing repellent and closing her front door. She received a notice from the city of Miami Beach about proactive measures like covering up with long sleeves and pants. It’s an ongoing battle: man versus Aedes aegypti, the species that carries Zika.
Her fit fortysomething clientele generally isn’t worried about pregnancy risk since Zika has been linked to the birth defect microcelphaly in fetuses. Jacque O’Rourke, general manager for Big Drop’s store at 1 Hotel & Homes, said her 35- to 55-year-old demographic is on the tail end of family planning.
“Every now and then, an expectant mom comes in,” said O’ Rourke, who estimates tourists account for 90 percent of shoppers. “I just don’t see Miami as a place pregnant women are dying to visit and go clubbing.”
The store’s landlord increased mosquito spraying from twice a week to three times. She notices more mosquitoes than previous years during her morning walks.
“Customers come in with bug spray and run if they see a mosquito. They’re nervous.”
Celene Gee, a partner in Gee Beauty, whose street location opens in Sunset Harbour in September, bought three cans of bug spray when the news hit. She took a class at FlyBarre and stopped by Panther Coffee in her new hood on Monday.
“Our former store was in Bal Harbour Shops, which is also outdoors. I don’t think you can say Zika is contained to one neighborhood, so you just have to take precautions,” Gee said.
It’s too early to grasp the long-term impact on tourism. Miami Beach hasn’t experienced any travel-related dips in occupancy, according to STR, a hotel data research and analytics firm in Hendersonville, Tenn. STR reported that hotel occupancy for the week ending August 13 increased 3 percent from last year; and Miami Beach’s hotel rooms total 23,581, a five percent increase from last year’s total.
Wendy Kallergis, president and ceo for the Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association, said the organization’s partners haven’t reported cancellations or anything of the norm. Hotels are notifying guests about safety at check-in.
“This is a funny time of year regardless, which is why we promote staycations and great deals,” she said.
A quick glance at HotelTonight, the app for last-minute discounted rooms, offered some fairly low rates for Aug. 22, such as $117 for Nautilus, a Sixty Hotel; $99 for the Gale, and $108 for the National. They jumped to $180, $153 and $167, respectively, for the following weekend.
Events, especially Art Basel Miami Beach will be among the biggest tests. A New Yorker who wished to remain anonymous said Zika has put a bit of a damper on his Miami wedding in November. He estimates 8 to 10 percent of 250 guests will be at risk for pregnancy or for plans to start a family within a year.
“Some outspoken members, who are the minority, believe we should consider moving it if we can get our deposit back, and the hotel has agreed to let us cancel without penalty if the CDC issues a warning for its area,” he said, though waiting for more details before making a decision. “If Zika forces all events inside, it defeats the purpose of a Miami wedding.”