MIAMI — This city’s retailers are trying to contain the fallout from the Zika virus as city, state and federal governments step up initiatives to contain the spread of the disease.
The first confirmed locally acquired cases in the continental U.S. occurred in the Wynwood section, the burgeoning, street art-coated warehouse district north of downtown, which regularly receives busloads of international tourists among about 300,000 monthly visitors, according to its Business Improvement District.
Since late July, when the first locally acquired case was confirmed in Wynwood, the Florida Department of Health has reported 16 cases in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Nearly all were in Wynwood or linked to a case from there. Miami also has the most travel-related Zika cases — more than 100 — of any county in Florida, a quarter of the total in the state.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, toured the one-square-mile area last week. The CDC warned pregnant women not to travel to Wynwood, where mosquito control has been ramped up with aerial spraying of Naled insecticide to kill Aedes aegypti, the species that carries Zika.
“A lot of my pregnant friends have left Miami, and my Wynwood customers are going to my other stores,” said Matthew Sherman, founder and chief executive officer of Jugofresh, an upscale juice bar with 10 locations in the region.
Zika’s arrival during the summer slowdown is bittersweet, but Wynwood businesses definitely took a dive. Many blamed media hype as TV and cable news crews parked satellite trucks in front of neighborhood landmarks. Several of its retailers like Shinola, Warby Parker and Marine Layer weren’t available for comment, but those who would go on record reported a swift decline.
Sherman, whose $10 juices are a barometer of traffic, said sales decreased 20 percent when the CDC showed up, followed by another 5 to 10 percent drop when aerial spraying began.
“The mosquito spraying goes against our organic mission to avoid pesticides. Our customers don’t want to be around it, and we’re concerned for our employees’ safety,” he said.
Panther Coffee, which is usually buzzing with caffeinated hipsters, looked eerily empty with a solo sipper outside on Thursday at dusk. Empty parking spaces — worth gold in these parts — were another sign something was amiss. The Wynwood Yard, an outdoor multipurpose space with food trucks and events like the Raddest Craft Fair, temporarily closed. Serendipity Creamery (no relation to the New York restaurant), where families and foodies queue for boozy and floral flavors, saw half its sales fall off by Thursday.
“Up until Zika hysteria, business was strong too. Wynwood isn’t as seasonal as my other location on the beach,” said founder Jessica Levison, who is trying to get pregnant and whose husband also works in Wynwood. “For months, I’ve been dressing in jeans and long-sleeved shirts in the Florida heat because the reality is this isn’t an isolated issue.”
Melissa Mosheim, owner of the women’s fashion boutique MVM, was grateful the bulk of her clientele is still summering in Aspen and the Hamptons. Anticipating a slow August regardless of Zika, she timed her pending move from a side street into a larger location on NW Second Avenue, Wynwood’s main thoroughfare. Placing a can of bug spray on the cashwrap, Mosheim chalked it up to another chapter of Miami’s exotic existence.
“These scares happen every year, and then it calms down,” she said.
Destination businesses that don’t rely on walk-ins haven’t been hit as hard. Zthea, a designer eyewear boutique with brands like Dior and Smoke x Mirrors, had only one cancelled appointment last week.
“Still, this is the first time we’ve seen a slower week since opening in 2015,” said cofounder Marylin Ravelo. “The big difference I notice is that the popular happy hours around us aren’t as busy, but it’s also very hot out this time of year.”
Simonett Pereira, owner of the women’s wear collection Style Mafia, said Zika is more a topic of conversation, jokes and memes among her clientele and employees at the moment.
It’s far too early to gauge the lasting impact on Wynwood’s economy and brand, but the three-year-old Wynwood BID, a municipal board of the city of Miami, is seeking funds from federal to local levels for damage control. On Monday it met to discuss safety measures and marketing for the neighborhood’s 400 properties and 300 businesses.
“Our main message is that Wynwood is open for business,” said the BID’s executive director Tom Curitore, who’s heading aggressive efforts to clean up standing water, educate the public and hand out insect repellant sprays and towelettes as part of the CDC’s guidelines. “Officials have already tested and cleared a 10-block area for Zika. We want people to know it’s OK to come here and walk around.”
Because Miami-Dade County slashed its mosquito control budget to $1.7 million for 2016, everything from major commercial centers to mom-and-pop businesses are picking up the slack. The Miami Design District, which borders the one-square-mile area for the Zika outbreak, immediately mobilized with inspections that exceed the CDC’s recommendations according to Craig Robins, ceo and president of Dacra, a Miami-based real estate firm that partnered in 70 percent of its property. Patrol teams treat storm drains, fog three nights a week and remove standing water, including rooftop puddles and air-conditioning condensation.
“We’re lucky that we don’t have a lot of landlords involved so we can act quickly,” he said.
The Genuine Hospitality Group, which operates four restaurants in the MDD, experienced a drop in diners when the news initially broke. Charles Bell, director of operations, said reservations rebounded after aerial spraying, though its flagship Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink always provided an array of mosquito repellents, from citronella candles to Deet, for al fresco seating.
“In summer, we get a lot of South American and European vacationers who like the heat and want to sit outside,” he said.
Known for its charming courtyard with twice as much seating as inside, Mandolin Aegean Bistro also caters to year-round tourists and the fashion crowd. Zika resulted in a slight dip the first week of August, according to general manager Tamara Magalhaes, who programmed the natural repellent misting system from three times a day to hourly.
“It puts the guests at ease since a lot of tables are talking about Zika.”
With its open-air malls and street retail, the city of Miami Beach implemented a program to reduce standing water and storm water collected in drains in January. Intense, city-wide inspections of commercial and residential property started right after the Wynwood outbreak was announced.
Fear has also trickled down to the Florida Keys, which dealt with dengue, a much more serious mosquito-borne disease transmitted by Aedes aegypti, six years ago. There haven’t been any locally acquired cases of Zika, but Monroe County is consistently proactive in mosquito control. Andy Newman, a spokesperson for its Tourist Development Council, said the annual budget averages $11 million, the second-highest of any county in Florida, and the official tourism website’s home page was updated for Zika as far back as February.
Elizabeth Huddleston, owner of Miss Monroe boutique in Islamorada, a village south of Key Largo, has fielded inquiries about Zika all week. Tourists want to know if it’s safe to come to the Keys.
“We’re usually the stop before or after Miami, so people are freaking out. Organic bug spray has been flying off shelves,” she said.