How the City Beautiful Has Faced the Virus
The day the music died was, literally, the day the music died. There had been intimations of the emptiness to come, the empty streets and no-place-to-go lives everyone soon learned to live with. Professional sports had already been shut down, and Coral Gables itself had declared an emergency a week earlier, ending all public events. But it was not until the night of March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, that the music truly died.
Earlier that day the county had issued a mandatory order shutting down all bars, restaurants and cafes by 11 p.m. Well before the hour struck, almost all had complied. Miracle Mile was all but shuttered; a few people lounged at Copper 29, and there were a few last patrons at Hillstone. Otherwise it was mute – except for the bright lights and roaring music at John Martin’s Irish Pub.
It was a surreal scene: dead quiet up and down the street, while a man dressed as a leprechaun was laughing it up with patrons at tables outside the pub. Inside, they were pouring discounted shots of Jameson Irish Whiskey, and the sound system blared with Irish shanties, rock-and-roll classics, country music ballads – the crowd didn’t care. They lapped it up, regardless. They were here for the last night of civilization before everything went dark.
Martin Lynch, co-owner of the pub, presided over the celebration with a wistful air. This was to be the last night for his 30-year-old pub. “It’s kind of bittersweet, you know,” he said, looking over the tables outside, decked with families and tall mugs of beer. “It should be the happiest day of the year, St. Patrick’s Day, but it’s also our last night.” At 11 p.m. the police cruisers turned on their lights and began to clear the street, but without much vigor, in a kind of respect for the last of something that would never return.
John Martin’s will not be the only restaurant or bar in Coral Gables that will not reopen. It will certainly not be the only thing that changes on the streets of the city. Whatever else happens to Coral Gables, it will never be the same, just as the world beyond will never be quite the same.
On the somber side of the pandemic, there is the wholesale destruction of the city’s vibrant hospitality and entertainment industries. With all the bars, restaurants, hotels and “non-essential” businesses closed by order of the county, thousands of workers suddenly lost their jobs. At the same time all schools were closed, along with houses of worship, gyms, marinas – the list goes on. The stores left open were mostly those that sold food, gasoline, and medicine.
The proverbial silver lining to all this was how Coral Gables responded. From the public to the private sectors, from the largest to the smallest of enterprises, the citizens of Coral Gables responded with discipline, ingenuity and compassion. Rather than fold, half of the restaurants reinvented themselves as takeout places. Social distancing and face masks were accepted as the norm. Parents homeschooled while teachers went virtual. Stores shifted to online sales. People worked from home. Zoom became the most important app in the city, allowing everyone to create virtual conferences, classes and communities overnight. And the city government, already versed in disaster management, rose to the occasion.
The Shutdown Begins
The city first declared a state of emergency on March 12. When the city’s Emergency Management Team met that day, they were closely tracking the county’s lead. At the meeting was City Manager Peter Iglesias, Police Chief Ed Hudak, Fire Chief Marcos De La Rosa, and City Attorney Miriam Ramos, along with the assistant city manager and the directors of HR, risk management and city parks.
Like other municipalities, the city was ready to act in coordination with Miami-Dade. “We knew that the county was going to declare a state of emergency, and I had spoken to the mayor and the city attorney,” said City Manager Iglesias. “After that we made the decision and I called a meeting of the emergency team… We weren’t waiting for the county to start. We wanted to be ready to go.”
Under the city charter, the mayor has the power to declare a state of emergency, and then delegate the authority to implement it – in this case to the city manager. “The only other times, in recent history, have been during hurricanes,” said City Attorney Ramos, who drafted the order and brought it to the mayor to sign.
With that order in place, the city began a systematic shut down that started with a suspension of all public events and the closing of city facilities where people congregate, from the Youth Center to the Granada Golf Course. Schools would close the next day, followed by all restaurants, bars, clubs, movie theaters, playhouses, gyms and fitness centers. One week from the day the emergency was declared, all non-essential services – just about everything except grocery stores, gas stations, buses and banks – were also ordered closed. Three days later the first cases of COVID-19 in Coral Gables were reported by the Florida Department of Health.
The City Continues
Throughout the virus crisis, the city of Coral Gables has continued to function. All essential services have been maintained, including police, fire, emergency medical services (EMS), transportation, sanitation, and the city’s building department. City Hall became a kind of safe zone, with about 40 percent of employees working from home; those who worked in – or even entered – the building were masked and checked at the door for their temperature.
“We have been able to keep city hall open that way and provide full service,” said Iglesias. “What I don’t want is for one of our buildings to become contaminated.” Critical for the city, he said, is that the building department remain open so that construction – permitted under the shutdown – could continue. Sequenced for social distancing, builders, contractors and architects could still drop off plans, pick up permits, pay fees, and even interact with a masked city clerk.
Like the building department, sanitation continued with all its regular pickups. “People don’t realize that public works plays a crucial role. If they don’t pick up garbage it becomes horrific,” says Iglesias. He is also keen on keeping up the city’s appearance with its landscaping division – “so the city looks good and not raggedy” – as long as workers are protected. As of publication, none of the city’s 100+ sanitation and landscape workers had gotten sick. “We’re following all the recommendations by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), disinfecting the trucks daily, masks for the guys, practicing social distancing – and taking temperatures,” said Al Zamora, who heads the sanitation division of public works.
For those who worked at home, the city’s IT department was familiar with remote access; about 80 city employees already operated in the field. IT supplied city staff with more than 100 laptops and the remainder with desk tops, says IT director Raimundo Rodulfo. “We had already completed upgrades to our cloud technology last year, which turned out to be very timely,” he says.
Those who could not work at home included police, fire and EMS personnel. As the virus spread, calls for emergency medical services rose by 50 percent, according to the fire department. Following guidelines from the CDC, firefighters and EMS personnel wore masks, goggles, gloves and gowns when dealing with corona calls, with fire trucks decontaminated daily. “When you call in on 911, they have created a questionnaire to determine if it’s a COVID call, because then they have to go in with protective gear,” said Iglesias. “We have to make sure we protect them.”
Three firefighters had tested positive through late April, with twice that number for police officers. Despite use of masks and gloves whenever possible, and strict controls on who enters or leaves police headquarters, by late April at least six Coral Gables police officers and two civilian department employees had tested positive for the virus. Even with precautions, being a cop is a human-contact profession, now more than ever with a rise in domestic violence and the enforcement of bans on people congregating.
The police were brought in, for example, to get public Granada Golf Course under control. After the course was closed to players, it became an immediate “Central Park” for the city, with people picnicking, playing soccer and tossing baseballs. Unfortunately, many of the visitors were not from Coral Gables; most ignored social distancing and left a mess of litter. “This is unique to the police department – to have police officers enforcing health orders like social distancing,” said Police Chief Ed Hudak. “A majority [of residents] have been following directives, but there are always a few who think the virus doesn’t apply to them.”
According to City Attorney Ramos, police have the power to arrest violators of the city’s emergency order but so far have restrained themselves. “The intent is not to arrest anybody. Frankly it overburdens the jail and jams the courts,” she says. “It’s just police out educating people and making them aware of what the orders are. By and large people have been very compliant, and when they haven’t immediately, once they are approached by an officer, they comply.”
For educating the public, the city has also maintained robust communications with residents through its website – the top source of information for most residents. Its website continued to post the latest closings, along with videos on how to wash your hands to prevent COVID, guidelines for the elderly, appeals to help your neighbors, etc., with advice on where to pick food up, and what was available online at museums and the Coral Gables Art Cinema.
Especially heartfelt were messages from Mayor Valdés-Fauli, who posted letters and videos addressing the citizens, urging them to remain calm and follow the safety guidelines. “We need to rely on each other for support, kindness and strength,” he said in his March 27 video. “Please check on neighbors, especially our older population, to see if they have any needs.” In later messages the mayor sounded positively Kennedy-esque: “More important than what the city can do for residents,” he said, “is what we can all do for each other.”
The Community Steps Out
With urging from city hall, the people of Coral Gables hunkered down. The wholesale closing of events was heart breaking. The Garden Club had to cancel their annual tour of gardens and homes. The city canceled its annual Easter egg hunt. The Rotary Club postponed its annual Chili Cook Off and Fundraiser. The list went on and on. And people could not go to gyms, or play tennis, or go to movies. What they did instead was take to the streets.
“I have been amazed at the number of people I see out and about,” said City Commissioner Pat Keon, who lives on Edgewater Drive near Ingraham Park. “I see so many people, after they have done their work and their kids have finished their homework, out walking as a family.” Keon says she is already getting emails about the need for more bicycle paths in the city. “They emailed that this [bicycling] was the only pleasure they had.”
Former City Commissioner Chip Withers, who lives on Hardee Street, says there are so many people strolling in the evenings that “it’s like the living dead” have come out – but in a good way. “You see neighbors you didn’t know you had,” he said. “Practice social distancing, but suddenly you’re greeting people who live down the street. And you don’t know if it’s people trying to get healthy or if they’re just bored, but it’s good to see. I enjoy it.”
The burst of human activity on residential streets has created some unique optics. With strollers, bicycles, skateboards and scooters, as well as people walking or jogging, it looks like the cast of The Truman Show, everyone cued up to parade by. Even roller blades have come back, dusted off from the 1990s.
And then there are those images that only a pandemic can provide. The ghost town of the Shops at Merrick Park, so utterly devoid of humans that it feels like the set of a post-nuclear war movie. The semicircle of well-wishers outside the home of a little girl, celebrating her birthday by clapping and holding balloons, with nobody getting close. The random sight of a masked woman slowly peddling a bike through the deserted downtown in midafternoon, her unleashed dog trotting by her side. A frustrated golfer practicing chip shots in the open ground in front of a church. And everywhere masks.
Citizens also noticed what the world has witnessed: The return of nature – or what resident Daniel Berger described in this Nextdoor app post as “The small, but special aspects of less human activity…” With reductions in traffic and pollution, there has been a resurgence of migrating birds, like cardinals and blue jays. Eastern screech owls have been spotted on stop signs and cars. “I love hearing screech owls at night in my neighborhood,” posted resident Ann Zanettie.
The City Steps Up
For those hurt most by the shutdown, the community responded with compassion. Residents helped their elderly neighbors, checking on them and shopping for them, leaving bags of groceries by their doorsteps. The Coral Gables Community Foundation launched a Community Response Fund to help feed people who had lost their jobs. Opening at the end of March, the fund raised more than $20,000 in its first few weeks of operation, which allowed them to fund a hot-meal distribution program in the courtyard of Douglas Entrance, using the kitchen facilities at Someone’s Son.
“Everything is set up with social distance markers, with masks and gloves and no human contact,” said foundation executive director Mary Snow. “It’s really eye-opening to see who is out of work. A lot of people from local hotels, airlines support staff, legal support staff, artists, freelancers, writers, seniors.” The foundation also joined with the South Florida Digital Alliance to refurbish and distribute computers to less fortunate students – and adults who need them. “They are for kids at home, and for parents to apply for federal and state support,” said Snow. Between six and 12 computers were being given away daily, on a first come, first serve basis for those who need them.”
The Coral Gables Woman’s Club also stepped up, twice using their kitchens on East Ponce de Leon to produce a blast of 2,000 meals with celebrity chef Chris Valdes. In March they were delivered to people in assisted living facilities and local families in need; in April they went to UHealth workers and families in need throughout South Florida.
The Gables-based José Milton Foundation, along with United Property Management (owned by the Milton family), donated the use of 300 apartment units for healthcare professionals at Jackson. “We are offering staff apartments where they can live and keep their families safe,” said Cecil Milton, president of José Milton and Associates. The fully furnished apartments, with free utilities, were donated under a 30-day lease; overall the donation exceeded $2 million in value.
Individual acts of appreciation and generosity also flourished. The Mercedes-Benz dealership on Salzedo Street began to sanitize police cars and firetrucks for free, on a daily basis. Bachour restaurant sent pastries to the staff at Doctors Hospital. Naranjo Floral Sense sent bouquets of flowers to Coral Gables Hospital. Thirty-year residents Isabel Noy and husband Mike Pohudka began producing hundreds of bottles of medical-grade hand sanitizer for free distribution through the Nextdoor app.
Vice Mayor Vince Lago paid for pizzas from Power Pizza for the firefighters one day and then police and city hall workers a week later, and then a week after brought 110 burgers to the utilities department, freshly cooked at Clutch Burger. The mayor also made repeated visits to frontline workers to let them know how much they were appreciated. “We wanted to make sure that the city’s employees saw that their elected officials were there to support them,” said Lago, who had earlier quarantined himself for 11 days after being in contact with the mayor of Miami, who contracted the virus. Fortunately, Lago tested negative.
Higher Education and the Arts
Few in the Coral Gables community better understood the threat posed by coronavirus better than University of Miami President Julio Frenk. A physician who specializes in public health, he served as Mexico’s minister of health and had dealt with three previous pandemics. “This is the one with the deepest effect,” said Frenk, named UM president in August 2015 – and in early April interim CEO of UHealth, the university healthcare system.
In response to the virus, UM extended spring break, then put classes online through the rest of the semester. Most of its 17,000 students went home. Only about 280 students – mostly from abroad – remained on the Coral Gables campus. One dining hall was kept open to serve them.
The financial toll of the virus on the university will be huge, Frenk says. He mentions lost revenues from refunded fees for unused portions of room and board; a likely reduction in international students, who typically pay full tuition; lost research funds; and the loss of lucrative elective surgeries at UHealth. To help make ends meet, the university announced a hiring freeze, the deferral of merit-based pay raises, delays in planned construction projects until 2022, and an expansion of the freshman class from about 2,200 to 2,350.
As for future schooling, “There will be a massive migration to online education, the biggest transition of education ever,” he says. As for now, “Being on campus is truly a sobering experience,” he says. “It is filled with emptiness. I miss the liveliness, the activity of young people. I can’t wait until we are all back there.”
In response to stay-at-home orders, Churches like the First United Methodist Church of Coral Gables, the Church of the Little Flower, Saint Augustine Church and the Coral Gables United Church of Christ all began live streaming services, either through YouTube or Facebook. On Easter Sunday, Pastor Aaron Lauer of the United Church gave thanks for the connectivity. “We know it hasn’t been easy being apart like this,” he told his virtual flock. “Let us give thanks to God [that] we are blessed with this technology that allows us to be together as the body of Christ even though we are physically separated.”
St. Augustine Catholic church took things a step further and offered drive-through confessions. “People have loved it,” said Father Richard Vigoa. Parishioners drive through the church parking lot where Vigoa and another priest sit on folding chairs in the shade, listening to them on the phone; call-in numbers are posted on a nearby sign. “That creates privacy. I have my speaker close to my mouth. I see them in their cars and have a very good discussion with them. I give them their penance, absolution, and they are on their way… God will walk us through this, but we have to do our part as well.”
On the cultural front, the city has been equally vacated. Across the city live theaters, museums, music venues, and art galleries were closed, along with the hosted author events that took place nearly every day at Books & Books. By the end of March, those events had gone virtual, as had the rest of the cultural community.
Next door, the closed Coral Gables Museum also launched a couple of online programs. Typically held on the first Friday of every month, the Portfolio Review Series is now on their website, coralgablesmuseum.org. “When we did it live, we’d have 10 or 12 different artists,” said Executive Director John Allen. “This time we’re doing it one at a time, talking about what they do, why they’re interested in what they do, and demonstrating pieces of their work.”
For the parents who need to keep their children entertained, there is the Education Activate program – Art Activate, Science Active and Film Activate – the latter was launched in conjunction with the Coral Gables Art Cinema across the street. Each Activate contains interactive lessons, like how to draw symmetrical butterflies, learning about alligators and completing movie-related activities. The cinema, meanwhile, has launched its own program of online vintage films.
While the rest of the staff is working remotely, Allen is not only working at the museum, he is also living there – sleeping on an air mattress next to his desk. “We were in the middle of an installation and there was a great deal of artwork here,” he said. “I did this before with Irma, but that was a three-day event. This has been a little bit longer.” Allen is hoping to reopen later this month, depending on the circumstances.
The Lowe Art Museum on the UM campus also looked for ways to merge artwork with the internet. “Lowe on the Go” is a weekly initiative that features one piece of a collection every week on the museum’s Instagram and Facebook accounts, as well as via the inboxes of its subscribers. “There’s been a very strong and positive response,” said Digital Experience Manager Mark Osterman. “It seems that during these times … the arts have been playing a rich role in not just distracting people but entertaining them and relaxing their anxieties.”
Another iconic cultural institution shuttered by the virus is the Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre (pictured above). Theatergoers who purchased tickets to see Camelot – initially set to open on March 18 – were given a voucher or credit. The theater announced that the cast was sent home, but that the show would go on… eventually. “We have a set on stage – it was built and ready to go. Also, we have a cast who had rehearsed that is prepped to be brought back,” said Executive Producing Director Barbara Stein. “We would like to find a way to present the show sometime this summer.”
In the meantime, the theater is continuing to entertain audiences. “At Home with Actors’ Playhouse” is a performance series on their Facebook and Twitter pages where actors send in videos of themselves singing a song from a show that they were in at the Miracle Theatre. Their “Young Talent Big Dreams” competition has also gone virtual and is accepting video submissions of children between the ages of 8 and 17. They are also offering Master Classes in vocal performance, hip-hop dance, jazz dance, theatre dance and monologues through Zoom. Despite all of their online programs, Stein projects their loss of income will be enormous. “I can’t say that we’re without problems and concerns,” she said. “We just think we’re going to overcome them.”
Back on UM’s campus the Frost School of Music teamed up with the city to create “Live at Home in the City Beautiful.” Every Monday and Wednesday at 6 p.m., the city streams live on Instagram a Frost student, faculty member or alum performing from their home for 15 – 30 minutes. “We’re giving students and alumni and faculty a stage – a virtual stage – to perform on until the curtain rises again,” said Executive Director of Marketing and Communications Patricia San Pedro. Frost is also airing some of their favorite concerts from the past year every Friday at 7:30 p.m.
Art galleries in the Gables are also connecting online. Cernuda Arte has announced its first ever virtual show. “We have never had an official virtual exhibition,” said Ramon Cernuda, director of the gallery. The exhibit will remain true to the gallery’s focus on Colonial and contemporary Cuban art. “We are intentionally focusing on works that are priced under $25,000, so we keep it accessible,” Cernuda said. “Our masterpieces are not going to be included yet. We will have to see how the market responds to the shows.”
The Medical Response
Central to the containment of the COVID-19 outbreak in Coral Gables has been the medical response. The good news is that, thanks in large part to the early shutdown of the city, there has been nothing close to the overwhelming number of cases faced in places like New York or Boston. By and large, the medical system here – consisting of Doctors Hospital, UHealth, and Coral Gables Hospital – was well prepared for what it faced. As of late April, the number of cases were still shy of 120 in a city of 51,000 inhabitants.
- March 4 – The city issues its first bulletin on COVID-19, telling residents the virus is being monitored, but that no cases have been detected in Coral Gables. At this time, there is no threat to residents.
- March 7 – Carnaval on the Mile goes forward as planned.
- March 12 – The Mayor declares a City State of Emergency, despite no known cases in Coral Gables. This order closes the Farmers Market, The Adult Activity Center, Merrick House, the Passport facility, the Venetian Pool, Tennis centers, the Youth Center, the Granada Golf Course and all sports tournaments. Also suspended are all events requiring a special permit, all city advisory board meetings and all quasi-judicial meetings. All other city services remain open.
- March 13 – All public schools are closed. The era of virtual homeschooling begins.
- March 16 – The county orders all restaurants, bars and clubs to close their doors 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. These, plus movie theaters, must cut capacity by 50 percent to facilitate social distancing.
- March 17 – The county orders all restaurants, bars, and clubs to close, starting at 11 p.m. (takeout and delivery can continue). Also ordered closed are movie theaters, playhouses, gyms and fitness studios. Mayor sends an open letter to the residents assuring them we will survive.
- March 18 – The county bans use of all “shared” mopeds, scooters or bicycles (i.e. for rent), prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people in public parks. The city keeps the tennis centers and Granada Golf Course open. The city begins posting safe-behavior videos and CDC recommendations.
- March 19 – The county orders all parks, beaches and recreational facilities closed, along with all non-essential establishments. The list of essential services includes food, healthcare, media, fuel, banks, hardware, office supplies, cleaners, transportation, construction, and waste management.
- March 20 – The Biltmore Hotel announces that it will close. The Colonnades and Hyatt will follow.
- MARCH 21: The county adds car dealerships, funeral homes, liquor stores and firearms sales to list of essential services. The city posts hours for senior-only shopping at Publix, Walmart, Target and Whole Foods, along with lists of restaurants for takeout, and where pick-up zones are located. The county orders all hotels and motels to stop taking reservations, except for essential service providers. All marinas ordered closed.
- March 22 – First cases of COVID in Coral Gables are reported by the Florida Department of Health
- March 23 – UM student confirmed positive. UM announces it will shift to online classes, empty campus.
- March 24 – The county bans all public gatherings of more than 10 people, except for government activities and public transport. Gables remaining hotels (Colonnades, Hyatt) ordered closed.
- March 25 – The Mayor orders a “Safer at Home” emergency order, gatherings outside residences prohibited.
- March 27 – The city orders a curfew 11 p.m.-5 a.m. The Mayor addresses the city by video, guaranteeing all essential services. The county orders all essential services to practice social distancing or close.
- March 28 – The city holds its first virtual meeting, delays property tax collections.
- April 1 – All special public events for April – from the Garden Club Tour and Easter egg hunts to Movies on the Mile and electronics recycling – are cancelled.
- April 3 – COVID cases in Coral Gables cross
- April 5 – The mayor issues a special video appeal for everyone to remain calm, urges citizens to “help in ways big and small to care for each other.”
- April 17 – COVID cases in Coral Gables cross 100
“It’s been a baptism under fire, but we are doing extremely well,” said Javier Hernández-Lichtl, the CEO of Doctors Hospital, which is part of Baptist Health South Florida. Hernández-Lichtl says the hospital’s earlier experiences with emergency preparedness, especially for hurricanes, proved essential. “That has helped us be nimble, learn on the fly and adjust,” he says. The coronavirus has added new learning curves, of course. “It has forced us to embrace new ways to utilize technology more than ever before,” says Hernández-Lichtl. “On a given day I now have six to eight Zoom meetings, with everyone from the Florida Department of Health to my CEO colleagues. In between those we are adjusting to the emergencies.”
One adjustment that Baptist made was to use telemedicine in a free program called ‘Care on Demand,’ where potential patients could talk to health care providers to determine if they might have COVID and needed to go to an urgent care facility. “We’ve been shifting from face to face care to telemedicine care,” says Hernández-Lichtl. “It’s prevented a tsunami of people showing up in the ER to be tested.”
Dr. Richard Levine, an infectious disease specialist at Doctors Hospital, was part of the task force Baptist set up to coordinate its battle with the virus. “From radiology to surgery to the kitchen, this has affected every part of the system,” says Levine. “It’s all encompassing.” Levine says the hospital has tried any number of therapies for the virus; Doctors, for example, was the first hospital in South Florida to give plasma transfusions from immune people. “This is one of the most successful treatments,” he says. “Amazing results.”
Levine says Doctors has lost only two patients to the virus – a 90-year-old man and a 72-year-old woman – both from strokes caused by hypertension. “So now we are anti-coagulating people early,” he says. He credits the residents for keeping the number of cases down. “It seems the cases are definitely going down,” he said in late April. “I think the social distancing and the staying home has made a critical difference. I am proud of what the city has done in this way.” He is also humbly appreciative of his staff. “The nurses, the respiratory therapists, have done a remarkable job. This is a life-threatening infection, and they have gone in there to take care of patients. They are real heroes.”
Finding a Solution
Meanwhile, over at the University of Miami, researchers are leading the charge for both testing and vaccinations. Doctor Erin Kobetz, the director of Sylvester’s Firefighter Cancer Initiative, has been working with the county to conduct a “community surveillance” – a random testing of 800 residents to see who has previously been infected, and their geographic distribution. With assistance from Florida Power and Light, her team spent most of April testing people across the county, including at the Coral Gables Branch Library. Residents are randomly called and asked if they would like to participate.
“We are intentionally going with a random design,” said Kobetz. “If we were to open this up to volunteers… it would give us a skewed understanding of what is happening.” Once the fieldwork is complete, the results will be analyzed by the Sylvester team. “We’re looking to identify where there may be any sort of hot spots across the county,” Kobetz explained – information that can help dampen further transmission.
In a related research effort, Dr. Sylvia Daunert, chair of UM’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, is working to develop a throat swab test for the virus that can deliver results in 30 minutes. Currently the best results time for swabs is five to six hours. The test, now being fast tracked by the FDA, is based not on testing for antibodies but for the presence of the virus itself. “This should allow for much earlier detection – within a couple days of exposure – providing critical and time-sensitive information to help curb the spread of the disease,” said Dr. Daunert.
On the vaccination side of things, a research team headed by Dr. Natasa Strbo at UM’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology hopes to create a vaccine for the original and most widespread strain of COVID-19, using a technology that Strbo’s lab has developed over the last decade to vaccinate for infectious diseases like HIV, malaria, and the Zika virus. The technique uses a naturally occurring protein in our cells that can be engineered to stimulate immunity. While funding is still scarce, Strbo’s research team does have the benefit of working with an international community of doctors, virologists, and other scientists who share their findings with each other. “The whole world is one lab right now,” says Strbo.
Assuming that Coral Gables has survived the worst of the virus itself, the damage to the local economy will be huge. While most larger corporations based in the Gables have been able to continue employing their workforces by connecting to them at home, smaller businesses that rely on human interaction are not so fortunate. Some can continue via online sales – clothing boutiques – but those that require clients in person are at a dead halt.
Hair salon Phula, for example, cannot work on patron’s trusses long distance. “It is what it is, but my clients are freaking out,” says owner Milanka Placerias. When all non-essential services were ordered closed, manager Jose Casas had the unpleasant duty of calling about 200 customers and canceling each appointment. “We are prepared to withstand about two months or so of this closure, but after that I just don’t know,” said Placerias.
Blocks away, at the Gables Coin & Stamp Shop on Miracle Mile, owner Pat Olive says business is way off except for “preppers” who want precious metals as a hedge against the uncertain future. “There are a lot of people who want gold and silver coins,” says Olive. “But we have a lot fewer people coming in for collectables. It doesn’t make up for it.”
“Our very existence is put into jeopardy by this,” said the owner of Books & Books, Mitchell Kaplan. All locations of the store have had to shift to relying on online sales. “We’ve had a really nice response from the community that is supporting us online,” he said. “Our online sales are probably 20 or 30 times more than they normally are.”
But while online sales bring in some revenue, it’s not enough. “I’m just trying to figure out exactly how Books & Books will emerge from this,” Kaplan said. For additional revenue, patrons can buy gift cards on their website, bookandbooks.com, or make a donation. Some of Kaplan’s marketing team is still working to put on their signature live author events, but like many businesses, Books & Books had to furlough a majority of the staff. “[My employees] are people that I really worry about,” Kaplan said. “These are people that really rely on us.”
Not all small retail businesses have been hurt. At Belle Fleur on Alcazar Avenue, the bouquet business is doing just fine, says owner Mario Fernandez. “We are keeping busy,” he says. “People are still celebrating birthdays and sending flowers. And flowers do make you happy, something we need right now.” Fernandez says the best part of the shutdown is that there is no traffic, so deliveries are a breeze.
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Pop Up Groceries: Farm to Table Relief
Having come from a background in commodities, Nick Sharp understands food supply. And he knew that with the pandemic closing restaurants, hotels and cruise lines, a lot of local food would suddenly become available. He also understood there was no mechanism to make it available locally, since the system is built for bulk. “All of a sudden demand disappeared, so there was a huge amount of product available at low prices,” said the owner of Threefold Cafe and Someone’s Son. Local farmers had nowhere to sell perishable products like lettuce, tomatoes, yogurt and butter. So he started to buy in bulk, and created pop-up groceries where he could sell “restaurant quality food at affordable prices.”
Sharp started with a purchase of 20,000 eggs and sold them all; within three weeks he had sold 50,000. By mid-April, he was selling 100 to 120 “Express Grocery Baskets” a day for pickup or free delivery, at prices ranging from $25 to $150 – baskets jammed with local veggies, fruit, dairy, and meat products.“What we can’t retail we turn into family meals,” said Sharp, who has fired no employees across six locations, using staff to make deliveries. “One local farmer was making honey and butter but had nowhere to sell it. We bought all of his honey and all of his butter and now we are selling it.” Go to Threefoldcafe.com for details.
Other retailers have creatively pivoted to meet changing demand. Two Miracle Mile bridal shops, Ella Bella Rozio and Atelier D’Ocon, begun manufacturing and selling masks. Another local retailer, Cocobella, shifted her product assortment to rely heavily on hand sanitizer, soap and other “self-care” products. They also partnered with Whip ’n Dip on Sunset Drive, selling hand sanitizer alongside to-go orders.
One thriving retailer is No Boundaries on Aragon Avenue, which sells athletic gear and specializes in bicycles. With the pandemic erasing other means of recreation, bike riding in the Gables has seen a resurgence. “It’s been crazy,” says Manager Israel Rodriguez. “Everyone is interested in getting healthy right now.” Rodriguez says the store, open seven days a week, has more sales and especially more repair work. “We are fixing a lot of old bikes,” he says. Patrons with masks wait outside for their bikes to be wheeled out – or are allowed in sparingly to look at new models.
Retail success stories are the exception rather than the rule, however. Of the approximately 220 retail businesses that the downtown BID (Business Improvement District) tracks, the top category (94 counted last year) is restaurants. All were closed down, except for delivery and takeout. As a result, an estimated 2,000 employees lost their jobs, on top of more than 1,000 jobs lost when the city’s hotels – the Biltmore, the Colonnade and the Hyatt – were shut down.
Many restaurants simply closed their doors for the duration, while others shifted to a takeout model. Those who stayed open responded with different strategies. Some that were open only for dinner, like Fleming’s, began offering takeout for lunch as well. Others open for lunch and dinner, like Caffe Abbracci, offered takeout only for dinner. Most have created special takeout menus, like Ortanique’s Pandemic Pickup Menu: about half the normal number of choices, with a 15 percent discount.
Pickup methods differed as well. Some restaurants, like Yard House and Doc B.’s, have outdoor pickup, with sidewalk-facing open tables. Others, like Bugatti and Cheesecake Factory, require you to come inside – though patrons are very conspicuous about not crowding. At The Globe, owner Danny Guiteras, wearing rubber gloves and mask, brings the bag to your car window, and deftly hands it to you or places it on the passenger seat.
Wolfe’s Wine Shifts to a Delivery Model
The Adult Milkman
When the shutdown took place, Jeffrey Wolfe initially kept his Miracle Mile wine shop open, letting customers come inside on a limited basis. “But then I got nervous, following them around and spraying Clorox everywhere they touched,” he says.
Instead, Wolfe went “contact free,” taking orders via “email, phone calls, or from someone at the front door yelling out what they wanted.” He also walked customers virtually through his racks of wine, using FaceTime to peruse the bottles. And then he delivered. “I’ve got this whole thing where I have become the adult milkman,” he says. “I can do it curbside, or the over the internet and then deliver.”
Wolfe says that when the pandemic first forced people home, business went up. “In the beginning there was a hit because everyone wanted a drink. Then people came back to a sense of normality,” he says. “Now sales are down, and I am trying to get [an SBA loan] and spread out whatever I can for my obligations.”
Of those offering takeout, some have been doing a decent amount of business. Restaurants already based on a takeout model, like pizza places, continued doing steady business. At Canton Too, takeout has brought the Chinese restaurant to life, as customers seek family comfort food. The owner of Malakor Thai Isaan on Miracle Mile says he is doing about half his normal volume. Only enough to stay in business, but not enough to retain his full staff.
Down the street, Morelia Gourmet Paletas is open for business. Though they let only one customer come inside at a time for their frozen fruit bars. “Not that many people walk in, but we get a lot of delivery orders,” the counter clerk told us. “Big orders, like they’re stalking us.” Similarly, you can walk into the Haagen-Dazs store on Miracle Mile (“Grab and Go” reads the sign) or Ben and Jerry’s on Aragon and select an ice cream flavor for your cone. Just like the old days, except everyone wears a mask and no one stands close.
Generally speaking, restaurants with an established, loyal clientele have seen at least a steady, if diminished, stream of business. “We have a loyal following and that is what is getting us though now,” says Threefold’s Nick Sharp. “But we have been around for six years. I feel sorry for the places that are just getting started.”
The city is doing what it can to help retailers. The BID has been pushing online shopping and takeout food via their website shopcoralgables.com. As well as posting videos online from local retailers, says Executive Director Taciana Amador. For retailers on city property, such as Fritz & Franz, Patios & Things, Graziano’s Marketplace, and the Open Stage Club, the city manager approved a 60-day rent deferment for those who request it, on a case-by-case basis. After that, according to city Asset Manager Zeida Sardinas, “The City will work with those tenants to establish payment plans, or to extend the deferments, depending on the state of affairs.”
Whether private landlords will follow suit is another question. Stephen Bittel is the founder and chairman of Terranova Corp., which owns 11 properties on Miracle Mile. He is currently negotiating two new leases on the Mile, including one for the space being vacated by John Martin’s. Bittel says the company is working with its tenants to come up with “a thoughtful response” to the problems of each. “Our goal is to position everyone to come back. We’re expecting that probably by mid- to late-May, and by fall more robustly.”
Still, adds Bittel, “There are casualties in business every day, every year.” Indeed. According to Downtown Works, a retail consultant for the city’s economic development department, some 25 to 30 percent of retailers (including restaurants) will not be able to reopen post-crisis.
Wayne Eldred, the former owner of Tarpon Bend and now a restaurant industry consultant, has an even dimmer view of future prospects, particularly in the restaurant category. “We will probably lose 50 percent of the restaurants in the nation by year end,” he says. “If a restaurant is shut down for two months or more, it will take 15 to 25 thousand dollars for a 200-seat restaurant to get back up and running. People literally won’t be able to afford to reopen.” Eldred predicts it will take as long as three years for the hospitality industry as a whole to fully rebound.
“This has been devastating to the retail economy. It’s pretty obvious we’re all living day to day,” says Donna Abood, partner and managing director of commercial real estate company Avison Young. “One strategy is deferment, where landlords will defer portions [of rent] for a couple of months. It gives them breathing room.”
The Real Estate Fallout
For those in the business of selling real estate, COVID-19 has already taken a toll. Sales were reported down in March and were expected to fall again in April. Uncertainty about the future has caused both buyers and sellers to pause – though transactions are proceeding using virtual tools and social distancing.
“We’ve had closings where the buyers walked alone [through the property], with sellers and realtors standing outside,” said Tere Shelton Bernace, broker and co-owner of Shelton and Stewart Realtors. “And we’ve had showings where I go in first, turn on the lights, and then buyers walk around on their own. We’ve had FaceTime showings where a client might ask, ‘Can you open that door?’ so they can see something.”
At Compass, principal broker Mercedes Saewitz said, the company hit its projected sales numbers in March. But, adds, “April is a different story… Overall, the market is pretty stagnant. In the Coral Gables luxury market, there are not a lot of new listings or new contracts. What we’re seeing in Miami-Dade County is quite a bit of activity under $1 million, people searching online. But the luxury market, $2 million and up, is particularly trying. It is a time of uncertainty.”
Virtual Real Estate Sales
The technology was here before the pandemic, but it was never used to capacity, says Alirio Torrealba, CEO of MG Developer. “But this situation has forced the real estate industry to be more creative,” he says. After physical gatherings were canceled, MG used the ‘virtual room’ from ONE Sotheby’s International Division to make weekly presentations to realtors on their Althea Row, Biltmore Row, Beatrice Row and Biltmore Parc townhouse projects, all on the edge of downtown Gables.
MG also uses the Matterport Tour system that lets potential buyers take virtual tours inside their projects. Users can move through the home on a screen, like they are in a video game. Most realtors are now using this or similar technology, says Drew Kern of EWM. Kern says it may actually have advantages over real life tours. “It allows the first showing to be virtual and that lets you to weed out people who aren’t really interested,” says Kern, who also likes using FaceTime to walk potential buyers through a home. “We start at the curb and then go up the walkway. It’s literally like they are following me on the tour.” Says Torrealba: “All of this allows us to bring our properties to the clients instead of the clients to the properties.”
A classic Mercedes-Benz sits outside the classically styled Ponce development by MG Developer
Lani Kahn Drody, president of Lowell International Realty in Coral Gables, said her boutique firm is bolstering its online presence and expects more interest from residents of densely populated sections of the Northeast, attracted by Florida’s favorable tax structure, sunny weather and the prospect of more living space. “People who are looking now are really serious,” said Drody. “They have time to think about their situation.”
Rishi Kapoor, whose company Location Ventures is developing the Villa Valencia midrise, is moving forward with construction at a pace that is “100 percent on schedule.” In order to facilitate sales at what will be arguably the most luxurious condominium project in the city, Kapoor’s firm is offering to finance a 50 percent down payment on new units, interest free. “Most of our buyers own their current residences, so we are securing the loans this way,” he says. “Many of our buyers are planning a lifestyle change and I don’t see that changing… They want to move onto their next phase of life.”
Other professions, such as lawyering and accounting, have meanwhile seen little slowdown, with everyone simply going viral. In the world of law, areas such as estate planning, labor law, healthcare, business law, and insurance claims have all seen strong demand for services, and judges are continuing to hear cases, with the obvious exception of jury trials (see Law in the Time of COVID-19).
“The courts are going forward full blown, judges with their robes on in their living rooms,” says attorney and City Commissioner Jorge Fors. “Zoom has virtual backgrounds, so they look like they are in court, with their bench as the background.”
Accounting firms have likewise gone virtual. “At first we were going to use a rotation schedule,” said Ray Zomerfield, partner in the accounting firm Zomma Group. “After March 18 I looked and said, ‘There is nothing we can’t do from home.’” Like other professional firms, Zomma had no lack of work. “We are CPAs, so we have been swamped with SBA related loans, updating accounting records and documents for the banks… We have not laid off anyone.”
Bankers have also been busy, processing SBA loans for small businesses, and continuing to provide services via the internet. “The banks are all working, all my banker friends, all the analysts, everybody,” said Roberto Munoz, regional president for First Horizon Bank. “Those that can work remotely are doing so and we have reduced hours at the branches. Not a lot of walking through the lobby is necessary – a lot of it is being done by drive-thru.”
Munoz says he finds working from home to be more efficient, without the waste of commuting time. “I just get up and go to work… I’ve had lunch with my wife every day this week, well over an hour away from the office.” On the other hand, if we all remain at home, the economy will never recover. “Our economy has been built on consumerism – it’s the individual buying a meal at a restaurant and tipping the waiter. When that goes away it eliminates the ability to work in the support industry. I would like to go back to where we were, but maybe not all the way.”
Gonzalo Acevedo, who heads up personal, digital and commercial banking at BAC Florida Bank, says his firm has experienced no layoffs, and because their staff was so familiar with remote, international transactions, they had no problem transitioning to a work-at-home model. Only about one in five go to the office in the Colonnade Building on Miracle Mile.
“Seventy five percent of our business is international business, which is why our clients are so used to using our digital technology platforms,” says Acevedo. At their branch downtown, they don’t even want customers to enter the lobby. For those clients who absolutely cannot conclude their business through their ATM or drop box, BAC uses a courier between the front door and teller. Most other banks, with reduced hours, have been allowing clients in socially distanced lines to see tellers through plastic shields. All other business is virtual.
How the Chamber has stayed connected
The Dog Days of COVID
“Zoom has been around for a long time, but it was never part of our business model,” says Mark Trowbridge, Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce president and CEO. “Now we are living on Zoom.”
Since the shutdown began, the Chamber has Zoomed dozens of webinars and committee meetings, from special programs on the coronavirus to their usual gatherings, like Good Morning Coral Gables and Trow Knows CEOs. The Chamber’s annual Business and Government Affairs Committee trip to Washington, D.C. in April became a virtual meeting with members of Congress, the U.S. Chamber and the SBA.
The Chamber has also added new online meetings, such as a webinar series called Industry Chats and a new Business Book Club, “a lunch & learn program.” Their monthly trustee reception in April became a Yappy Hour, inviting guests to bring their dogs. “The content was very much ‘Introduce your dog and tell us what you are drinking,’” said Trowbridge. “It was great. We had about 35 or 40 people.”
Other Chamber Zoom events have been even more popular. When renowned realtor Ron Shuffield did a talk on real estate, the system maxed out at 100 people (139 tried to join). And their webinars for small businesses are attracting 25 percent more attendance than when they were live seminars.
Generally speaking, those companies that can operate virtually are also those with few layoffs. The Allen Morris company, which is developing four real estate projects in Florida and Georgia, has had to layoff less than a half dozen people company-wide – and has gone virtual with everyone else except the construction workers.
Morris himself has been working from his Gables home, where he is self-isolating with his wife, two daughters, and a new grandchild. Morris’ at-home workday is jammed with online meetings with development, management, marketing and executive teams, “with eight to 12 to 15 people on each call,” he says. “I am parking in front of my computer screen at home for about 10 hours a day… When you work in quarantine with back-to-back meetings on Zoom, there is no break to go out to a restaurant or chat along the way. It’s all intense and exhausting.”
Financial services is another sector that has initially been immune from job loss, thanks to the power of online technology. “We are lucky that we are in one of those professions that can continue to operate remotely,” says David Evensky, CEO of wealth management firm Evensky &Katz/Foldes. “Our clients are happy about that because many of them are elderly. I think they are appreciative that we can reach them in their living rooms.”
Evensky’s firm, with $2 billion under management, has had to work closely with clients who have seen their assets take a hit from the gyrating stock market. “A lot of this is holding the hands of our clients, because the global economy will recover,” he says. “I have been through this in the Great Recession and the internet bubble. History shows that the stock market has a 100 percent recovery rate.”
In order to ride out the market swings, he says, “The key is having a balancing plan in place” – and to be able to take advantage of “sectors of opportunity,” such as undervalued stocks and tax law breaks. Among other things, Evensky’s firm carved out a year’s worth of cash flow for clients who are retirees, so that income would not be disturbed during the pandemic.
Multinational companies in the Gables have likewise gone virtual and generally not slashed staffs, especially those in the categories of supply chain, food and beverages. At Bacardi’s headquarters on Le Jeune Road, none of the 600 employees (300 in the office, 300 in the field) have been let go, says North American CEO Pete Carr, though almost all have gone remote. “We shut down the office shortly after March 13,” says Carr, an easy transition because the firm was already adept at using mobile workforce platforms. “We allow people to work from home anyway on an as-needed basis,” says Carr. “Sometimes you get a lot more done at home.”
Likewise, Coral Gables-based Logistics International has had no layoffs, and no cases of the virus, says CEO Chip Withers. His management team is all working remotely, with only two people in their main warehouse. Among other things, his teams – with offices in Tampa, Las Vegas, Nashville and Hong Kong – have been busier than ever helping shut down hospitality facilities, which will all have to be opened up again.
The most interesting question, says Withers, is what technological or social changes will emerge from what he sees as a war time situation – in the way that radar and atomic energy came from WWII. “There has to be some kind of advancement coming out of this – virtual learning, networking online,” he says. “The innovation that will come from this is going to move us forward. And if nothing else, we will be a healthier nation.”
“We are starting to see our retailers and the business community adapt, but we will always need formal office space. Humans have a need for interaction, a physical presence,” says Barbara Tria, principal and broker, Coral Pine Real Estate, and vice president of the BID. “Still, people working from home now shows that you can be effective outside the office. Businesses have invested in technology to allow their workforce to work from home, and they are not going to abandon that technology.”
And Now To Start Things Up Again
Regardless of how our business communication habits change, what has become clear in the rubble of the coronavirus is that the small business community has been hurt the most. And that is what will ripple through everything else.
“The biggest cross section of our membership [1,600 firms and individuals] is small and medium businesses with under 50 employees,” said Mark Trowbridge, president and CEO of the Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce. “Yes, we have members like the University of Miami, Baptist, Del Monte and American Airlines,” he says. “But I think the backbone is small business.”
The importance of that is reflected in a COVID-19 Business Assessment Survey conducted by the city’s Economic Development Department in April. Of the 158 companies responding to the survey, more than three quarters had less than 10 employees. Trowbridge is worried that up to one in four small businesses in the Gables could be lost to the present shutdown – with grave consequences for the city’s tax base. “I am concerned that many of those businesses will not be able to meet their obligations financially, and all those stores will be shuttered,” he says.
Coming up with the right plan to restart businesses in the city is going to be crucial – and it will need strong input from the business sector, even though the dance will be led by the government timetable as to what can reopen – and when. The City of Coral Gables has to accept the mandates of the county and the state, but it will also have latitude on how the opening is implemented. It can also make its regulations stricter – though never less – than those of the county and state.
The outlines of an initial plan were presented to the public at a special session of the City Commission called by Vice Mayor Vince Lago at the end of April. Lago was concerned that the commission meeting set for May 8 would be too late to set up a recovery guidance team. “The most important thing out of this task force is to make sure the business community can be heard,” he told fellow commissioners and the public.
During the meeting, the city’s Economic Development Department director Julian Perez presented an initial proposal for a Business Recovery Task Force, along with an outline of what a phased-in economic opening would look like.
The task force, which was approved by the Commission, is to be formed by May 12. It will consist of eight members, two each nominated by the Chamber and the University of Miami. One each will come from the BID, the Coral Gables Community Foundation, the city manager’s office and the city commission, and each will bring a business expertise, such as in retail or real estate. See chart below.
Business Recovery Task Force
Chamber of Commerce
Univ. of Miami
Biz Exec Real Estate
Perez presented a “best practices” model for opening the local economy which follows three phases. In the first, most retail business and restaurants open, along with personal services like hair salons, but with a lot of restrictions – such as number of people in the establishment, distancing in restaurant seating, etc. In the second phase, hotels would reopen and some of the stricter requirements for retailers, restaurants and personal services would be lifted. In phase three, the larger entertainment venues such as theaters would be open, along with bars and clubs where social distancing would have been impossible in phases one and two.
“All of this has to be done in a coordinated fashion,” said Perez, and in sync with the county. You cannot open one park unless all the parks open, he noted, so that one location is not overwhelmed. “We have to make sure it’s a balanced approach,” he said.
As for any particulars beyond those broad strokes, it will be up to the task force and input from local business leaders, including the Chamber. “At the end of the day we need a cogent, cohesive plan that people have weighed in on,” said Trowbridge, who also addressed the commission.
“We have to look at what is good for Coral Gables and what is safe for us, keeping in mind what is good for merchants and retailers,” said Mayor Valdés-Fauli. “And we have to do a thorough study, quickly, to open Coral Gables as soon as possible.”
The commission also voted to set up a testing site only for Gables residents, in a city parking lot on Le Jeune Road just south of the Shops at Merrick Park. It will initially begin testing 100 people twice a week on a priority basis – first elderly with underlying conditions, then anyone with underlying conditions, then anyone. Most pundits consider community testing essential for any opening to occur; Commissioner Michael Mena suggested the city look into offering more testing, including through private physicians. “If we are going to really open in earnest it will take a lot more testing,” he said.
The final presentation at the commission meeting outlined what was scheduled to open that week, well before any business: The city’s parks, golf courses, and tennis courts. You could almost hear a sigh of relief, even as the restrictions were enumerated: Only one person to a golf cart; only singles games in the tennis courts; only the larger parks open at first, so social distancing could be practiced. For a city suffering collective cabin fever, however, it was a welcome breath of fresh air.
Writers Mike Clary, Lizzie Wilcox, Kylie Wang and Grace Carricarte contributed to this report.