The City Starts to Reopen, Cautiously
The symmetry was perfect: The city began to really reopen on May 18, precisely two months after everything closed down on March 17. Starting on Monday, May 18, you could return to most retail outlets, albeit with masks and social distancing. While large parks, marinas, golf courses and tennis courts had reopened earlier in the month, this was the first day that people could start going into stores. It was followed two days later with the opening of restaurants, announced officially by Mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli.
The initial response to this Phase I of reopening was tentative. There was no immediate rush to go shopping; indeed, not all the stores opened the first day. But by the weekend, the city’s more popular restaurants were filling up to their new capacity of 50 percent, and masked shoppers were poking through open stores. “The restaurants [and stores] are doing an absolutely wonderful job,” said Police Chief Ed Hudak, whose department was tasked with making sure the rules were followed. “We’ve had only a handful of calls about people not distancing.” A rainy first weekend also helped dampen the rush to return.
So, how will Coral Gables do? The big test will come in the first few weeks of June, when COVID-19 cases are expected to increase. “We are probably going to have an uptick, is it inevitable,” said City Manager Peter Iglesias. “You can’t have nothing happen if you open things up again. But will it come down again.”
The city has no benchmark for how high an uptick it’s willing to tolerate before slowing things down – or continuing forward with Phase II, which will expand the opening. So far, Coral Gables has done remarkably well during the virus. As of the last week in May, cases were still below 140, with no confirmed fatalities. It remains to be seen if residents will follow the rules.
“The thing I’m most worried about is for the folks to understand that we have to do this in a responsible way,” says Iglesias. “Because we are opening doesn’t mean we don’t do social distancing or wear masks. People have to understand that we are opening under criteria that has to be followed.” If code enforcement officials see restaurants or stores violating the rules, the first step is a verbal warning, followed by a written warning. If they still flaunt the rules, the city manager has the power to pull their license to do business.
The Financial Impact
As the virus sends stocks reeling, and city income shrinks by almost $10 million, balancing the city budget becomes paramount
While the complete impact of the coronavirus on city finances is still to be determined, a stark snapshot was presented to the city commission last month by Finance Director Diana Gomez. “We anticipate reductions in revenue for the four-month period from mid-March to mid-July,” Gomez matter-of-factly told commissioners. The good news? “We believe only certain revenues will be affected in this current year,” she said. Certain large revenue streams, such as those from property taxes and business licenses, were already collected in the first quarter of the fiscal year, so they won’t be affected.
The biggest revenue shortfall will be in parking revenues, said Gomez – an 80 percent drop for a four-month loss of $4,600,000. Other hard-hit revenue streams include state revenue sharing, state sales tax, and waste management fees from businesses, all down by a third. Altogether the city faces a revenue shortfall of $9,937,000.
In order to offset that loss, Gomez outlined a city plan for a hiring freeze (excluding police, fire and communications operations), a departmental expenditure freeze, and the reduction and postponement of capital projects. Total savings: $7,575,000. That still leaves a $1.5 million gap to be covered, most likely from the city’s rainy-day banked surplus of $58 million.