HEALTH

Miami Beach business owners now worried about new threat, Zika-induced hysteria

  • Signs on the streets of Miami Beach.

    Signs on the streets of Miami Beach.  (2009 Getty Images)

  • Miami business owner Horacio Rivero.

    Miami business owner Horacio Rivero.  (Francisco Alvarado/FOXNEWSLATINO.COM)

For 48 years, the restaurant Puerto Sagua has been serving up Cuban cuisine in an art deco building on the corner of Seventh Street and Ocean Drive in the South Beach area of Miami Beach. Owner Horacio Rivero has lived through hurricanes, economic recessions and redevelopment waves. Now, he faces a new threat: Zika-induced hysteria.

"I've heard a lot about it," Rivero told Fox News Latino about the Zika virus. "It could make the slow summer season even slower."

Gov. Rick Scott confirmed on Friday five new cases transmitted locally by mosquitoes in an area less than 1.5 square miles in Miami Beach, and the area's business owners like Rivero say they are worried that reports of a second active transmission area in Miami-Dade County, this time in the region's most popular destination, South Beach, will cause tourists to vacation elsewhere. 

To date, Florida has 36 cases of locally-transmitted Zika, which is typically spread by mosquitoes but can also by passed through sexual contact. More than two dozen cases were clustered in a one-square-mile area north of downtown that includes another tourist hotspot, the art district of Wynwood.

In recent weeks, business owners and developers in Wynwood have voiced complaints that relentless media coverage and inaction by the governor's office has led to a significant slide in visitors to the trendy neighborhood's art galleries, shops, restaurants and bars.

"During the first two weeks of this crisis, business has been down 50 to 60 percent," said Wynwood Business Improvement District chairman Joe Furst, following a press conference by Scott. "People are coming back, but there are definitely economic damages and economic losses."

In Puerto Rico, which has more than 1,170 confirmed cases of Zika virus, the most of any region of the U.S., tourism officials blame concerns about the virus for the cancellation of at least 42,000 hotel reservations through 2018, a Major League Baseball series between the Miami Marlins and the Pittsburgh Pirates as well as conference for the California-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

Now Miami Beach merchants are concerned the same will happen there if health officials can't control the outbreak. 

Soli Morgan, the owner of a liquor store and a souvenir shop on Sixth Street and Collins Avenue, said he's worried about losing a significant amount of business due to Zika fears. "On a scale from 1 to 10, my concern rate is 10," Morgan told FNL. "If more cases come up and the media keeps talking about it, it will hurt tourism."

At a press conference at the Miami office of the Florida Department of Health, Gov. Scott said his administration has been working to ensure that stores and restaurants in Wynwood "have everything they need to continue doing business."

He said the same process will begin in Miami Beach. 

"Tourism is a driving force of our economy," the governor said. "And this industry has the full support of the state in this fight against this Zika virus."

Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Grieco said city officials' primary concern is protecting the health and well-being of residents and visitors. 

"Tourism is our No. 1 industry," Greico said. "We will do everything to protect the golden goose. But obviously the residents come first."

However, on Miami Beach’s most famous street, Ocean Drive, visitors and workers had a different view. Hector Paz, a valet at one of the neighborhood's numerous art deco hotels, believes tourists won't stop coming to Miami Beach because of Zika fears.

“Last summer, there was a warning about a virus that people could catch from being in the water,” he said. “People still came.”

Fernando Gonzalez, an Argentinean on vacation with his wife, told FNL that tourists from South America will keep coming to Miami Beach. 

“Zika is all over South America,” he said. “It’s part of life now. You just take the necessary precautions.”

Francisco Alvarado is a freelance journalist in South Florida.

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