hotel rooms for the infected, ‘surge’ teams to hot spots

With coronavirus spread on the rise, Miami-Dade plans to provide free lodging for the infected

With coronavirus spread on the rise, Miami-Dade plans to provide free lodging for the infected and dispatch “surge” teams with masks and hand sanitizer to neighborhoods hardest hit by the virus.

The new steps announced by Mayor Carlos Gimenez on Wednesday followed news last week of a crackdown on businesses not enforcing existing mask rules. Police said Wednesday that its officers so far have closed fewer than a dozen establishments for COVID violations.

With more hospital beds filled with COVID cases and daily testing reports smashing through levels the county considers safe, Gimenez said he’s hoping a more localized response can slow the spread five weeks after he began lifting closure orders on the economy.

“This surge team will be going into neighborhoods and speaking to residents and businesses about the importance of wearing masks,” Gimenez said at an online press conference. “They’ll be knocking on doors.”

He said the effort would focus on five neighborhoods that are considered COVID “hot spots”: Allapattah, Brownsville and Little Havana in Miami, and Cutler Bay and Homestead in South Dade. About 100 county workers and contractors will visit those areas for a targeted education campaign on COVID precautions, and to hand out safety kits with masks, sanitizer and other supplies.

Wednesday brought more alarming news on coronavirus statistics in Miami-Dade, part of a worsening trend across Florida and in other parts of the country.

The county’s daily report on COVID tests showed 27 percent came back positive — more than double the 10 percent threshold that Miami-Dade set as a goal during the reopening process that began May 18. COVID hospitalizations also hit a new record, with 870 admitted patients countywide.

“It’s a serious situation,” Dr. Aileen Marty, an infectious disease specialist at Florida International University, said of the rising number of COVID patients in hospitals and their intensive care units.

For hotel rooms, Miami-Dade plans to offer free lodging to people who have COVID symptoms or have tested positive but don’t have a way to isolate themselves at home. That could be because their homes are too small for someone to isolate themselves. Gimenez said hotel rooms would be offered on a case-by-case basis.

The county is already paying for more than 200 hotel rooms for people who were living in homeless shelters and at risk of COVID. For now, Miami-Dade has about 100 hotel rooms to offer people with places to live but unable to socially distance, said Jennifer Moon, the deputy mayor overseeing the effort.

“We’re going to be working with the hospitals and Florida’s Department of Health so we can identify people who have no other way of being able to isolate,” Moon said. “We want to really be able to tamp down the spread of the disease. Especially [with] people who have been tested, have symptoms, but we don’t know whether or not they are positive yet. They don’t have to be in the hospital. But they really should be self-isolating.”

The Gimenez administration was under pressure to take similar steps early in the coronavirus crisis. On March 23, Daniella Levine Cava, a county commissioner running to succeed a term-limited Gimenez in 2020, wrote the mayor and asked him to identify hotels that could be used to house COVID patients “that have mild symptoms and require minimum healthcare monitoring.”

The county did secure two hotels in April, but used those rooms for residents from homeless shelters and healthcare workers. Miami-Dade also may use hotel rooms to isolate people with COVID who would otherwise evacuate to a county hurricane shelter during a storm.

At the press conference, Gimenez defended his decision not to impose a blanket requirement for wearing masks in public after the mayors of Miami and other cities announced plans for that kind of rule. The county already requires masks inside businesses, in transit vehicles and any “location” where social distancing isn’t possible.

“Does it really make sense for somebody who is walking their dog outdoors by themselves to wear a mask?” Gimenez said.

He said he would consider allowing Marlins Park to reopen under an existing order requiring customized COVID plans for large entertainment and sports venues. But Gimenez said Miami-Dade won’t be lifting its remaining closure orders until the current spike in cases recedes.

“We’re not opening bars. We’re not opening clubs,” he said. “That’s just asking for trouble.”

Herald staff writer Ana Claudia Chacin contributed to this report.

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