As the virus surged, Florida partied. Tracking the revelers has been tough.



By Patricia Mazzei


Miami’s flashy nightclubs closed in March, but the parties have raged on in the waterfront manse tucked in the lush residential neighborhood of Belle Meade Island. Revelers arrive in sports cars and ride-shares several nights a week, say neighbors who have spied professional bouncers at the door and bought earplugs to try to sleep through the thumping dance beats.


They are the sort of parties — drawing throngs of maskless strangers to rave until sunrise — that local health officials say have been a notable contributing factor to the soaring coronavirus infections in Florida, one of the most troubling infection spots in the country.


Just how many parties have been linked to COVID-19 is unclear because Florida does not make public information about confirmed disease clusters. On Belle Meade Island, neighbors fear the large numbers of people going in and out of the house parties are precisely what public health officials have warned them about.


“We have hundreds of people coming onto this island,” said Jeri Klemme-Zaiac, a nurse practitioner who has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years. “This is how this is spreading: People have no regard for anyone else.”


The city of Miami and the Miami-Dade Police Department shut down a party at the house just before midnight Wednesday, a spokesperson for the department said. Officers kicked out perhaps a hundred people, estimated Rita Lagace, who lives next door and saw the attendees reluctantly depart. She predicted the festivities would soon return: Targeting loud parties has always been a game of whack-a-mole in Miami, a city famous for its dazzling nightlife.


But the quest to end parties and other social gatherings has gained new urgency because of the exploding coronavirus in Florida, which reported more than 10,000 new cases Sunday.


The state’s contact tracers, already overwhelmed by the surging number of new cases, have found it especially difficult to track how the virus jumped from one party guest to the next because some infected people refused to divulge whom they went out with or had over to their house.


“We are starting to encounter a fair amount of pushback from younger folks when you call them up and say, ‘We want to know everyone who was at your party,’” said Dr. J. Glenn Morris Jr., director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida in Gainesville, a college town where local officials have begged students to stop partying. “There’s very much a sense of, ‘That’s none of your business.’”


The party problem is not limited to Florida. In New York, officials in Rockland County issued subpoenas to eight partygoers, all in their 20s, who had refused to answer even basic questions about a party they attended, hosted by a person who was sick. The subpoenas threatened a daily fine of up to $2,000. The eight people quickly complied.


In Miami, the city attorney plans to sue the owner of the Belle Meade Island party house next week, citing repeated “illegal activity.” Local officials have not publicly disclosed any case of the virus traced to the house, whose owner could not be reached for comment.


Florida’s cases began climbing in June, about a month after the start of the state’s economic reopening. The surge came after Memorial Day and several weeks of protests against police brutality, though public health officials had not publicly tied any outbreaks directly to the beaches or the demonstrations. Instead, they said people resuming their normal jaunts to bars, restaurants and parties had spread the virus.


The socializing that followed Florida’s rapid economic reopening has left the state reeling from the virus. The Department of Health reported more than 11,400 infections Saturday, a record. Florida cases made up 20% of all U.S. cases Thursday. Patients with COVID-19 have begun to fill up Florida hospital wards, forcing some hospitals to scrap elective surgeries, as they did early on in the pandemic. More than 3,600 people have died, including an 11-year-old boy.


Desperate local officials have adopted local mask requirements and closed the beaches over the long holiday weekend. Some communities were deploying teams to go door-to-door in the hardest hit neighborhoods, distributing masks, hand sanitizers and flyers with information on coronavirus symptoms and testing.


Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, insisted there would be no new shutdown, but a piecemeal rollback is still underway: The state banned drinking at bars. Miami-Dade County ordered entertainment venues to close again and imposed a curfew “If everyone is enjoying life but doing it responsibly, we’re going to be fine,” DeSantis said Thursday in Tampa after a visit from Vice President Mike Pence.


The Florida Department of Health has about 1,600 students, epidemiologists and other staff doing contact tracing, and it has hired a contractor to bring on 600 more people, for a total of 2,200. That is about a third of the roughly 6,400 tracers that will be needed to meet the target of 30 tracers per 100,000 people recommended by the National Association of County and City Health Officials.


With so much community spread, trying to trace the contacts of every positive case becomes unrealistic, several public health officials said.


“We may have to change the priorities on tracing as the numbers continue to increase, because at some point it is like drinking out of a fire hose,” said Raul Pino, the health department officer in Orlando.