How the Zika Frenzy Is Hurting Miami's Restaurant Industry
“We got through the face-eating zombie on bath salts, we got through Elian Gonzalez, we’ll get through this.”
Photo via Flickr user arcticpenguin
When I was growing up in Miami, Wynwood was one of those places you sure as hell didn't want to drive through at night. Abandoned warehouses lined the desolate streets of a once-thriving neighborhood that had been known as Little San Juan, but had long since degenerated into a shell of a neighborhood by the 1980s. But sometime in the aughts, Wynwood began to transform into the epicenter of all things in vogue. Globetrotting graffiti artists arrived every year for Art Basel and plastered the warehouse walls with mind-numbing color; hipster-owned restaurants that took a page from those in Williamsburg and Silver Lake opened; and international galleries with haughty galleristas decamped.
But now, Wynwood has taken a turn for the unexpected: The media has dubbed it ground zero for the Zika virus in the US.
The virus, which is carried by daytime-active Aedes mosquitoes, has been diagnosed in several cases in the one-square-mile area that is Wynwood—the first and, as yet, only place where active, non-travel-related Zika transmissions are taking place in mainland America. Miami now reports that 22 people have contracted the virus locally and, according to a statement on Tuesday made by Governor Rick Scott, four new cases have been attributed to mosquito-bite transmission in Wynwood.
The fear of the Zika virus, of course, is rooted in the fact that it has been tied to microcephaly and other birth defects in children born to infected mothers. Therefore, women who are pregnant, and those who wish to get pregnant in the foreseeable future—and their partners (because the virus can be transmitted sexually)—should probably act accordingly. That's an absurdly tiny slice of the population, hardly indicative of the general community. For pretty much everyone else, being infected by a Zika-bearing mosquito will probably result in symptoms, if any, that are more benign than those that come with the average cold.
Needless to say, the vast majority of businesses in Wynwood are facing an unprecedented problem with little-to-no end in sight. That's even more so the case for restaurants, which obviously live and die by on-location sales. Some restaurants and food purveyors voluntarily closed for several days after the CDC travel advisory to pregnant women and their partners was issued earlier this month, and most had their employees tested. Miami Culinary Tours cancelled its twice-a-day weekend tours. Lagunitas Brewing of California was supposed to hold its Beer Circus in Miami for the first time; it ended up canceling. Now Miami-Dade County has begun spraying a ten-mile area around Wynwood with a pesticide called naled, which is banned in the European Union; ironically, it has been linked to harmful complications in fetuses in several studies.
National and local media outlets are heavy-handedly broadcasting from Wynwood as if the very sky were imploding upon itself in a biblical deluge of brimstone and unsupervised toddlers. Hell, let's throw some flaming chainsaws in there just to be safe.
To get a better handle on how the torrent of fear was affecting the food industry and adjacent businesses in the Wynwood area, I reached out to Goldman Properties, which owns, among other local businesses, Joey's, one of the oldest restaurants in Wynwood. Jessica Goldman-Srebnick, CEO of Goldman Properties—whose father, Tony, helped develop New York's SoHo and then was a pioneer in the gentrification and revitalization of Wynwood—said the restaurants and businesses of Wynwood were hanging tough.
"The Zika issues concerns everyone, not just those of us in Wynwood, Midtown, and the Design District, but in all parts of the world," Goldman-Srebnick said. That's a pretty damn good point, because we're almost positive that a mosquito isn't going to somehow abide by a human construct like a neighborhood boundary, let alone sequester itself in one. In any event, she continued in what could be a mantra for all the restaurants in the neighborhood: "We ask that the South Florida community, both private and public, show their support however they can. There is a quote that my dad, Tony Goldman, lived by: 'Never give in to fear.' In Wynwood we are FEARLESS and open for business."
Right near Joey's, smack in the center of Wynwood, sits The Wynwood Yard, which bills itself as a "hub of food and culture." The Yard voluntarily closed for a few days, but re-opened on Wednesday. A representative said that employees submitted to voluntary Zika tests; according to an internal account based on the employee's self-disclosure, two employees tested positive. Still, Roxana Rauseo, the bar manager at the Yard told us, "Our customers aren't very worried. I think everyone is sick and tired of the 'Zika' word. Customers are more interested in how we are going to recover and make this place more amazing. We just need to make sure that the media or anybody else is not making people scared to come here."
Some of Wynwood's finest restaurants have also been feeling the pain. Brian Nasajon, the chef and owner of Beaker & Gray, said, "We've all been hit hard. Every day I turn on the TV hoping that the media has moved on to their next subject, but no such luck. We're taking precautions, have educated our staff, and we wish that the media could get the word out that it's safe for most people to be here."
The enormity of the impact on local businesses is beginning to sink in. Miamians are pretty tough given the hurricanes they deal with frequently, and business is not always easy there, what with the seasonality of tourism. But it's pretty common knowledge that restaurants everywhere work on notoriously narrow profit margins—to lose business for one week is outright devastating. But more than that could simply mean the end. As Nasajon pointed out, "Most of our neighboring restaurants and businesses in general, are small, family-owned, and operated. This is our livelihood, how we feed our families and support ourselves and our staff. The longer this is an issue, the worse it will get."
Given that Wynwood is home to some of the most boundary-pushing restaurants in Miami, including Brad Kilgore's Alter and Michael Lewis's Kyu, the issue has far-reaching effects on the local food scene.
Zak Stern of Zak the Baker, the very definition of a Miami innovator, has taken to social media to express his exasperation with Zika. His bakery and café produces arguably the best bread in Miami and helped establish a love for long fermentation in a city largely unfamiliar with European-style baking. His Instagram shows that although he's certainly keeping his sense of humor about it, he's intent on pointing out that there are only "20 Zika cases out of 2.7 million people in Miami, that's .0007%." A few more cases has been reported since his post.
Zak told me that the media frenzy has been the worst of the area's troubles. "With all due respect to the realities of Zika, It's hard not to point out the absurdity in the overreaction to the very predictable arrival of Zika in Miami. We've got a media orgy in Wynwood probing our skyline with their phallic antennae, and I'm simply asking, 'Is this really necessary?'"
Sure, business has slowed down, Zak says, but the man is intent on keeping up his own spirits and those of the people who work for him. He said, "After a few days of intense media coverage and slow business I felt helpless and cynical. The press circus was unstoppable, federal government was cautiously vague, state government immediately politicized things, and local government contained the neighborhood by drawing a red box around Wynwood; we were left to fend for ourselves." Zak posted an image on Instagram of his team mischievously warding off Zika with a shrine of sage sticks, crystals, oils, and incense placed right outside the bakery doors. "I think most people enjoyed the whimsy," he said.
Another local restaurateur—who wished to remain nameless simply on the basis of not wanting his name associated with Zika—agrees. That restaurant owner told me that the media coverage was what is killing off business. Still, he wants the world to know that, "We are not scared, our staff is great and our regulars still come every day."
In the end, though, Miamians are accustomed to strange wildlife problems and weird events of the natural and man-made ilk. As Zak puts it, "We got through the face-eating zombie on bath salts, we got through Elian Gonzalez, we'll get through this."
Comments have be edited and condensed for clarity and length.