Miami police officer James Bernat, left, hands a can of insect repellent to Barbara Betancourt and her baby Daniel Louis Valdes, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016 in the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami. Image: Lynne Sladky/AP

Zika Is Driving Miami Into Debt

There are 571 cases of Zika in Florida, and Congress has spent $0 on curbing the virus so far.

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Sep 12 2016, 5:03pm

Miami police officer James Bernat, left, hands a can of insect repellent to Barbara Betancourt and her baby Daniel Louis Valdes, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016 in the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami. Image: Lynne Sladky/AP

About two hours north of Miami, I covered myself in DEET bug spray—sour smelling and sticky. As I got into my car, an elderly man walking by called out. "You're safe here. We don't have them up here," he said.

"I'm going to Miami today," I said and sprayed the back of my neck.

"Oh, don't go there," he said.

"It's okay," I laughed. "It's not like I'm pregnant."

"Don't go there," he repeated.

The fear of Zika is prevalent here in South Florida, home to most of the state's 43 locally transmitted cases, and 571 cases overall. And Miami—especially the artistic and creative haven of Wynwood—with its outdoor brunch patios and constant misting of sun showers, is paradise for the mosquito-borne Zika virus.

By the time I visited Wynwood, daily pesticide and larvicide spraying from planes, trucks, and hand sprayers had wiped out most traces of the bugs. But walking down the sidewalks two weeks ago, I saw just two other people walking around the usually bustling neighborhood.

Wynwood, Miami. Image: Meredith Rutland Bauer

The fear hanging over Miami is not just about cases cropping up on the coastline. After a seven-week recess, Congress hasn't signed off on a $1.1 billion bill to curb the virus. Florida's Governor Rick Scott said he has freed up $26 million for Zika efforts, though he has a track record of cutting mosquito control programs in the past. And Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez warned the county commission on Thursday that Zika-related costs are expected to balloon to $10 million more than budgeted.

With the virus threatening both the local families and the state's economy, Florida is trying to keep its head above water with emergency funds and locally sustained budgets. But with Zika taking its toll on local businesses and tourism, the state's accounts continue to dwindle as more cases are reported.

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Zika's route to Florida has had a couple of detours. Aedes aegypti, the main mosquito that carries the virus, has actually been in the US since the 1600s, when it was thought to have arrived on slave trade ships, said Roxanne Connelly, University of Florida entomology professor and entomology specialist for a statewide agricultural network.

But Zika, the mosquito's newest threat, was mostly prevalent for decades in tropical regions of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands and was discovered in the 1940s, according to the CDC. Then it made the fated voyage to Brazil in 2015.

Signs in Wynwood, Florida. Image: Meredith Rutland Bauer

Miami is also a hub for travelers going to Zika-threatened countries. Flights between South and Central America connect daily at the Miami International Airport. And cruise ships chauffeur tourists to Caribbean islands affected by the virus via Port Miami. Now the CDC has warned pregnant women not to travel to South Florida. Which makes the people who have to live here very nervous.

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Florida's mosquito control efforts existed before people heard the word Zika, but despite his recent actions, Gov. Rick Scott actually slashed mosquito efforts by 40 percent back in 2011, according to a Politico report, which didn't help when the virus hit the state this year. Most mosquito control districts in Florida have run on local dollars, specifically through property taxes, and many are completely independent from the city and county governments of their municipalities.

In the southern part of the state, Collier County Mosquito Control District has allocated special taxes to keep Naples' beaches and neighborhoods mosquito-free. As of September 2015, they had 25 full-time employees, eight aircraft and 16 vehicles and had $6.3 million in revenue (97.8 percent of which came from a local tax). Similarly, Lee County's mosquito control budget last year was $23.4 million, with a staff of more than 80 employees, according to the district's 2014-15 finalized budget. And the Keys Mosquito Control District, funded through property taxes, has a budget of $10 million a year, spokeswoman Beth Ranson said.

But Miami's mosquito control district is run through Miami-Dade County under the waste management department, and their funding pales in comparison to it's neighbors at $1.8 million a year, according to the Miami Herald. A review of Miami-Dade County's employee salaries by Motherboard revealed 19 people work in mosquito control currently, and 13 worked there a year ago.

Miami-Dade mosquito control inspector Yasser "Jazz" Compagines sprays a chemical mist into a storm drain, as a tour vessel passes by at left, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016, in Miami Beach, Fla. Image: Alan Diaz/AP

The Miami-Dade Mosquito Control District did not respond to interview requests. But experts confirmed there were not nearly enough trained people in the area to combat a threat like Zika.

"They may have seven or eight people who are staffed to go into the field," Connelly said. "The first place we all said [Zika would show up] was Miami because we know there are Aedes aegypti. There are places in Miami where it's the only mosquito."

Mosquito control efforts come with their own complications. There's fear about Zika in Florida, but also fear about the health effects of pesticides used to kill Zika, and fears about releasing genetically modified mosquitoes made by Oxitec, a United Kingdom-based company, in the Florida Keys. Opponents to using the mosquitoes state there could be unforeseen consequences to using the modified bugs.

At the moment, no altered mosquitoes have been released in the US (the way they work is they mate with the Aedes aegypti females, and a specific trait makes mosquito babies die soon after hatching) and mosquito control districts are careful to access the human impact of pesticides before spraying, Ranson said.

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Amid Miami's palpable anxiety, Wynwood's small businesses were hit the hardest. Wynwood was the first neighborhood where Zika started spreading, and locals fought to normalize the area once intensive spraying began.

Zak Stern, owner of Wynwood bakery Zak the Baker, said he was determined to keep business operating as usual.He spoke against the air of fear, urging people to educate themselves on the virus and the likelihood of impact. Stern and his wife are expecting their second child next month. He said she and the baby are healthy, and they're staying put.

"I think Zika has real consequences. What I'm trying to point out is the absurdity to the reaction, the overreaction and the fear and the panic that's being stirred up," he said, citing an overabundance of media attention on microcephaly, a birth defect that causes a baby's head to be abnormally small. "It's hard to see the reaction as justified."

Stern set up a comical stand outside his shop the week CDC investigators came to town the first week of August. His "shrine" to Zika included candles, a picture of himself as a child, a half-slice of grapefruit and a sign that said "Go away, Zika!"

Stern's Zika "shrine". Courtesy: Zak Stern

Unlike nearby businesses, he said business is finally back to normal. And customers in the 10-person deep line for the store's challah (only sold on Fridays) said Zika wasn't going to keep them from Stern's breads and pastries. A customer, Devori Katz, waited for a loaf of challah. She joked that Zak the Baker is so popular that the need to get a loaf of bread "transcends" any concerns about Zika.

A few blocks away, a waitress at Della Test Kitchen brings smoothies and rice bowls to a handful of customers in the middle of the lunch rush. Free bug spray sits next to the door to the kitchen.

"I remember going to happy hour when all this started happening, and like no one was there," said Brooke Baum, member services coordinator for Wynwood-based coworking space The Lab Miami. "It was sad."

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As Congress fights over whether, and how, to send federal aid, Miami-Dade's budget is quickly depleting. If the city, and surrounding areas, have to keep spraying—which they will, Mayor Carlos Giminez said—and if tourists stay away from hotels and locals stay away from restaurants, Miami is going to suffer.

And since these mosquitoes are masters of survival, the nation has its shot now to squash Zika while it's isolated—or pay the price when it spreads.

Editor's Note: This is the second of two stories about Florida's attempt to control the Zika virus. The first one was published last Friday.