MIAMI — 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.
Governments can force restaurants and bars to scale back or close, but it is harder to tackle house parties — or even define them in a way that would grant officials jurisdiction.
“What’s a house party?” Mayor Carlos Gimenez of Miami-Dade County said this week. “It’s very hard to control,” he said, unless unlawful commercial activities in residences, like cover charges, are involved.
Some of the parties have involved inviting friends of friends — and even random people — on social media, making attendees challenging to trace.
The contact tracing effort was intended to be comprehensive. Human nature, however, has made it frustratingly narrow, its limitations amplified in Florida by the state’s failure to hire sufficient contact tracers, test everyone who has shared close quarters with infected people and isolate all of those who test positive, experts say.
“Contact tracing and testing is a tool for action, and that’s not the way we’ve been using it in the United States, for the most part,” said Dr. Aileen M. Marty, an infectious disease professor at Florida International University. “When you do it right, testing and contact tracing can eliminate the virus from the community.”
“We failed to act,” she said.
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.
He has traced some contacts himself and found that many of the cases emerged from people going out to dinner and parties.
“What we have found is young individuals who went out in a group,” he said. “They later learned that someone in that group was positive.”
Dalton Price, a recent college graduate who has been hired to do contact tracing in Daytona Beach, said he and the other tracers used to have a handful of new cases to call each day. Now they have more than a hundred, which has shortened each interview to perhaps 10-20 minutes from 30-45 minutes, he said. They must also spend time calling people being monitored for their exposure, who get called periodically to make sure they have not developed symptoms.
“It’s kind of overwhelming,” said Price, 22. “We’ve started doing a more expedited case investigation so if the person’s symptoms aren’t super severe, we will just get a general idea of where they’ve been, but we won’t necessarily monitor all their contacts. We just say to them if they could call them and tell them to self-quarantine.”
Officials in Miami-Dade, which recorded more than 1,600 cases Thursday, wanted to pay for additional contact tracers to work locally. But because they must be hired by the state, the county has been unable to grow the contact tracing force on its own.
Instead, the county assembled teams of county employees and sent them to neighborhoods with the highest concentration of cases: less affluent communities full of essential workers living in small, often multigenerational homes. They carried blue tote bags each containing a reusable mask, bottles of hand sanitizer and informational pamphlets.
Wearing masks, gloves and face shields, crews of workers fanned across Miami’s Allapattah neighborhood on a recent scorching morning and began knocking on doors.
“After three months?” one man said, chiding the team for not having come by earlier in the pandemic. “I’d be dead by now!”
Most people, however, were grateful. Narcisa Jirón, 67, hustled from her second-floor apartment into the courtyard to get her bag and later asked for a second mask.
“I need this like I need water,” she said.
“They have to lock everything down now,” said Tomás Trujillo, 47. “Because this is just too much.”