Miami-Dade commissioners convened electronically for the first time Tuesday, holding a remote meeting that served as a legislative tour of scattered corners of the county’s coronavirus crisis.
Unemployed airport workers pleaded for help with health insurance, while their former employers warned of financial ruin without relief. South Dade nurseries said the national coronavirus shutdown landed in the middle of their prime spring growing season, adding a grim multiplier to every dollar lost.
The head of Jackson hospital’s union protested planned furloughs in the middle of a health crisis, and the leader of Miami-Dade’s domestic-violence board warned of a surge of incidents amid a shuttered economy, and a dwindling supply of shelter for victims. Crops left to die amid economic ruin were targeted for a massive county feeding operation in the works to sustain people through months of unemployment.
“We have to find a way to make sure the people being laid off have a way to live,” Commissioner Barbara Jordan said on camera from her commission office, where she occasionally donned a surgical mask when staff were nearby.
This was the first commission meeting since Mayor Carlos Gimenez declared a local state of emergency over coronavirus on March 12. He issued 31 emergency decrees since, including amendments to prior orders and extensions of the original declaration. Miami-Dade’s charter requires the mayor to present emergency orders to the commission as soon as possible, and on Tuesday the board voted unanimously to ratify all of Gimenez’s directives.
“We are now in truly uncharted territory with COVID-19,” Gimenez said. “Developing these protocols was like taking off on the runway at full throttle, and we still haven’t finished building the train.”
A FIRST FOR THE MIAMI-DADE COUNTY COMMISSION: REMOTE MEETING
The agenda was a mix of new items related to coronavirus and legislation left over from past meetings and committee hearings. But if some of the issues were familiar, the format had no precedent in Miami-Dade government. Members of the public submitted emails read by a clerk, and voicemails played aloud.
“I don’t have money to pay for medicine,” Maryln Boyeros, a laid-off airport worker from Miami Gardens, said in a voicemail message submitted as part of the public comment portion of a meeting that, for the first time, had no meeting site. “I don’t have money to pay for rent.”
Boyeros said she lost her job after 15 years in the service sector at Miami International Airport. She spoke in favor of a union-backed effort to make MIA tenants pay healthcare benefits for laid-off workers in exchange for three months of rent relief worth about $65 million.
Commissioners passed the relief for airlines, shops, restaurants, rental-car companies and other MIA businesses, but the push for worker benefits was deferred to a later meeting after objections.
“How magically do you propose [businesses] like myself be able to contribute to paying health benefits when we have zero cash flow coming into my business today or for the foreseeable future,“ said Christopher Descalzo, a partner at Global Concessions, which operates Versailles and other restaurants and shops at MIA.
The commission also:
- Approved temporarily waiving a rule preventing retired county employees from coming back at their former pay grades. Citing concerns about police, paramedics and firefighters being taken off duty from coronavirus exposure, commissioners approved allowing the former employees to come back at their prior pay scales.
- Heard from Miguel DeGrandy, chairman of the county’s domestic violence oversight board. In an email, he said hotlines are already experiencing a significant increase in calls while shelters run out of space. With couples forced together in isolation at a time of surging unemployment and high anxiety, DeGrandy wrote, “the perfect storm is forming.”
- Agreed to extend an existing moratorium on cutting off county water service. The passed resolution by Commissioner Joe Martinez directed the county’s Water and Sewer Department not to end any service over late payments until 60 days after Gimenez lifts the current emergency declaration.
- Approved a resolution urging Congress to provide relief for farmers unable to sell their crops, and to approve more money to let those fruits and vegetables be used to feed the hungry. Gimenez agreed to consider a proposal by Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava to have the county purchase some crops to use as part of a planned “mass feeding” operation for the unemployed in the coming months.
- Received a report from Gimenez, who told commissioners he was not ready to match Miami Beach’s emergency order requiring customers and employees to cover their faces while in grocery stores, pharmacies and other businesses allowed to remain open during the emergency. “There are some issues there that concern me,” he said. “Our attorneys have some concerns about that face-mask issue.”
- Heard from Jackson union leader Martha Baker, who urged commissioners to oppose the announced furloughs at the tax-funded Jackson system of hospital employees not involved in critical care. While the hospital faces a financial crisis from a loss in surgical dollars and sales-tax subsidies, Baker called for Jackson to pause cost-cutting measures and instead train workers to help with a coming surge of COVID-19 patients. “We need to take this time and prepare everyone for the biggest fight of our lives,” she said.
- Approved a resolution urging Washington to ban flights from Cuba, which has already suspended U.S. flights. Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, who represents the Hialeah area, suggested the concentration of COVID-19 cases in that part of the county came from Cuba travelers but offered no evidence. “We’re seeing a spike in cases here in the north end of the county,” he said. “But my concern, quite honestly, is that many of the cases that we have here could have been generated out of Cuba,” he said.