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Miami’s tourism industry faces its newest foe: Zika in Wynwood

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Public health officials from both sides of the pond had one message for pregnant women Monday: Don’t go to Wynwood.

But local tourism leaders are doubling efforts to make sure travelers

hear another message, too: Do come to South Florida.

That’s because South Florida, and a small area of Miami-Dade County in particular, have become ground zero for the first local outbreak of mosquito-borne illness Zika in the continental United States.

Both Public Health England and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued travel advisories Monday for pregnant women — or women who are thinking of becoming pregnant — with plans to travel to a one-square mile area of Wynwood where most cases have been detected.

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Combating Zika in Miami's Wynwood district

Miami-Dade County Mosquito Control inspectors work to combat Zika on Saturday, July 30, 2016, after four people in South Florida acquired the virus from local mosquitoes.

Marsha HalperThis email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

On Friday, state and federal health officials said four locally-acquired cases had surfaced in South Florida — two in Broward County and two in Miami-Dade in Wynwood. By Monday, the number of locally-acquired cases had climbed to 14, with the 10 new cases arising in the same area in Wynwood. Of the 14 people infected, two are women and 12 are men.

England is Miami’s No. 6 international market. Domestic travelers accounted for more than half of all Miami visitors in 2015.

The new figures prompted the CDC to issue its first-ever travel advisory within the U.S., said CDC Director Tom Frieden during a call with reporters. Together with the England advisory, the travel recommendations are the first the local tourism industry has faced because of Zika.

The alerts are aimed at two of Miami-Dade’s largest tourism markets. Domestic travelers were more than half of Miami’s 15.5 million visitors in 2015. England is the sixth-largest international source, accounting for more than 325,000 visitors in 2015.

The Greater Miami Convention &Visitors Bureau is working to quell some of the hysteria surrounding the disease, pointing out in a weekend press release that no travel advisories had yet been issued — a “reassuring sign and further evidence that travel into Miami and The Beaches remains safe.”

Pregnant women are encouraged to visit all of Miami-Dade County — except one square mile. William D. Talbert, III, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau

Even after the warnings and new cases were announced Monday, the tourism bureau stuck to its statement that the affected area remains a relatively tiny portion of the entire county.

“Pregnant women are encouraged to visit all of Miami-Dade County — except one square mile. That’s what the UK says, that’s what the CDC says,” said William D. Talbert III, president and CEO of the tourism bureau.

Public Health England’s travel warning addresses Florida, but specifically advises pregnant women traveling to the “affected” area of the state, in Wynwood, to “consider postponing non-essential travel.”

“The risk in Florida is considered moderate based on the number and spread of cases and their demonstrated ability to implement effective control measures for similar diseases such as dengue — a virus transmitted by the same mosquito,” the travel warning said.

The CDC’s advisory is specifically directed at “people living in or traveling to Wynwood,” but addresses mainly pregnant women or women who wish to become pregnant.

While I encourage all residents and visitors to continue to drain standing water and wear bug spray, FL remains safe and open for business.

— Rick Scott (@FLGovScott) August 1, 2016

So far, Miami’s tourism industry has been unaffected, according to Talbert, who said he was unaware of any group or individual cancellations due to Zika.

“This community has a long track record of dealing with these mosquitoes for years and years,” Talbert said. “[The situation] can change tomorrow, we know that, and we’ll stay engaged with everybody as this evolves.”

The Herald contacted various local hotels for comments on Zika, but all declined to comment.

Two weeks ago, a group of hoteliers and leaders from the tourism bureau and the Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association held a meeting on Zika preparedness. No additional meetings have been scheduled, Talbert said.

The first locally transmitted cases of Zika were confirmed late last week. Monday, Gov. Rick Scott called for a federal emergency response team to help Florida combat the spread of the virus. County mosquito control officials said they have been actively spraying pesticides, checking drains and dumping standing water than can breed mosquitoes in Wynwood and across Miami-Dade.

The neighborhood’s restaurants, shops and galleries remain open, according to Joseph Furst, chairman of the Wynwood Business Improvement District, and Jessica Goldman Srebnick, CEO of Goldman Properties. But Zika is already impacting some business in the area known for its street art.

I love Wynwood.... but it's just not worth the risk. Allie Hasson, a Wynwood regular who is seven-and-a-half months pregnant

Allie Hasson, who lives in Boca Raton, said she is a regular of Wynwood Art Walk’s Second Saturdays, when local businesses and galleries open their doors later.

No more, said Hasson, who is seven-and-a-half months pregnant. The virus can cause microcephaly and other neurological disorders in newborns.

“I love Wynwood.... but it's just not worth the risk,” Hasson said.

Mary Zins, who lives about three miles from Wynwood, said she doesn’t want to be at risk of transporting the virus.

“I do not often go [to Wynwood], but once the all clear is given I will try to patronize business in the area to help them recover,” Zins said.

They may well need the help. In the low summer season, when most visitors are vacationers, Wynwood —and Miami’s tourism industry as a whole — will likely feel Zika’s impact, said Miami-based hotel consultant Scott Brush.

“It’s probably going to have a measurable effect in part because the summer is more voluntary, last-minute tourism. It’s mostly leisure and is more easily postponed or changed than business travel,” Brush said. “So yes, I think there will be a measurable effect and that measure may be very small, but you don’t know. This is very early on.”

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3 ways to protect yourself from Zika

Zika outbreaks are currently happening in many countries and territories. The mosquitoes that can become infected with and spread Zika live in many parts of the world, including parts of the United States. Learn how you can protect yourself from Zika.

Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)

Miami Herald writer Emily Cochrane contributed to this article. This report also contains comments from members of the Miami Herald / WLRN Public Insight Network, publicinsightnetwork.org.