How Is the Zika Virus Affecting Restaurants in Wynwood?

Zika. Is this mosquito-borne virus a mere buzzword rampaging the news, or it is actually sucking the life out of businesses in South Florida? Wynwood, a neighborhood in Miami famous for its rich culture, one that is as colorful and diverse as the art, music, fashion, and flavorful cuisine visitors can find in its streets, has become what The New York Times calls the "Ground Zero for the Zika Virus."

While the virus was discovered decades ago and was found to be primarily spread by mosquito bites that occurred during international travel, with pregnant women able to pass the infection and the serious fetal brain defects that come with it onto their unborn children, Zika's sudden resurgence on media outlets has valid cause for alarm — the cases identified in late July were locally-transmitted. From Palm Beach County to Miami-Dade County, the total number tallies up to 21 people newly diagnosed with the virus. Of those, the Florida Health Department announced that 18 were documented in Wynwood. As a result, the CDC released an advisory warning, urging travelers in and out of the redlined, no-go zone to take precaution.

This less than one-square-mile district, normally crammed with creativity, is now the hotbed of active transmissions. And Wynwood's hot restaurant scene, the bloodline of the community, is now running dry. Prominent outdoor concepts, such as The Wynwood Yard, and the Miami Culinary Tours, which guide guests as they explore restaurants and art galleries around the city, are indefinitely closed for business. Still, there are others that are saying that it's all business as usual.

So, which is it? Is this active virus warning hitting South Florida tourism and the restaurant industry hard? Or are guests disregarding this issue with a simple swat of their hands? Foodable took to the streets of Wynwood (armed with a whole 'lotta repellent spray) to see how consumers and operators are trying to avoid bugging out.

What Did Restaurant Operators Have to Say?

"For me, in the beginning, it was normal. Business as usual. And then it actually hit us. Obviously, our numbers are down. We're about 35 to 38 percent down in our numbers," Jimmy Carey, owner of Jimmy'z Kitchen, said. "So, we've actually had to cut down major amounts of hours...and actually putting employees on call just to feel out what exactly is going on because we don't know what to expect."

This hesitation and uncertainty is a common thread among local businesses in the time that the Zika virus has garnered more attention. Along with The Wynwood Yard, renowned art hub Gallery 212 has temporarily shut its doors. Laguintas Brewing Company in California, which hosts a Beer Circus in several cities around the nation, canceled its tour to Miami in response to the outbreak.

"With the Centers for Disease Control warning that anyone traveling to the Wynwood area would be put in a health-compromising situation, we do not feel that continuing with our first-ever Miami Circus on August 27th appropriate. We value the well-being of our employees, local partners, and general public above all else," Laguintas Brewing Company Director of Communications Karen Hamilton stated.

The Lost and Found Saloon is struggling to stay afloat amid the Zika scare, as well. Owner Ken Bercel told The Miami Herald that the craft bar is pulling money out of its savings, banks, and lenders, all adding to a $15,000 loan, just to keep doors open after customers stopped showing up.

R House Wynwood restaurant knows that feeling all-too-well, considering that in the course of one weekend, they received calls for 50 cancellations from large parties. But owner Rocco Carulli is determined to squash this Zika scare.

"We're still here. Everybody in Wynwood is still here. It's the most unique place in Miami to come to. Some of the best food, some of the best art, some of the  best music is right here in this one-square-mile place," he said.

Sven Vogtland, the owner of Coyo Taco, agreed.

"We do feel that it has been hyped up and blown a little bit out of proportion," Vogtland said, also noting the city has issued a spray across a 10-mile radius and even saying that his business has taken a proactive approach by providing bug spray for all of their guests and employees.

"If you really look at it, Wynwood is the safest place in Miami right now after all the spraying and cleaning," he said. 

Is the Zika Scare Here to Stay?

Is the Zika scare here to stay? And regardless if the answer is yes or no, how are restaurant owners keeping their businesses alive — and their guests safe?

"It's going to little by little dissipate until the next news is out," Carey predicted.

His restaurant, along with Coyo Taco and R House Wynwood, have an arsenal of insect repellent, zappers, and wipes at hand for their diners until the warning dies down.

And what other best practices are more of Wynwood's restaurateurs adding to their day-to-day strategies? Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog of gastroPod, who closes down his outdoor site every summer due to hot temperatures, regularly visits his venue to make sure there is no standing water present, which is a precaution restaurant owners in the area should take to reduce the likelihood of attracting mosquitoes. Although his business is closed until the season is over, Bullfrog urges consumers not to buy into the Zika scare and to support local businesses.

Despite the Zika warning, there are still consumers who cannot resist the hip, funky pull of Wynwood and continue to flock to its streets.

"So, I bought some mosquito spray. I haven't been using it as often as I should, but no, it hasn't stopped me from coming out," one woman featured in the video told Foodable.

Jessica Goldman Srebnick, CEO of Goldman Properties and owner of Wynwood Kitchen & Bar and Joey's, only had one thing to say.

"Wynwood is an extraordinary community, one of hope, creativity, and perseverance. The issue of Zika concerns everyone, not just those of us in Wynwood, Midtown, and the Design District, but in all parts of the world. In times of concern, we must come together to support one another. We ask that the South Florida community, both private and public, show their support however they can," she said. "There is a quote that my Dad, Tony Goldman, lived by: 'Never give into fear.' In Wynwood, we are fearless — and open for business."