As Virus Wanes in Florida, a City Battles ‘Pandemic Fatigue’


HIALEAH, Fla. — Of all the places in the country that are most vulnerable to the coronavirus, Hialeah is easy prey: a Hispanic blue-collar enclave outside Miami where households are packed, incomes are tight and work is essential.

The virus lurks in the South Florida city’s nursing homes, nestles in its densely crowded apartment buildings and multiplies among families whose breadwinners must go out each day to toil at construction sites, hospitals and factories.

Miami-Dade County has endured one of the nation’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, and on many days, no other ZIP code in the county has more new cases than downtown Hialeah. Only three cities in the state — Miami, Orlando and Jacksonville — have had more.

The Miami area has slowly begun to tame its rate of infection. But it is sometimes hard to be optimistic in Hialeah, Florida’s sixth-largest city, where prevalence has remained stubbornly high.

Paramedics have gotten sick. A father and son, both doctors who tended to local residents for decades, died. A funeral home brought in an extra cooler to store bodies, prompting worried neighbors to protest. Some hospitals in the city told ambulances at the peak of the summer surge to bypass their emergency rooms because they were too full of Covid-19 patients.

“The calls were back-to-back-to-back — at night, during the day, whenever,” said Eric Johnson, a firefighter paramedic in the city and president of the local firefighters’ union. He contracted the virus himself in March, probably at work, and then his wife got it.

“You would see a house with 11 or 12 people inside,” he said. “Many, many, many, many times you’d return to the same place for multiple patients out of the same house.”

Hialeah — pronounced hi-ah-LEE-ah — is prone to stereotypes, with its shabby motels, industrial roots and colorful history of corruption. (The sitting mayor has admitted to loan sharking and once tried to pay a $4,000 ethics fine in pennies.)

Hialeah Park, a casino and racetrack, appears as a backdrop in “The Godfather: Part II,” and the park’s flamingos were filmed for the opening credits of the TV show “Miami Vice.” A local Kentucky Fried Chicken is the only one in the country that sells flan for dessert. (It’s delicious.) The writer Jennine Capó Crucet, a city native, has said that readers outside of Florida often think that her first book, titled “How to Leave Hialeah,” is about a woman, not a place.

What Hialeah is at its core, however, is a city of families and workers, two demographics ravaged by the coronavirus.

Back in April, the city received national attention for the crush of people waiting at the public library to get applications for unemployment benefits. Now people line up in their cars — for three miles past pastel duplexes, auto repair shops and warehouses on a recent morning — to get weekly food aid at Amelia Earhart Park or San Lázaro Roman Catholic Church and Shrine.

Melissa Espinar, 26, works with her partner as a slot attendant at a Miami Gardens casino; both were temporarily laid off in March and then permanently in July. They have no health insurance.

Ms. Espinar is living off her savings and the $240 a week that she and her partner are each getting in unemployment compensation. They live in an apartment with his mother, who is self-employed cleaning houses.

“We keep telling her, ‘Don’t go,’” she said. “She’s cleaning other people’s houses, houses where we don’t know who’s sick or not. It hasn’t spared anybody.”

The swift spread of the virus through crowded apartments got so bad that elected officials began advising families to social distance among themselves and wear masks at home if any one of them had to regularly go out.

But enforcing even outdoor rules has proved difficult. When the city set up a hotline for people to report businesses violating mask and social distancing orders, some residents complained that neighbors were being asked to snitch on each other as people had been required to do years before in Communist Cuba. Hialeah, a reliably Republican city of more than 233,000, is 96 percent Hispanic and home to more Cubans and Cuban-Americans than anywhere else in the country.

“There’s been a lot of pandemic fatigue in this area,” said Dr. Jack Michel, president and chairman of Larkin Community Hospital in Hialeah. “A lot of people don’t understand that we’re going to live with this for another year — maybe longer.”

After the state shut down an assisted living facility in the city over its virus spread and big outbreak happened at a local nursing home, with 136 cases and 52 deaths, the city put together a task force and sent the Fire Department to visit each of the nearly 100 facilities in the city catering to older people, said Jesús Tundidor, a member of the City Council who leads the effort. About a fifth needed help securing protective equipment like masks and gloves.

Mr. Tundidor’s own family…



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