Florida’s largest majority-black city was doing well until coronavirus
By Cleve R. Wootson Jr.
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Betty Ferguson has spent decades trying to make sure her community doesn’t suffer the same kind of economic and environmental discrimination she’s seen in too many places.
Ferguson, 75, has led successful fights against a garbage dump and a detention center. She rallied neighbors to fight for an independent county commission seat and then to vote for incorporation as the city of Miami Gardens, arguing that things would improve if residents had more control over how their tax dollars were spent.
Parks were cleaned up, businesses moved in and the city thrived. Now, Miami Gardens — the largest majority-black city in the state — is waging a fight against the novel coronavirus. The virus has disproportionately attacked black Americans regardless of where they live, how much money they make or how well they’ve galvanized their communities. For Ferguson, it is the first foe she cannot organize around.
“As bad as this virus is, it’s going to knock us even harder,” Ferguson said, recounting fights to bring health clinics into a city with high rates of diabetes and obesity, and to ensure that Miami Gardens receives adequate state and county funding. “Everything is a struggle, so it doesn’t surprise me that coronavirus is also a struggle.”
Florida’s southernmost counties — Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach — have accounted for more than half of the state’s nearly 58,000 coronavirus cases. The three counties have also been the slowest to reopen nonessential businesses, doing so in mid-May, weeks after the rest of the state.
Miami Gardens has pumped the brakes even harder as the racial disparities of the virus have incited alarm amid the clamor of neighboring municipalities wanting to reopen.
Restaurant dining rooms in Miami Gardens remain empty. Youth summer sports are delayed indefinitely. Barbers and nail technicians clad in face masks were allowed to reopen their shops just a few days ago.
The coronavirus has sickened and killed black Americans at a disproportionately high rate. A study found that the 22 percent of U.S. counties that are majority black account for nearly half of America’s coronavirus cases and almost 60 percent of deaths from covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.
“It’s an enduring trend even as covid-19 moves from coastal cities to the rural parts of the U.S.,” said Gregorio Millett, vice president of Amfar, the Foundation for Aids Research, who wrote the study. Millett released his findings before they could be peer-reviewed in part so policymakers could see the effect on black communities as they weighed reopening decisions — choices that Millett said could leave places like Miami Gardens especially vulnerable.
A recent study by the University of Miami found that residents of African American and Caribbean communities in Miami-Dade County, where Miami Gardens is located, were twice as likely to be infected with the coronavirus. The study also showed infection rates far greater than those reported by testing centers and hospitals, reinforcing fears that the disease is being spread by asymptomatic carriers, silently permeating vulnerable communities.
“It’s a shame that it’s a threat to these communities that have been able to survive on their own and to have these empowerment zones be threatened,” Millett said. “Covid-19, just like other diseases, doesn’t just affect African Americans who are poorer. We see these disparities even among African Americans who are wealthy.”
Miami-Dade County has accounted for about one-third of Florida’s coronavirus cases — the cases in Miami Gardens are part of that figure and are not broken out separately. Nearly 18 percent of residents in Miami-Dade County are black, as are nearly three-quarters of Miami Gardens residents.
Leaders in Miami Gardens, a city of modest one-story homes a 15-minute drive from downtown Miami, worry that anything more than a halting, measured reopening would cause the coronavirus to further tear through this working-class community, jeopardizing health and thwarting decades of economic gains.
The coronavirus has also disproportionately impacted jobs held and businesses owned by black people. A Washington Post-Ipsos poll conducted last month found that 16 percent of black Americans report being laid off or furloughed since the outbreak began, compared with 11 percent of whites.
Mayor Oliver Gilbert has tried to reopen his city 10 days behind the rest of the county, a buffer that will allow for amending policies should cases rise. He wants city restaurants to open at 25 percent capacity, while the rest of Miami-Dade is allowing twice that many seats. He has made videos about the threat of the coronavirus and is considering erecting billboards to educate people.
A second-term mayor and county commission candidate, Gilbert has stressed the importance of business development in the city and says small businesses have been key to its revitalization. He realizes that his cautious reopening plan will compound the economic hurt, especially because he plans to come down hard on those who violate reopening rules.
“I would still take my chances with keeping the businesses closed than risk more infections,” Gilbert said. “We can go to Tallahassee and we can go to Washington and we can work with the county to try to get more funds to help businesses, but we cannot give back a life. If I have to stand up and offer condolences to someone, I can say that we tried our best.”
‘Mistreated, ignored, dumped on’
When county officials were looking for a place to build a new Miami Dolphins stadium in the mid-1980s, they set their sights on an unincorporated section filled with mostly black neighborhoods. But nobody consulted the residents, Ferguson said. The stadium opened in 1987 and remains the dominant part of the Miami Gardens skyline.
Ferguson said the lack of consultation was a problem that had been repeated in minority communities across the country for generations. Residents paid taxes, but area parks had fallen into disrepair. When the county needed to figure out where to place unsavory and potentially disruptive projects, she said,there was little organized opposition.
“We just were a part of a system that, in our opinion, did this to minority communities all over the country,” Ferguson said. “There was a history of black communities being mistreated, ignored, dumped on. We wanted to control our own destiny.”
Community members organized. After securing a representative seat on the county commission, residents wanted to form a separate city that could use tax dollars to rejuvenate parks and create a mechanism to lure businesses. Miami Gardens was incorporated in 2003.
“It is still an African American community that has all the problems African American communities have, but we have the city, which is working to combat all those things and to promote economic development,” said Oscar Braynon (D), a state senator who represents Miami Gardens.
“For the longest time, the only sit-down restaurant was a Denny’s. We had one of them,” he said. “By the city coming into existence, it kind of makes sure it’s not just pawnshop, liquor store, pawnshop, liquor store, church.”
The parks, including the one by Ferguson’s house, are better. The city does a laptop giveaway to children graduating from local high schools.
But the progress has not stopped Miami Gardens from being the kind of community the coronavirus pounces on — a one-two punch of health conditions and socioeconomic challenges that researchers say makes the community more susceptible to its spread.
In Miami Gardens, 14.7 percent of adults have diabetes, compared with 9.2 percent across Miami-Dade County, according to the city. And 37.5 percent of Miami Gardens’ adults report being obese, compared with an average of 29.7 percent across the county.
Economic disparities are at play, too. More than 1 in 5 Miami Gardens residents live below the poverty line. The city is full of working-class people with government jobs that have long been viewed as bridges to the middle class. They did not have the ability to shelter in place when the pandemic hit, continuing to pinball around South Florida for work deemed essential as the virus spread.
“The mailman, the garbage man, the bus driver are all from Miami Gardens,” Gilbert said.
Millett said he and other researchers saw similar inequalities embedded in previous health scares.
“These systemic issues that face communities, we could have predicted this,” Millett said, citing data showing that minority communities were disproportionately affected by the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009. “None of this is new. We keep repeating a lot of the same patterns and repeating a lot of the same mistakes.”
‘We have to be willing to play safety first’
Gilbert said that if he had his way, the city would be closed for another few weeks. But he realizes he can’t bubble-wrap his community and isolate it from the rest of the world.
Many people in Miami Gardens work in other municipalities, and as other places reopen, there’s nothing stopping them from shopping or getting haircuts elsewhere.
As summer nears, critical decisions loom. Will the city allow summer camps and youth sports organizations to operate, even though they put large numbers of people in one place at one time? What about churches? And if the county sees a coronavirus spike, how will officials determine what closes again?
“We understand that if it caught a foothold in Miami Gardens, it will be substantially more dangerous for us than it would be for other cities,” Gilbert said. “And that kind of fuels our caution, that fuels our idea that we have to be willing to play safety first.”
Michael Stephens is feeling the squeeze. He has owned Top Cuttaz barbershop, in the shadow of the Miami Dolphins stadium, for the past 16 years. He scraped together enough money to pay rent during the first month of the pandemic but is depending on the good graces of his landlord for the second.
“I’ve had no money coming in and the overhead doesn’t go away,” he said.
Last week, he welcomed his first customers in more than 60 days to his reopened shop. He strapped on a face mask, then a plastic face shield, pointed a temperature gun at his customer and offered him a dollop of hand sanitizer. Only then did Stephens switch on a pair of clippers.
“My thing is I’m going to follow the rules,” he said, “even after they say we don’t have to.”