Early Morning View of Miami Bayfront Skyline

Antoine Delgado wasn’t all that nervous about Hurricane Matthew. Hurricanes come with the territory when running a restaurant in Miami. But what came after did worry the owner of Brasserie Azur and Villa Azur in Miami: Zika.

It was last summer and the Zika scare was swarming Miami. The epicenter was the hipster Wynwood Arts district – just a mile away from Delgado’s Midtown eatery. Diners stayed in rather than brave the mosquitos and potential of infection. Sales took a nosedive. Then it got even more personal — one of Delgado’s employees became infected.

“It was scary,” said Delgado. “There was a steep, extreme decline in revenue which lasted two to three months. People didn’t know if it was under control, people didn’t understand it. None of our staff panicked. We were half full, feeling the sting of it.”

“We just hoped the city was spraying enough to kill all the mosquitos which they were,” Delgado says. “Now, though no-one is talking about it.”

For restaurants in tourist-driven coastal regions, weather events can always represent a blow to sales and covers. In South Florida, where insurance costs are higher than nearly anywhere else in the country, it’s almost built into the business model.

But the Zika outbreak represented a new, harsh reality for restaurants in the Miami area, as scared tourists and locals alike stayed off the streets and out of the eateries. “Publix (the local supermarket chain) must have done great business,“ Delgado said. “No one went out.”

The constant news cycle around the outbreak created havoc for restaurants, and other businesses, in Miami. Tourist trips to Wynwood were cancelled. Others close-by and those from further afield took note.

 We lost money during the hurricane, but that was nothing like what we lost during Zika.

According to figures released by the U.S. Travel Association, revenue dramatically dropped by 75% – a harsh figure considering tourists spent a record $89 billion in Florida last year, and that the tourism industry employs 1.2 million in the state. Everyone suffered – even the international art fair, Art Basel, in December welcomed around 500 fewer visitors while hotels were hit by a 7% reduction during the same period following the outbreak which the Center for Disease Control (CDC) now insists has been managed effectively.

“Midtown was a ghost town,” said Fabio Domenichini, who runs Riviera Focacceria restaurant in Midtown and regularly draws a stream of dedicated customers, some from over 45 minutes away. “I stood outside with other managers, unsure what to do. We lost money during the hurricane, but that was nothing like what we lost during Zika.”

Restaurateurs had few options. Most stayed glued to updates from the city government through emails and updates. “We just hoped the city was spraying enough to kill all the mosquitos which they were,” Delgado says. “Now, though no-one is talking about it.”

Indeed, the panic has passed. The experience, though, is ever present. Unlike a hurricane blowing through town, the virus gave restaurant owners and employees a different type of natural disaster, one that lasts longer and eats away at sales over months.
That crisis still stings, like the fresh bite of a mosquito.

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With a penchant for pop culture, Steve Brenner is a British journalist, now residing in sunny Florida, who specializes in sports and hospitality -- and everything in between. After working more than a decade at The Sun - the largest, best-selling newspaper in England - he eagerly indulged his wanderlust by moving stateside to freelance in New York City for several years, writing for national publications, including The New York Times. With its eclectic cuisine reflecting its diverse population, Miami has enabled Steve to forge strong connections in the thriving South Florida food scene. Keep up with Steve at stevebrennernews.com.