Sporting a jaunty black ballcap with “QUEEN” spelled out in rhinestones on the front, Nanette Lemus ventured out of long isolation at home in Coral Gables on Wednesday to check out the action along the newly reopened Miracle Mile shopping district.
As it turns out, there wasn’t much yet: Salons and barber shops were working a steady clip, if at mandatory reduced capacities, but shoppers and strollers were otherwise few and far between.
And though Wednesday was the first day in the Gables for restaurants to fully reopen for sit-down service, not many diners were in evidence. At prime lunch time, you could have your choice of sidewalk café seating, since most of it sat empty.
Still, Lemus said she was enjoying herself as she strolled down the Mile on a muggy midday, lugging a bag of to-go chicken and fries from The Bar on the nearby Giralda Avenue restaurant row. She said she gave the server a $20 tip.
Following the Monday reopening of indoor malls, Miami-Dade’s outdoor shopping districts started turning the lights back on Wednesday as the city and county launched the first phase of the reopening process.
Though the mandatory coronavirus shutdown lasted only two months, it seems a lifetime ago. With stay-at-home orders and nightly curfews lifted, business owners and developers are hoping cabin fever will lead people to seek outdoor distractions and social interaction — even if it has to be done under masks, at a distance of six feet.
CELEBRATING LIFE AGAIN
“I think that people are going to be excited about celebrating life a little bit again,” said Craig Robins, CEO and President of Dacra, who in partnership with L Catterton Real Estate and Brookfield Properties owns 1 million square feet of property in the Miami Design District, a curated mini-village of public art, upscale retail and live entertainment.
“I’m excited that we’ve gone through the first phase of the pandemic and now we’re entering the second phase and we can go out and engage,” Robins said. “The nice thing about the Design District is that it is a spacious, open-air neighborhood, so people can walk around and enjoy the outdoor art and architecture and go get an ice cream cone.”
Spanning 18 square city blocks north of downtown Miami, from NE 38th to 42nd Streets between N. Miami Ave. and Biscayne Blvd, the Design District is home to 120 luxury boutiques, from a 13,000-square-foot three-story flagship store for the French luxury fashion retailer Hermès to a boutique ice cream shop created by one of Miami’s best pastry chefs, plus two museums.
On Wednesday, Robins said nearly 50 percent of the retail stores in the District were open, including Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Prada. He expects the rest of the stores to open by next week. The restaurants continue to do take-out service only, since dine-in rooms within city limits of Miami, Hialeah and Miami Beach remain closed until May 27.
To prepare for the reopening, Robins worked in collaboration with a team from the University of Miami Health System to figure out how to best optimize the District to comply with COVID-19 regulations. Three client relations kiosks are handing out free custom masks designed by the Tailor House alterations shop. Fifty sanitation stations have also been placed throughout the area. Valet parking has been suspended for now, and all high-touch areas will be wiped down hourly and disinfected nightly.
Public art tours of new and existing installations throughout the District will resume May 30, although some of the museums and galleries remain closed (the Institute of Contemporary Art, the De La Cruz Collection and Locust Projects have not set reopening dates yet).
“We are letting everyone take their time,” Robins said. “It’s a process. The traffic is going to build gradually. We have an equal emphasis on culture as well as the creative commercial businesses here. It’s really important to have all that back over the next 30 days or so.”
MEANWHILE, IN WYNWOOD
A few blocks south, the Wynwood Business Improvement District (BID) was also primed for visitors, although BID chair Albert Garcia said the primary focus was reopening its retail establishments. (The Wynwood Walls, the neighborhood’s main attraction, closed on March 13 and has not yet reopened.)
“We went through a similar situation in 2016 with the Zika virus, and that experience gave us a playbook to learn from,” Garcia said. “We’ve been putting out daily communications to all our business and property owners, giving them the protocols of social distancing and limiting capacity. That gave us a little bit of a head start.”
According to Garcia, 35% of Wynwood businesses are retail stores, most of which received either federal PPP grants or bridge loans. The majority, including The Wynwood Shop and Frangipani, opened Wednesday.
“The majority of those shops are already up and running today,” he said. “Most of our restaurants made the pivot to takeout and delivery quickly. The BID is going to pay 100% of the cost of temporary dining areas in parking zones directly in front of restaurants that don’t have outside seating, to increase their capacity.”
Garcia said the BID is also thinking of new ways to attract locals. For example, the Museum of Graffiti, which opened Wednesday, has an outdoor station where people can have their masks customized by an artist. Talks are underway for a drive-in movie theater on a large plot of available land.
“The good and the bad of reopening in early June is that historically this has always been the slow season for the tourism economy and we see a decline across the board,” he said. “The silver lining I hope we see over the next weeks is a larger-than-usual local economy that will have pent-up demand to go outside, although discretionary spending is also going to be very tight.”
Garcia said he is working with the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau and Visit Florida to lure domestic visitors who had to cancel their international vacations to spend their summers here.
But they won’t be nearly enough to make up for the loss in visitors. According to the BID’s most recent annual report, 2.9 million people visited Wynwood in 2018 and spent $526 million — a number that domestic travelers can’t match.
“International tourism is our largest segment by far, and there is no sugar coating the fact that a big part of our business won’t reappear until the second quarter of 2021 at the earliest,” he said “That will depend on there being a vaccine or some medication that would raise not only consumer confidence but also bring down all the travel restrictions. There are a lot of obstacles that have to be cleared. But at least in the winter months, you’re going to see a lot of snowbirds coming down here.”
ON THE BEACH
For retailers on Lincoln Road, who see millions of visitors walking along to the outdoor promenade every year, the crowds — or lack thereof — they saw on Wednesday wouldn’t usually be cause for excitement.
But after 61 days of government-mandated closures, you’ll take whatever you can get.
While Wednesday marked the first day back for business on Lincoln Road, the majority of shops stayed shut, including the Nike and Apple stores.
A feeling of relief, even if it was tinged with hesitancy, pervaded the strip, said Timothy Schmand, executive director of the Lincoln Road Business Improvement District.
Face masks and hand sanitizer abounded, and social-distance stickers reminded visitors to stay apart.
“We’re all in it together,” Schmand said. “We have got to get it right, to come back as a functioning economy in South Florida.”
As Miami Mayor Francis Suarez sees it, things can go one of two ways in the days and weeks to follow.
“The path of responsibility leads us to Phase 2,” he said during a press conference Wednesday.
“The path of irresponsibility can quickly lead us back to reverse this Phase 1 opening. We want to make sure that our residents are viewing the rules, following the rules, and we’re hopeful that this is the beginning of the process of continuing to reopen our city safely.”
Joined by the mayors of Miami Beach, Miami Gardens and Hialeah, Suarez said the four cities made the decision to reopen together to prevent any one city from becoming overburdened with visitors.
And while shops and barber shops have unlocked their doors, now is not the time to ignore the public health guidelines that have been engrained in the collective consciousness over the last two months, said Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber.
“It’s incredibly important to remember them right now,” he said. “We want to get this right.”
BACK ON THE MILE
Most locally owned businesses on and around Miracle Mile were open Wednesday, including jewelry shops — with some notable exceptions. Books & Books has reopened its café, but for takeout only; the shop itself remained closed. National chain stores like Ross Dress for Less and Men’s Wearhouse were still shuttered. So, too, were some bridal shops, though those that did open weren’t seeing much traffic.
Also out for a reconnaissance stroll was Stephen Bittel, CEO of Terranova, which owns and manages a significant chunk of Miracle Mile real estate. He said people are probably still a bit wary about heading out. He and other business owners said stormy weather since Monday, when shops were allowed to reopen in Coral Gables and around Miami-Dade, didn’t help.
But he predicted that it’s only a matter of days before business picks up as customers see that shops and restaurants are open and that rules requiring masks and proper distancing are being observed. The Mile, with recently expanded sidewalks, has plenty of room for cafes and restaurants to spread out and maintain social distancing, he noted.
“We think people will feel more comfortable, and we’re looking forward to a big Friday night,” Bittel said.
At Jae’s Fine Jewelers, on the Mile since 1945, traffic was steady, with 13 customers coming in by appointment on Tuesday, the first day the shop reopened, operator Jill Hornik said. That’s more than they expected.
And while you may not think jewelry is the first thing people freed from quarantine might seek out, Hornik said some eager customers have extra money to spend on special occasions after canceling vacation plans.
And everyone’s complying with new protocols, which means wearing a mask and sanitizing hands before trying on jewelry — which is then set aside to be sanitized before going back in the case, Hornik said.
“Everyone’s been so friendly, which is great,” she said. “You learn as you go. It’s new and it’s different.”
Hornik said she even sold an engagement ring on Tuesday.
“I guess people are finding out who they really want to be quarantined with,” she joked.
Author: Rene Rodriguez, Andres Viglucci & Martin Vassolo, Miami Herald