By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
A group of Broward County doctors is trying to convince city and county authorities to cancel this weekend’s Las Olas Art Fair, warning it could turn into a COVID-19 superspreader event.
The three-times-a-year street fair draws thousands of visitors to downtown Fort Lauderdale, where hundreds of vendors, restaurateurs and shop owners count on more business than usual. They’re counting on it especially this year of the pandemic, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis noted.
“The fair is not just to exhibit art, it’s to promote business that’s suffering terribly,” he said. “It’s an attempt to revive businesses so people can get back to work.”
Trantalis and City Manager Chris Lagerbloom contend that infection rates are down and that following federal coronavirus protection protocols will make the outdoor festival as safe as possible. Declaring that Florida is in the third stage of pandemic recovery, Gov. Ron DeSantis has lifted statewide restrictions on individual and group activities.
“We don’t have the answer to everything, but we do have solutions that help people get through the COVID-19 pandemic and we believe the Las Olas art show can be successful and not be the superspreader that everyone fears,” Trantalis said.
But that’s not how some local physicians view the art fair. About a dozen doctors who live in the Las Olas neighborhood signed onto Dr. Joe Arena’s letter that is going to city and Broward County mayors and commissioners today.
A moveable infestation
Arena, who just retired from his Plantation dermatology practice, is already concerned about the congestion and sporadic use of masks he’s noticed in Las Olas restaurants and bars. The fair “would be like the bars at night, even worse,” he said.
“It would be potentially devastating for Fort Lauderdale to have a huge moving assemblage of people confined within the narrow space of Las Olas Boulevard and then further confined within the even more limited spaces of the booths,” his letter states. “This scenario creates a high chance of a ‘superspreader’ event.”
“We urge canceling the October festival to further contain the virus so we can protect our citizenry and look forward to safe hosting of such activities in the near future,” the letter concludes.
Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry, who is taking a leading role in event oversight during the pandemic, said Monday she had not yet reviewed the virus protection plan from fair organizer the Las Olas Association. Executive director Erika Del Rio could not be reached to comment on the doctor’s concerns, but told the Sun-Sentinel last week that everyone will be required to wear masks and that “sidewalks will be roped off to control the number of patrons.”
Virtual attendance preferred
Broward County Medical Association president Dr. Shahnaz Fatteh agreed it’s possible COVID-19 infections and even deaths could increase after the Oct. 17-18 fair.
“The concern that we all have is that when you have a lack of enforcement and folks who don’t adhere to the guidelines, we’re concerned that this becomes another superspreader event and we know that there may be an uptick in the following weeks,” she said.
“I would urge all persons to maintain a safe distance, bring hand sanitizer and wear your mask, cover your nose and mouth,” Fatteh said. “Attend it virtually if you can.”
The doctor said she didn’t even know about the art fair until last week and now it’s too late to reverse course.
Apparently that happened by design.
Art fair deal quietly approved
The Fort Lauderdale City Commission didn’t have a public discussion of the upcoming art fair because it was on a consent agenda that’s reserved for non-controversial items. On Sept. 15 the city quietly signed off on the art fair along with other events that require street closings.
Trantalis agreed that holding a big event during a pandemic is worthy of public discussion. “But nobody asked to speak about it,” he said.
The mayor said Lagerbloom, the city manager, decides what goes where on the agenda. Asked about this in an email from Florida Bulldog, Lagerbloom didn’t respond to the question.
Stan Eichelbaum, head of the Fort Lauderdale Alliance for Good Government, said the city didn’t start promoting the art fair until Oct. 5.
“We were blindsided,” Eichelbaum said. “No one thought that considering what’s happening in the world right now, they would go ahead with the fair with no concern about public safety.”
Locals “do not want Fort Lauderdale and Broward County to be a poster child of irresponsibility and endangerment prior to the … holiday and snowbird season,” Eichelbaum wrote Friday to Trantalis, Lagerbloom and Broward County Mayor Dale Holness.
COVID-19 numbers rising
Eichelbaum and others note that COVID-19 numbers continue to rise statewide and in Broward. Florida, where confirmed infections total 736,024, has lost 15,412 residents and 187 non-residents to the coronavirus, the Florida Department of Health reported Monday. Broward County had 102 new infections and two deaths on Monday, bringing totals to 79,434 and 1,469, respectively.
“My colleagues on the front lines have been working nonstop, and they still are taking care of these patients in the hospital,” Fatteh said. “So they really are not getting breaks when we see these increases.”
Eichelbaum said many major art fairs canceled their events this year. One of the biggest, a street festival in Ann Arbor, MI that’s always held in July, was postponed for a year. The international celebrity and party magnet Art Basel isn’t happening as usual in Miami Beach and Miami this December.
Organizers of what Delray Beach calls the Delray Affair held a virtual art fair in June. The Miami Book Fair, one of the nation’s premier literary festivals that takes over the downtown campus of Miami-Dade College for a week every November, is also going virtual.
There are no plans for screening or contact tracing at the Las Olas Art Fair, but attendees are supposed to wear masks and practice social distancing. Cooperation must be voluntary, though, because DeSantis doesn’t seem to want anyone fined or ejected from public gatherings for ignoring protection guidelines.
Still, Fort Lauderdale is protecting itself. The city’s agreement with the Las Olas Association contains standard language that immunizes it from liability for disasters traceable to the fair. Presumably that includes COVID-19 illnesses and deaths.