Miami chief says cops caught COVID-19 after Floyd rallies; protesters say he lied
The department said 31 officers who contracted COVID-19 worked at the protests, but didn't say when they were diagnosed
By Martin Vassolo, Ana Claudia Chacin, and Joey Flechas
MIAMI — Miami’s top cop is blaming protests for an uptick in coronavirus cases among his officers.
Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina, who called a press conference Thursday to discuss the enforcement of COVID-19 orders, told reporters that the number of coronavirus cases among officers and civilian employees of the police department has increased since protesters in Miami joined activists across the country to demonstrate against the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in Minneapolis in late May.
At the end of May, 25 officers and civilian employees had tested positive for COVID-19, Assistant Chief Armando Aguilar said. As of Thursday, that number had increased to 37.
“Last month, or perhaps less than a month ago, we had gotten down to where we had no employees in the police department sick with the virus,” Colina said. “Now I have 31 officers yet again who are COVID positive, I have 6 civilian employees who are COVID positive and I have 115 people quarantined right now because of COVID. Many of the officers that I have sick were part of those protest response teams. That’s not acceptable.”
The number of confirmed COVID cases in Miami-Dade has more than doubled in the month of June. On June 1, the county had 18,139 confirmed cases, according to the Florida Department of Health. By Thursday, July 2, the county’s number of cases had shot up to 40,265.
A police spokesman told the Miami Herald that the 31 officers who contracted COVID-19 worked at the protests, but he did not say when the officers were in contact with protesters or when they were diagnosed.
More than a month since thousands of protesters started marching in cities across the country, epidemiologists and public health officials have not been able to conclude if the nationwide demonstrations caused widespread COVID-19 outbreaks. In some states, including Florida, demonstrations coincided with the reopening of restaurants and bars, which officials have blamed for increased infections.
Florida International University infectious disease expert Dr. Aileen Marty, who has advised Miami-Dade County leaders on navigating the pandemic, told the Miami Herald on Thursday that protests are “one element that has contributed to the rise in cases.”
“[A]ny mass gathering with people shouting, yelling, singing, laughing, coughing, or sneezing helps spread the virus,” she wrote in an email. “Any meeting of 10 or more people from different households who do not wear masks or wear them improperly and people are talking and standing within 6 feet of each other, helps transmit the virus.”
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who speaks with public health officials twice a week, said he had not been shown any evidence that suggests COVID-19 infections can be tied to recent protests.
“That’s theoretical and based on logic,” he said. “But I haven’t seen any evidence.”
Suarez said he has asked the health department to provide as much detail as possible to explain virus hot spots, such as the professions of those who are getting sick. He said it would be useful to know if they are restaurant servers, supermarket clerks, or any other type of worker who interacts with large amounts of people regularly.
“The more you can drill down on the data, the more you can be corrective,” he said.
He credited Colina with being proactive in taking officers out of harm’s way when they may have responded to calls where someone might be infected, or when they are not feeling well.
Protest organizers, including some who gathered outside police headquarters around noon as Colina wrapped up his media availability, pushed back on the assertion that the uptick in cases within the department could be pinned on the protests alone.
“How do you know they didn’t get it at a restaurant?” asked protest organizer Yasmin W., who declined to provide her last name.
“Scientific evidence has already proven nationwide that the protests did not lead to upticks in COVID cases,” said Jonnie Gartrelle, the leader of some of Miami’s protests. “That is flat-out propaganda and a lie.”
Colina said it is unfair how the pandemic led to business closures and limits on recreation while protesters are allowed to gather.
“There is a certain hypocrisy that exists when we say you can’t go to the beach and you have to shut your business, restaurants are restricted, bars can’t open, you have to wear a mask,” he said, “but somehow it’s OK to bring 200 to 300 people together shoulder to shoulder, many without a mask ... It’s not right. In order for the law to be fair, it must apply to everyone.”
At the same press conference, Colina said police would enforce a city rule mandating the use of masks outdoors. He also said going forward, protesters “will need a permit” to march on public streets. A police spokesman said the city has “always required permits for any protests” but that it has been “lenient” in the past month.
“Our goal is to do our job, which is to protect the public and keep everyone safe during this health crisis,” Colina said.
Joseph Martinez, an organizer with the activist outfit Dream Defenders, said the use of masks has not been widespread among police officers, including those who arrested him on June 10 during a protest.
“They’re not doing the things that they say they’re trying to enforce,” Martinez said.
©2020 Miami Herald