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Miami business owners anxious for Zika warnings to end

MIAMI — Business owners are anxious for federal health officials to lift a travel advisory warning for pregnant women and their partners to avoid parts of Miami and South Beach that have been identified as zones of active transmission of the Zika virus.

According to the Miami Herald, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said it could lift its advisory for a 1-square-mile zone encompassing Miami's Wynwood neighborhood on Sept. 19 if no new locally contracted cases are confirmed.

Business owners and analysts say that if Zika infections persist in Miami and a 1.5-square-mile portion of Miami Beach, visitors who have been waiting to make reservations in Miami-Dade County may turn elsewhere. The Wynwood Business Improvement District has asked the city of Miami for money to compensate it for Zika's impact.

Cancellations since the first local Zika infection was confirmed in Wynwood in late July have forced Felipe Correa to lay off one employee from his company running tours in Miami, Key West and the Everglades.

"My Miami tour basically collapsed. … All of my pre-arrival reservations canceled," Correa said. "This tour goes out once a week, and I had to cancel eight out of my 12 weekly summer season tours."

Connecticut resident Coco Lewis decided to move her annual birthday party at a South Beach hotel next month to Las Vegas because of Zika.

"We don't want to chance it," said Lewis, 23. "It's just too risky."

South Florida's luxury real estate market, already slumping because of weak foreign currencies, is reporting cancellations by potential buyers from New York and Europe.

"Zika is a deal-breaker for clients who plan to have children," said Senada Adzem of brokerage Douglas Elliman.

The European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has classified all of Miami-Dade County as an area of "widespread transmission." The United Kingdom has advised pregnant women to avoid the county for nonessential travel and consider postponing nonessential travel in the rest of Florida.

In August, leisure airfare prices fell 17 percent year-over-year at Miami International Airport and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, according to an analysis by Harrell Associates. Hotel bookings in greater downtown Miami fell nearly 3 percent in the first three weeks of August compared to the same period last year, according to data collected by analytics firm Smith Travel Report.

It's not clear how much of that decline is attributable to Zika.

"It's a race against the clock for public officials," said Mekael Teshome, an analyst at PNC Bank. "If they can contain the virus quickly before the peak winter season, we could see confidence come back."

Zika infection can cause severe brain-related birth defects, including a dangerously small head, if women are infected during pregnancy. The mosquito-borne virus also can be sexually transmitted.

Of Florida's 56 nontravel-related Zika cases, 11 have been traced to Miami Beach and 29 to Wynwood. The rest are being considered isolated cases and have not prompted authorities to issue warnings of local transmission.

Miami-Dade County officials expect to spend an extra $10 million fighting Zika through the summer, money that county commissioners otherwise hoped to use for affordable housing. The city of Miami approved $247,000 for special events meant to draw customers back to Wynwood. The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity is surveying local businesses about economic damage related to Zika.

In South Beach, hotel bookings increased 7.4 percent year-over-year since the first local Zika case was confirmed, according to numbers provided by STR and the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Miami Beach officials are hoping to minimize Zika's effect on the local economy. Hotels regularly spray for mosquitoes, and planes fly over the beach with banners reading, "Use insect repellent. No Zika."

Critics have been troubled by the release of information about Zika infections by Gov. Rick Scott and state agencies, saying that not enough details have been provided about where infections are suspected and that the number of tourists contracting the virus in Florida may be underreported.