Thousands Partied at Miami Beach Festival, Nine Tested Positive for Coronavirus
A cluster of positive coronavirus cases has been linked to an LGBTQ festival that took place on Miami Beach in early March, at a time when concerns over the virus had not yet led to mass cancellations and the upending of ordinary life.
Nine people who attended the Winter Party Festival, an annual event that draws thousands of gay men to Miami Beach, have reported testing positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus, according to the LGBTQ Task Force, which organized the festival.
The week-long “circuit” party was held at multiple venues across the Miami metro area March 4-10. Organizers had previously announced that one attendee reported testing positive.
“As of Thursday the 19th, I have been informed directly of 9 people who both attended Winter Party Festival (WPF) and have since tested positive for COVID-19,” said executive director Rea Carey in a statement to the Miami Herald. “We understand that there are others who have posted online that they were at WPF and are showing possible symptoms or have tested positive for COVID-19.”
One of the people who tested positive, a 35-year-old Seattle resident, told the Miami Herald that four of his friends also tested positive after attending the Winter Party Festival. He requested that his name not be disclosed to protect his privacy.
“I think given the atmosphere and the parties, and people packed in as tight as they were, I think it’s bound to be more,” he said. “Nobody was talking about it, nobody was concerned about it because nobody had it.”
Organizers have received criticism for hosting the event despite growing concerns about coronavirus, but at the time, federal health officials had not yet recommended canceling large gatherings.
In a press conference on March 10 — on the last day of the Winter Party Festival — a top doctor from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not recommend canceling large gatherings across the board.
“It is really difficult to make those kinds of pronouncements broadly,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. “So the decisions, for example, in Seattle may look quite different than the decisions being made in a location right now where there is not community spread.”
At the time, state health officials had not yet reported a single case in Miami-Dade County.
“Regarding WPF, we made the most informed decision at the time, following official guidance available at the time,” Carey said in a statement Monday. “Information and circumstances have changed rapidly since WPF.”
Miami Beach leaders stood behind the Task Force’s decision not to cancel, declaring the city “open for business.” When Ultra Music Festival canceled its March concerts, which itself was controversial among fans, Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales said the city would try to give Ultra fans “something to do.”
City-sponsored pool parties were considered at a March 5 meeting. Mass cancellations were not.
“A blanket freeze on everything we do here in Miami Beach or a shutting down of business, to me, that at this point is not warranted,” Commissioner Mark Samuelian said.
Mayor Dan Gelber and two city commissioners attended the festival’s welcome reception. Gelber demonstrated hands-free greeting attendees could use to limit transmission of the virus.
“In the middle of their event everything started to happen,” Gelber said, adding that the event would have been canceled if it were held just a few days later.
In the 10 days since the end of the festival, officials have reported 101 cases in the county. City and county leaders have declared a state of emergency. Most businesses, including restaurants and clothing outlets, have been shuttered. The beach is closed.
The guys were shirtless and sweating, and it was hard to move around the closed-in party venue.
Before he tested positive for COVID-19, the Winter Party Festival attendee from Seattle swung by some of the festival’s numerous parties. He partied on the sands of South Beach, then at the Wynwood Factory and at Nikki Beach Miami.
“It was extremely packed,” he said. “You couldn’t even move.”
After hours, he laid his head at an Ocean Drive home he rented through Airbnb with six of his friends. He was in town to celebrate a friend’s 30th birthday. The friend, Joshua Ellis, is an emergency medicine physician in Boston. He, too, tested positive for COVID-19, the Boston Globe reported.
The Seattle man, who works in marketing, left Miami on March 9 and got tested March 12 after feeling “really bad chills” and dizziness. His results came back positive on Sunday.
He feels fine now and is staying home, watching Netflix and learning new dance routines. His friends feel better now, too.
“They’re all OK,” he said. “They definitely went through feeling pretty crappy just like me, but the worst is over.”
But for Winter Party Festival organizers, the worst may not be here yet.
Symptoms can take up to 14 days to show, meaning someone who caught COVID-19 at Winter Party Festival may not even show symptoms until next week.
Carey, the LGBTQ Task Force director, has encouraged attendees to contact her directly if they feel sick.
“We continue to encourage all WPF guests to monitor their health, practice social distancing, wash hands with soap, use hand sanitizer and contact their doctor if they think they are exhibiting symptoms,” Carey said in the statement. “If one tests positive for COVID-19, we urge them to contact those they were in direct contact with so all can take steps to monitor their health and speak with their doctors.”