Wealthy Fisher Island, which bought its own COVID-19 tests, may ask for federal loan

The homeowners’ association for Fisher Island, the private paradise near Miami that recently bought enough COVID-19 antibody tests for all of its residents and employees, is considering applying for a loan through the federal government’s massive stimulus program to bail out small businesses.

During its 5 p.m. scheduled meeting Wednesday, according to an agenda obtained by the Miami Herald, the association’s board of directors will vote on whether to apply for a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, which is designed to help business owners pay their employees and weather the economic turmoil brought on by the novel coronavirus.

The agenda said the board would discuss and vote on approving the application and the execution of loan documents with Regions Bank.

It wasn’t immediately clear Tuesday why the Fisher Island Community Association — the master homeowners’ group for the wealthiest ZIP code in the United States — would need the loan, nor how much money the association would be seeking.

Through a spokeswoman, the association declined to comment. Multiple members of the board didn’t respond to inquiries.

The loans are intended for businesses with 500 employees or fewer to cover payroll costs, interest on mortgage obligations, rent and utilities, according to the U.S. Treasury. The government hasn’t been factoring in the financial condition of a given business in distributing the funds, asking only for a company’s average monthly payroll and number of employees, plus some other basic information.

The first round of paycheck protection funding allocated $350 billion to small businesses. The U.S. Senate approved a deal Tuesday that would replenish that pot with an additional $310 billion, and it’s likely to be approved by the House of Representatives later this week.

On Fisher Island, the community association’s chief responsibility is to “manage, maintain and improve the common areas,” according to its website. That’s a labor intensive task for employees on a 216-acre island full of pristine swimming pools and tennis courts.

Fisher Island.
Fisher Island.

Ana Tinsly, a spokeswoman for SEIU Florida, said the union represents about 130 groundskeepers and security workers who are employed directly by the association. So far, she said, it seems the group has been treated well during the pandemic. There haven’t been any layoffs, Tinsly said, and the association has given workers extra paid days off and has been mindful about social distancing practices.

“Honestly, no complaints,” Tinsly said.

Average annual income among the island’s residents was $2.5 million in 2015 — the highest of any ZIP code in America, according to Bloomberg. The homeowners’ association, which oversees more than 20 smaller condo associations, is a separate entity from the ritzy Fisher Island Club, where memberships cost about $250,000.

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Fisher Island residents aren’t immune to broader economic forces. In January 2009, during the Great Recession, the New York Times reported that about a quarter of the island’s nearly 700 condos were up for sale and that sellers were cutting prices.

But even then, the chief executive of the homeowners’ association said it had a balanced budget and ended 2008 with a surplus.

“None of the associations on the island is in financial peril,” former association CEO Mark James told the Times.

Fisher Island made international headlines last week after the Herald reported it had worked out a deal with the University of Miami Health System to make rapid blood tests for COVID-19 antibodies available to the 800 or so families that live there, and to all the workers who maintain the property and patrol its streets. The news sparked frustration from some as the availability of testing for the novel coronavirus, including antibody tests, remains limited nationwide.

The island purchased 1,800 tests at $17 each — for a total of $30,600 — which were administered by doctors from a UHealth clinic stationed on the island. The cost came out of the island’s annual operating budget, a spokeswoman said.

Although the tests produce results in about 15 minutes, they aren’t recommended to diagnose COVID-19 because it can take weeks after someone has been infected to detect antibodies in the blood stream, causing some false negatives. Still, the tests are valuable in plotting the spread of the disease and helping health experts determine who has already fought it off.

The testing on Fisher Island was expected to be completed last week, according to a Fisher Island spokeswoman, and UHealth planned to conduct contact tracing to determine if there has been community spread of the disease on the island.

Lisa Worley, a spokeswoman for UHealth, said Monday that any conclusions drawn from the testing will not be made public for “several weeks.”