Tragically close, Miami Beach wants to tame spring break for good

From left, Chandler Robinson, Sam Fisher and Alexis Eales leave Orlando, Florida on vacation Friday, March 31, 2023, in Miami Beach, Fla.  They play soccer on South Beach.

From left, Chandler Robinson, Sam Fisher and Alexis Eales leave Orlando, Florida on vacation Friday, March 31, 2023, in Miami Beach, Fla. They play soccer on South Beach.

MIAMI BEACH — After two fatal shootings on Ocean Drive in late March, Miami Beach leaders followed their latest playbook for dealing with a raucous spring break crowd: a state of emergency, a midnight curfew and limited alcohol sales.

Then, in a new and drastic move, city commissioners announced a 2024 curfew, a year early, and an end to spring break on the sun-kissed streets of Miami Beach.

“Miami Beach is closing its doors on spring break once and for all,” City Commissioner Alex Fernandez, who supported the 2024 measure, said before the vote.

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The decision, which comes in mid-March and April, the busiest time of year for local businesses, has drawn both relief and consternation as the number of visitors swells to stymie the city’s police and others. Public services – and the money those visitors spend on hotel rooms, nightclub cover charges and cocktails.

Miami Beach loves and hates its tourists, a conflicting sentiment that has vexed officials as the city transformed from a cocaine-causing cowboy den in the 1980s to a high-fashion Riviera in the 1990s to today’s glittering playground for the wealthy. Families working at home, expats chasing the sun, and American visitors looking for a good time. Some people, including the town’s mayor, want the parties to go well.

If Miami Beach is to become known less as a spring break destination and more as a center for arts, culture and health and wellness, some bar, nightclub and liquor store owners worry they will lose business. And some residents and officials fear that Miami Beach will lose the uniqueness and laid-back feel that makes Miami Beach.

“What we’re seeing is panic-stricken politicians,” said City Commissioner Ricky Arriola, who voted against the 2024 ban. “Instead of doing the hard work to come up with really strategic alternatives, the heavy hand of government is being forced on residents, our visitors and businesses.”

Similar disputes between residents and visitors have plagued other popular Florida spring break areas, such as Panama City Beach. Over time, Fort Lauderdale and other cities pushed back the spring breakers, in part by raising hotel prices and changing zoning laws to turn dive bars into high-end establishments.

Miami Beach is fighting for its reputation as a party town. A judge recently upheld a partial 2 a.m. ban on alcohol sales at the now-glitzy condominiums known as South Fifth in South Beach. A night club called Tariq argued that the law cannot survive if it cannot sell alcohol until 5am.

Spring break revelers, often high on alcohol or drugs, are impatient with the seasonal 10-block South Beach stretch along the Atlantic Ocean, which sometimes leads to violence as many people have guns. For city leaders, police officers and business owners.

This year’s two fatal incidents occurred over the St. Patrick’s Day weekend, typically one of the busiest of the season. After the second, the city imposed a midnight curfew.

Last year, two shootings on Ocean Drive prompted the city to enact a midnight curfew. In the year In 2021, Miami Beach made headlines as the city marketed itself to visitors amid the coronavirus outbreak, leading to raucous street parties despite many nightclubs remaining closed. Officials responded that year by imposing an 8 p.m. curfew.

The hectic nature of the streets and the resulting curfews hurt business year after year, said Joshua Wallack, chief operating officer of Mango Tropical Cafe, an Ocean Drive institution that has been around for more than 30 years.

“There’s no business going from a dangerous situation to a lockdown,” he said. “We’re only concerned with how they handle it. The service industry and the hospitality industry will be completely destroyed as they go from chaos to emptiness.

In the past, civil rights activists have complained that the city’s police department, citing military-style vehicles, pepper balls and crowd control tactics during spring break, draws large numbers of black visitors to the predominantly white city. Glendon Hall, chairman of the Miami Beach Black Affairs Advisory Committee, which was formed two years ago, was embraced by police officers and the city’s “goodwill ambassadors” during spring break last month. In a statement read at Tuesday’s meeting, he said he was pleased with how law enforcement had arrested “so many people” this year and that there had been no major complaints from civil rights groups.

The Miami Beach Police Department made 573 arrests in March, down slightly from 615 arrests in March 2022, according to department spokesman Officer Ernesto Rodriguez. Police officers added that more than 100 guns have been seized this year.

Despite news of shootings and curfews, families, couples and small groups of friends walked the sidewalks of Ocean Drive late last month on a Friday afternoon. Marcus Benjamin, a 19-year-old college student from Chicago, said the city’s emergency measures didn’t affect him “at all” on a trip with two friends.

“I saw a lot of police on the beach,” said one of his friends, Cameron Sasser, 19. “But it’s the same as every other year.”

Still, everyone in city leadership seems to agree that the chaotic spring break crowd is too much. But when it comes to what to do about them, opinions differ.

Mayor Dan Gelber said spring break “doesn’t fit a city with a lot of residents.”

“South Beach has bars and restaurants, but it also has primary schools, churches and synagogues. Some locals and visitors avoid the city during spring break, when they spend more time in luxury.

Some commissioners, like Fernandez, said they want to keep spring breakers, but not “law breakers” following them into the city.

“The worst thing we can do is continue to do the same thing we’ve done for years now, which is knowing that congestion is going to happen in our cities and wait until there’s violence — it’s going to happen to death — to respond,” he said in an interview. We’d better drop it.”

In the year Miami Beach has lost in court after suing the city over a 2021 Cleveland hotel ban on alcohol sales. The judge ruled that the rule was not properly enforced.

During the state of emergency last spring break, increased regulations have had little success in buying the party space, but commissioners like Arriola said they would prefer to bring a larger organized event in March, requiring officials to set up barricades, ticketing and metal detectors around the ocean from roughly Fifth to 15th streets. .

“At least people celebrating spring break with a street party on Ocean Drive can take comfort in knowing there won’t be any weapons in that area,” he said.

At another busy time of the year, Memorial Day weekend, the city began hosting the 2017 Hyundai Air and Sea Show, a showcase of its military power, after nearly two decades of population growth. The event displaced many of the parties that had been gathering for Urban Beach Week in celebration of hip-hop.

This year, a three-day festival on Ocean Drive and nearby Lummus Park in March drew daytime visitors and the police department helped tame spring break — but only until the festival’s music and other entertainment ended around 9 p.m. each day. Both shootings happened later in the evening.

In the year Without a major event in 2024, the city appears to be considering a spring break lockout — something Walk said would go too far. He argued that Miami Beach should be able to offer multiple activities, from arts to security to nightlife, without sacrificing one for the other.

“This is the city,” he said.

And anyway, he added, “good luck trying to close public beaches.”

c.2023 The New York Times Company

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