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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Fed up with mayhem, Miami Beach wants to tame spring break for good

From left, Chandler Robinson, Sam Fisher and Alexis Illes play slam ball on South Beach in Miami Beach, Fla. on Friday, March 31, 2023, while vacationing from Orlando, Fla. After a series of violent incidents, the city is moving to pre-empt late-night partying, but businesses worry about crimping their most profitable tourism season.

By Patricia Mazzei

After two fatal shootings on Ocean Drive over a March weekend, Miami Beach leaders followed their recent playbook for dealing with raucous spring break crowds: a state of emergency, a midnight curfew and limited liquor sales.

Then, in a new and drastic step, the city commissioners announced a curfew for 2024, a full year in advance, and declared spring break on the sun-kissed streets of Miami Beach to be over.

“Miami Beach is shutting the door on spring break, once and for all,” Alex Fernandez, a city commissioner who sponsored a series of 2024 measures, said before the vote.

The decision, in the middle of the March and April season that is the most profitable time of the year for local businesses, has caused both relief and consternation over the possible loss of the throngs of visitors that have grown to overwhelm the city’s police and other public services — and of the money that those visitors spend on hotel rooms, nightclub cover charges and boozy cocktails.

Miami Beach both loves and hates its tourists, a conflicting sentiment that has long plagued officials as the city has evolved from a cocaine cowboy den in the 1980s to a high-fashion Riviera in the 1990s to what it is today: a glittering playground for affluent families making a home, foreigners chasing the sun and young American visitors who come looking for a good time. Some people, including the city’s mayor, want the partyers gone for good.

If Miami Beach is to be rebranded as less of a spring break destination and more of an arts, culture and health and wellness hub, some owners of bars, nightclubs and liquor stores worry that they will lose business. And some residents and officials fear losing the diversity and laid-back vibe that make Miami Beach Miami Beach.

“What we’re seeing is panic-stricken politicians who feel the need to do something,” Ricky Arriola, a city commissioner who voted against the 2024 curfew, said in an interview. “The heavy hand of government is being imposed on residents, our visitors and businesses, rather than doing the hard work of coming up with really strategic alternatives.”

Similar frictions between residents and visitors have afflicted other popular Florida spring break locales like Panama City Beach. Over time, Fort Lauderdale and other cities have pushed spring breakers out, in part by raising hotel rates and changing zoning laws to turn dive bars into more upscale establishments.

Miami Beach has been wrestling with its reputation as a party town. A judge recently upheld an ordinance imposing a partial 2 a.m. cutoff on alcohol sales for a South Beach neighborhood known as South of Fifth, now full of glimmering condos. The law had been challenged by Story, a nightclub that argued it could not survive if it could no longer sell alcohol until 5 a.m.

Patience has worn thin as spring break revelers, often partying with alcohol or drugs, have packed a roughly 10-block stretch of South Beach along the Atlantic oceanfront each season, leading to unpredictable situations that sometimes turn violent because so many people have guns, according to city leaders, police officers and business owners.

The two deadly incidents this year took place over the St. Patrick’s Day weekend, typically one of the busiest of the season. After the second, the city briefly imposed a midnight curfew.

Last year, two shootings on Ocean Drive led the city to set a midnight curfew. In 2021, Miami Beach made headlines when, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, the city marketed itself to visitors even though many nightclubs remained closed, leading to raucous street parties. Officials responded that year by imposing an 8 p.m. curfew.

The rowdy behavior in the streets and the curfews that result have hurt businesses year after year, said Joshua Wallack, the chief operating officer of Mango’s Tropical Cafe, an Ocean Drive institution for more than 30 years.

“When they go from a dangerous situation to complete lockdown, there is no business,” he said. “We’re just caught in the wake of how they handle it. The service industry and the hospitality industry, they get completely obliterated because it goes from having complete chaos to nothing.”

In the past, civil rights activists have complained about the city police department’s use of military-style vehicles, pepper balls and forceful crowd control tactics during spring break, which attracts many Black visitors to a city whose resident population is largely white. Glendon Hall, chair of the Miami Beach Black Affairs Advisory Committee, which was created two years ago, was embedded with police officers and the city’s “goodwill ambassadors” during spring break last month. He said in a statement that was read at a meeting Tuesday that he was pleased with how law enforcement handled the “massive crowds” this year and that there had been no major complaints from civil rights groups.

The Miami Beach Police Department made 573 arrests in March, a slight drop from 615 arrests in March 2022, according to Officer Ernesto Rodriguez, a department spokesperson. Police officers seized more than 100 guns this year, he added.

Still, most everyone in city leadership seems to agree that the chaotic spring break crowds have become too much. But when it comes to what to do about them, views differ.

Mayor Dan Gelber said spring break “doesn’t fit with a city that has so many residents.”

“South Beach has bars and restaurants,” he said, “but it also has elementary schools and churches and synagogues.” Some local residents and visitors who spend lavishly often avoid the city during spring break.

Some commissioners like Fernandez have said they want to keep spring breakers but not “lawbreakers” who follow them into the city.

“The worst thing that we can do is continue doing the same thing we’ve done now for several years in a row, which is knowing that we’re going to have an overcrowding of our city and waiting until the violent situation occurs — until the death occurs — to react,” he said in an interview. “It’s better to get ahead of the situation and impose the curfew and the restrictions now.”

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