Miami Beach, Overwhelmed by Spring Break, Extends Emergency Curfew

on Mar22
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One day after the spring break oasis of South Beach descended into chaos, with the police struggling to control overwhelming crowds and making scores of arrests, officials in Miami Beach decided on Sunday to extend an emergency curfew for up to three weeks.

The officials there went so far as to approve closing the famed Ocean Drive to all vehicular and pedestrian traffic from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. — the hours of the curfew — for four nights a week through April 12. Residents, hotel guests and employees of local businesses are exempt from the closure.

The strip, frequented by celebrities and tourists alike, was the scene of a much-criticized skirmish on Saturday night between sometimes unruly revelers who ignored social-distancing and mask guidelines aimed at curbing the coronavirus, and police officers who used pepper balls to disperse a large crowd just hours after the curfew was introduced.

The restrictions were a stunning concession to the city’s inability to control unwieldy crowds of revelers whom the city and the state of Florida have aggressively courted amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic.

“I believe it’s a lot of pent-up demand from the pandemic and people wanting to get out,” David Richardson, a member of the Miami Beach City Commission, said on Sunday. “And our state has been publicly advertised as being open, so that’s contributing to the issue.”

In an emergency meeting, the commission approved maintaining the curfew in the city’s South Beach entertainment district from Thursday through Sunday for three more weeks, which is when spring break typically ends. Officials also kept in place bridge closures on the nights of the curfew along several causeways that connect Miami Beach with the mainland.

The city’s decision to send police personnel in riot gear into the entertainment district on Saturday, only a few hours after the curfew was announced, was heavily criticized, especially by local Black leaders. They noted that many of the revelers dispersed by the police were young African-Americans.

“It’s the same group of kids that are in South Padre Island right now, except those kids happen to be white,” said Stephen Hunter Johnson, chairman of Miami-Dade’s Black Affairs Advisory Board, referring to the popular spring break destination in Texas.

Mr. Johnson said the city had done a poor job of rolling out the curfew and enforcing it.

“This entire economy thrives off vacation,” he said. “But when you have kids that feel as if they are being overpoliced or policed differently in an environment post-George Floyd, where we don’t shirk back from that but we confront it head-on, this leads to situations where the officers feel understandably like they’re being put in an unfair situation.”

Shortly after sunset on Sunday, a time when Ocean Drive is usually swarming with revelers, businesses on the beachfront stretch, known for its Art Deco hotels, were shutting their doors and calling it a night to comply with the 8 p.m. curfew.

Although the crowds were not as large as they were on Saturday night, hundreds of people remained in the streets as police officers began their sweep to clear the district. The fracases associated with recent nights in South Beach appeared to have subsided.

A group of tourists who had flown in from Chicago and Memphis for a long weekend of partying sipped beer and watched a staff member at their hotel, Winter Haven, cordon off the patio with yellow caution tape.

Among them was Ryan Ferchaud, 37, a tourist from Memphis who mostly faulted groups of college students for what she said was their no-holds-barred attitude regarding the mayhem.

“It’s never been this bad,” she said. “And fighting and all that stuff? It’s just real different.”

Cierra Booker, 31, who was also with the group, offered a frank assessment of the situation.

“Man, I think we need the restaurants open,” she said. “We can’t eat. Listen, you got to understand, we’re in Miami for spring break. Ain’t nobody’s trying to eat during the day. We’re trying to party.”

Moments later, a formation of Miami Beach squad cars and officers on all-terrain vehicles cruised north on Ocean Drive, working to clear the streets. They blasted ear-drum-piercing sound cannons as a prerecorded message blared from loudspeakers.

“The city of Miami Beach is under a state of emergency,” the message said, playing on a loop. “There is a curfew in effect from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. You are commanded to immediately and peacefully disperse.”

The curfew was initially put in place on Saturday for 72 hours. On Sunday, city officials voted unanimously to extend the emergency declaration until Monday, with the city manager empowered to extend it week by week.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a Republican, has boasted about his state’s lack of pandemic restrictions, compared with other parts of the country that are controlled by Democrats. “If you look at South Florida right now, this place is booming,” Mr. DeSantis said recently. “Los Angeles isn’t booming. New York City isn’t booming.”

Miami-Dade County, which includes Miami Beach, has recently endured one of the nation’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, and more than 32,000 Floridians have died from the virus, an unthinkable cost that the state’s leaders rarely acknowledge. The state is also thought to have the highest concentration of B.1.1.7, the more contagious and possibly more lethal virus variant first identified in Britain.

Some blamed the unusually large crowds on a spring break season supercharged by a pandemic that has limited socializing. Mr. Richardson, the city commissioner, said what Miami Beach was facing “is far greater than spring break, and that’s why we are experiencing the large number of crowds that we are.”

Ricky Arriola, another city commissioner, said at the group’s emergency meeting: “Shutting things down cannot be the way the city does business. It is embarrassing, and it just shows we don’t know what we’re doing.”

Mr. Arriola also said that the city should start planning for its next busy time. “We got caught flat-footed this spring break, and we’re going to walk right into the punch of Memorial Day weekend.”

Businesses about 30 miles north, in the city of Fort Lauderdale, are monitoring the developments in Miami Beach. “We’ve been watching it very closely,” Dan Lindblade, president and chief executive of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce, said on Sunday evening. “We’ll do everything we have to do to make sure we don’t have the same situation happen up here.”

Fort Lauderdale dealt with similar spring break problems in the 1980s and early ’90s, until the city and businesses decided to make some changes, he said. One major change: Hotels started charging more money for rooms. “We’re not catering to an under-$150-a-night” crowd, Mr. Lindblade said, adding, “We’re $300 to $500 a night, and that’s just a different crowd.”

The effect, Mr. Lindblade said, has been notable. “It’s a family-oriented atmosphere,” he said, “and that’s been great for our economy.”

Credit…Marco Bello/Reuters

Seemingly undeterred by the police presence on Sunday night in South Beach, two maskless men in their 20s, who were wearing board shorts and clutching hard seltzers, took turns snorting white lines from a postcard. Around the corner, a group of police officers stood calmly, talking with one another and shouting for people to go home.

A man who was part of a maskless throng of people walking toward Ocean Drive sipped from an almost empty bottle of cognac and nodded at the officers.

“I’m throwing it away,” he said, pointing into the distance. “It’s my birthday.”

“Hurry up, man,” one of the officers said, cautioning about a police detail nearby.

The officers stayed in place and continued their conversation as the group headed toward the bars that were now shuttered.

Patricia Mazzei, Christina Morales and Reed Abelson contributed reporting.

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