Martin Vassolo and Devoun Cetoute
The Miami Herald
Frustrated and concerned by overwhelming spring break crowds that have overrun the city’s entertainment district, the city of Miami Beach on Saturday tried to shut down the party by imposing an 8 p.m. curfew in South Beach and closing the causeways into the city to visiting traffic.
The sudden orders — which some business owners worry could cripple venues banking on the crush of tourists to help them bounce back from the pandemic — constituted the most far-reaching restrictions on spring break partying that Miami Beach City Hall has imposed in recent memory, said interim City Manager Raul Aguila, who declared a state of emergency.
“These crowds are in the thousands,” Aguila said. “We’re at capacity.”
Aguila told the Miami Herald that he recommends keeping the emergency measures in place through April 12, or the end of spring break. The emergency orders will expire Tuesday evening unless extended by the Miami Beach City Commission, which is scheduled to hold an emergency 3 p.m. Sunday meeting.
The 8 p.m. curfew affects South Beach’s main commercial strips — Ocean Drive, Washington Avenue, Collins Avenue and Española Way — from Fifth to 16th streets. Area restaurants, which were previously allowed to make food deliveries until 6 a.m., are now prohibited from staying open past midnight for deliveries.
Sidewalk cafe operations and COVID-era outdoor restaurant expansions must close Saturday at 7 p.m. but may reopen Sunday morning, a city spokeswoman said. In a press release, the city said outdoor seating would be suspended outright for the duration of the emergency period.
First night of curfew enforcement
Immediately after the curfew kicked in Saturday, South Beach crowds weren’t much affected. Snapchat videos showed large groups of people still amassed.
CBS 4 reporters tweeted videos of crowds slowly thinning about 30 minutes after the curfew started, but still large groups of people were standing or walking around.
Pedestrians on Twitter said Miami Beach Police SWAT teams were blocking roads and moving to disperse the crowd. Pepper balls were heard being shot and a brief stampede started.
Even as police were trying to thin the crowd, the party didn’t stop. One video showed a man throwing money into throngs of people.
In other acts of defiance, some people twerked on cars as crowds moved, including on a police car, and others did tire burnouts as they tried to drive out the area, social media video shows.
Getting out of the area for tourists may be difficult, as getting an Uber Saturday night came with a base price of about $40.
Nearly two hours after the curfew went into effect, Miami Beach police tweeted a photo of a cleared out section of Ocean Drive and Eighth Street, where large crowds were earlier.
Police will shut down causeways
Police didn’t just shut down the entertainment district. Under Aguila’s order, beginning at 9 p.m. Saturday and extending until 6 a.m., the city will block most traffic on the eastbound lanes of the three main causeways that connect Greater Miami to Miami Beach — the MacArthur, Julia Tuttle and Venetian causeways.
There will be a dedicated lane on the MacArthur Causeway for Beach residents, hotel guests or people who need to go to work, Aguila said. The Julia Tuttle Causeway will be completely closed during that time. The Venetian Causeway will be open only to residents.
Ocean Drive will be closed to pedestrian and vehicular traffic after 8 p.m., except for hotel guests, residents headed home or employees.
“We don’t want anybody on the streets after 8 p.m.,” Aguila said during an afternoon press conference at City Hall announcing the measures. He encouraged hotel guests in the area to stay indoors, and the city later put out a press release urging all businesses in the curfew zone to “close voluntarily” during the state of emergency.
“Last night if you saw the photos of Ocean Drive, it was quite simply overwhelming,” Aguila said. “It looked like a rock concert. You couldn’t see pavement and you couldn’t see grass. So we feel that this is necessary not only to protect our residents but our visitors, including our spring breakers, who we want to keep safe.”
Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber and Police Chief Richard Clements said Saturday that the measures were preemptive. The decision followed weeks of confrontations between police and large crowds, fights and occasional bouts of violence, including a deadly shooting. Gelber and public health officials have also warned about the risks of spreading COVID-19 among the throngs of visitors crowding the city.
“Our city in this area has become a tinder,” said Gelber. “And we can’t have a policy of simply hoping it’s not lit.”
He later told the Miami Herald that safety concerns over spring break have “only been getting worse.” On Friday night, when videos posted on social media showed packed crowds shoulder to shoulder on Ocean Drive, a crowd raced away the street after someone shot a gun in the air, police said.
“When you see the sort of gunplay and rioting behavior, your plan cannot be hope and luck,” Gelber said. “You have to take action.”
Curfew may harm local businesses
The city received support Saturday from the Ocean Drive Association. Aguila said he heard from four businesses on the tourist drag that don’t want to open due to unruly crowds. On Friday, the iconic Clevelander South Beach announced it would temporarily close.
But for some businesses hoping for March tourism to help kick-start their post-COVID recovery, the announcement took them by surprise.
Cheeseburger Baby owner Stephanie Vitori attended Saturday’s press conference to hear the news directly from city leaders. When none of them mentioned deliveries, Vitori made her case. Her restaurant, at 1505 Washington Ave., makes the majority of its sales after 8 p.m. Hungry spring breakers, she said, would have no where to go after the curfew to get food.
“I think that’s a very valid point,” Aguila responded. “Right now I’m inclined to go ahead and allow deliveries up to a certain hour.”
Vitori, who lamented the rowdy behavior in South Beach, told the Herald that the city should have communicated with local businesses before making decisions that affect them.
“It’s always been a fight and I don’t want to lose that fight again,” she said.
Jessica Knopf, owner of Sriracha House, said her Washington Avenue restaurant can’t afford to close during its profitable late-night period. Business has been surging in recent weeks as tourists are once again returning to Miami Beach, and Saturday was setting up to be a $5,000 night. Not anymore.
“This hit us out of left field,” Knopf said.
Her restaurant, located at 1502 Washington Ave., hasn’t been able to pay full rent to its landlord in a year. Typically, she said, her restaurant made about 1/3 of its sales between midnight and 5 a.m. Since COVID-19, she’s been surviving on late-night deliveries instead. Now she just hopes the police blockades expected to be set up on Washington Avenue will let in the delivery drivers.
“This is just like the last straw,” she said. “Coming off COVID, we were finally starting to see things turn around.”
Ocean Drive Association Chairman Jonathan Plutzik, who owns the Betsy Hotel, said Saturday he supports the curfew and entry restrictions — despite the financial impact it will have on South Beach restaurants — because ensuring safety on the world-famous strip will ensure longer-term economic viability.
“Obviously we hope that the closure doesn’t impact anyone in too severe a manner, but the consequence of not getting this right — of having a really serious incident that causes people to stay away in some more fundamental way — that would be catastrophic,” Plutzik said.
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