Miami is no stranger to loud music: If noise pollution were breathable, residents here might have to wear gas masks to get around at night. Live music and booming nightclubs are two of Miami’s most famous attractions. They may also lead to the spread of COVID-19.
Under an emergency order Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Giménez released in late September, restaurants, bars, and nightclubs that provide music or other entertainment are required to do so at "a decibel level below that of normal conversation." Recent science has shown that loud talkers are far more likely to spread the novel coronavirus through particles in the air. But Miamians aren’t exactly famous for using their indoor voices. Perhaps not surprisingly, efforts to enforce the rule in the city have resulted in consternation and confusion.
Multiple business owners have told New Times that the recent noise crackdown seems to be enforced arbitrarily, with police officers entering their establishments, cocking their ears, determining on the spot that the music is too loud, and issuing a citation.
Cubaocho Museum & Performing Arts Center owner Roberto Ramos was enjoying a cigar at his Little Havana bar and music venue last Wednesday when City of Miami police came in and cited him for a violation. Ramos, who says he’d already closed for the evening, says he was told he had to pay a $500 and close down for a period of 24 hours.
He says that was the first he'd heard of the ordinance.
Ramos admits music was playing at the time but says the volume was turned down low. Moreover, he says, no patrons were on the premises, only family members and two friends.
In video footage one of those present captured on a cellphone, an angry and confused Ramos can be seen arguing with police officers in front of the bar.
“I’m sitting with my family and my two friends right here, tranquilo. And you fine me for being in my own business place? That’s an abuse. It’s a tremendous abuse,” Ramos can be heard telling an officer at the venue's entrance as four other officers stand a few feet away.
Ramos says he was given no advance that police would be dispatched to enforce the new order — and he’s not alone.
Owners of Little Havana establishments Ball & Chain, Sala’o Restaurant & Bar, and Old's Havana Cuban Bar & Cocina all say they were blindsided by fines and 24-hour closure orders the same night Ramos got his citation, as the MPD's enforcement unit made its way through the city.
In total, nine businesses were cited that night for COVID-related violations including loud music, according to a list provided to New Times by city spokesperson Stephanie Severino. The businesses are located in the neighborhoods of Little Havana, Edgewater, Allapattah, and Brickell.
The previous night, Tuesday, October 13, four Wynwood businesses and a bar in Brickell were cited for similar violations. On Thursday October 15, four more businesses were added to the list.
Gramps, one of Wynwood's longest-running bars, was caught during Tuesday's sweep during its Synth Battle event.
Owner Adam Gersten says he understands why the noise ordinance exists but he thinks it's being applied unevenly and without regard to each establishment's actual environs.
"The reasoning is that if people raise their voices, are talking louder, and if someone happens to be sick they are pushing out more air from their mouth and that's what we want to stop. I understand that, I do," Gersten tells New Times. "[But] I think once you are screening people and having them wear masks until they are seated —and, in particular, outdoors — I think that's where this one-size-fits-all is a little crazy."
Also, unlike traditional restaurants, music is an integral part of the experience at venues like Gramps. Gersten says adapting to the curfew doesn't present a problem for him because customers can adapt as well, but the noise restrictions are more difficult when patrons have come expecting to hear music.
"If you told me to close at [midnight], I don't care about that. If people like where they are and what you have to offer, they are going to be like, 'I'm going to come and enjoy this in the afternoon,'" Gersten elaborates. "It's not ideal for the rest of our lives, but we can survive. There is no dancing, so [the music] doesn't have to be blasting. There is something between conversation-level and full-blown nightclub that people can talk over and have the atmosphere that they can enjoy, and I don't think conversation-level is the answer, especially being outdoors."
Gersten notes that since reopening, Gramps has only permitted patrons to sit in its outdoor patio area, even though the venue could utilize its indoor spaces as well.
He's also unhappy with the MPD's choice not to issue a warning to lower the volume before pulling out the citation pad. Between the loss of revenue and the cost of a lawyer to defend the employee who was fined the $500, Gersten says, he's out several thousand dollars.
"I just felt like [the city] felt like it needed to bring the hammer down, and we got unlucky," he says.
Ball & Chain owner Bill Fuller says he too was caught by surprise by the enhanced level of noise enforcement.
“I had heard of the city enforcing social-distancing stuff but never anything related to sound,” says Fuller. “We had a visit from code enforcement officials last weekend — we had DJs present at the time. [Officials] didn’t tell us anything was wrong. Nobody informed us.”
Fuller says police did not use a decibel meter when they came to issue him a citation. He says they informed him that his music was louder than a normal conversation would be and proceeded to write him up.
Earl Campos, executive manager of both Sala’o and Old's Havana, says his staff had a similar experience with police last Wednesday: fines and 24-hour closure orders at both locations, and no decibel reading or guidance on what level of music is acceptable.
The citations make reference to the county emergency order, which itself does not offer any guidance beyond the “normal conversation” threshold.
Campos says he called the city and county police departments as well as the city’s 311 assistance phone line but received no further explanation for the fines.
“It feels like the regulations and enforcement are changing day to day. We just want more transparency,” says Campos, who echoes Gersten's estimate of the financial hit. He says he has stopped playing anything but ambient music at both locations.
Cubaocho owner Roberto Ramos’ story caught the attention of local media and was featured on Univision’s Spanish-language radio show Tardes Calientes over the weekend. In that same segment, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who called the new noise regulation "absurd," responded to the complaints of Ramos and others.
“I’m very sensitive to those concerns. As mayor, I’ve tried to balance opening our economy as fast as possible while, at the same time, ensuring that we’re not risking the lives of our residents,” Suarez said. “In one regard, I agree with the owner of Cubaocho and...other business owners in that there’s so much confusion over the different orders, which have changed constantly.... I would have preferred that these restaurants receive a warning beforehand, but that’s not what happened, unfortunately.”
Suarez said that while he disagreed with the county's emergency order, the city had a responsibility to enforce it in a uniform manner.
At this, the show's hosts pushed back, noting that the bars and restaurants that hosted President Donald Trump’s daughter, Tiffany Trump, during her 27th birthday celebration the previous weekend had drawn several noise complaints. No police had shown up to enforce noise regulations.
Suarez said he'd look into the alleged complaints and lamented that the new rules had created an environment where many businesses had become the source of many complaints against other businesses. Suarez seemed to be echoing what New Times was told by several sources off the record that some businesses were using the noise ordinance as a way to shut competitors down.
Ball & Chain owner Bill Fuller says he blames city officials for what he views as an extremely clumsy, if not arbitrary, rollout of a new enforcement policy.
“There is a clear lack of leadership and lack of direction from the city," Fuller says. "They shouldn’t be blaming [the county] for their own actions. If you’re a leader — like a city commissioner, the mayor, or the city manager — and you know you were going to close multiple businesses down, why wouldn’t you send people to put us on notice?”
Additional reporting by Jose D. Duran.
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