In the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning, well past Miami-Dade County's midnight curfew to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, a line of people outside a Wynwood warehouse stretched down the block, according to a six-second video clip.
Another short video shows a more jarring scene inside the nightclub at 55 NE 24th St., which until recently was called Wynwood Factory. The 15 seconds of footage show dozens of sweaty househeads, many of them maskless, squeezed together on the dance floor, bouncing shoulder to shoulder to hard techno beats.
Warnings from local, state, and national infectious-disease experts to avoid large indoor gatherings did not deter those ravers from attending the first party at the venue since the pandemic shut it down back in March.
But Wynwood Factory founder and nightlife impresario Luis Puig — the mastermind behind Club Space — wants Miami's electronic-dance-music scene to know he had nothing to do with the party, which was billed as an installment of a traveling series called Pressure Miami.
During a recent phone interview, Puig said the warehouse's owners, real estate investors Ron Bloomberg and Douglas Levine, brought in new nightclub operators who recklessly endangered more than 100 EDM aficionados who attended the party just as Miami-Dade and the rest of Florida began experiencing a dramatic spike in new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.
But the alleged operators, Andres San Martin and Jonathan Taborda, a pair of hospitality entrepreneurs who own several Wynwood venues under the Dirty Rabbit Group umbrella, deny any involvement in organizing or staging Pressure Miami at Puig's erstwhile venue.
So who's responsible for throwing a party that drew a maskless crowd?
That seemingly simple question has proven difficult to answer. David Garay, whose company, DAG Productions, organized the event, declined to say who asked him to stage the party, saying only that he didn't have a contract with the landlords or "the Dirty Rabbit guys." A spokesperson for Bloomberg and Levine says San Martin and Taborda are responsible, describing them as "operational partners." But Taborda says he and San Martin had noting to do with the Pressure Miami event — despite a photo San Martin posted on Instagram that appears to show him at the party.
Everyone agrees that Puig had nothing to do with the event.
Puig shared the party videos, as well as screenshots of event flyers posted on the Instagram accounts of promoters and DJs who worked the party, with New Times. He says a friend sent him the videos and the screenshots because some of the posts were tagged as "Wynwood Factory."
"This is not me doing these events," Puig says. "Somebody has to stop these people and hold them accountable if they are not going to have any regard for the safety and well-being of their customers. They need to be shut down."
Eleazar Melendez, a spokesperson for Bloomberg and Levine, the property owners, says the pair know about the videos and have discussed the lack of precautions at the Thanksgiving Eve event with their "operational partners," San Martin and Taborda.
"We are on top of it," Melendez tells New Times. "We want to make sure no one gets sick. [San Martin and Taborda] are the operational partners and it is their responsibility to make sure that people wear masks, that socially distanced designated areas are properly marked, and that capacity is reduced to allow social distancing."
Taborda, who along with San Martin is a principal of the Dirty Rabbit Group, which owns and operates a handful of eating and drinking establishments in Wynwood, tells New Times that Melendez is misinformed.
"Maybe they thought I was involved, but I am not," Taborda says. "We didn't do that party. It was the promoters who threw a party that day. I think they dealt directly with the landlords."
Taborda says he's aware that Puig is involved in an ongoing dispute with Bloomberg and Levine regarding the demise of Wynwood Factory but that it has nothing to do with him and San Martin.
"I don't why [Puig] is putting my name out in the streets and pointing the finger at me," Taborda says. "I am not the operator."
Reached on his cell phone, San Martin would only say, "Whatever my partner told you goes for me, too."
Farewell to the Factory
The rift between Puig and the warehouse owners exposes one of the many murky aspects of a pursuit in which landlords and tenants draw up rental agreements based on the amount of money generated by the venue. It's a financial strategy that has been blown up by the shutdown of nonessential businesses and the ongoing restrictions and safety measures designed to slow the spread of a virus that has infected more than a million Floridians to date.
"I don't think people know how to behave when it comes to going out to a nightclub," Puig says. "That's the reason I didn't want to reopen. The only way to make money is to be at 150 percent capacity. You can't make money at 50 percent capacity."
Puig is best known for his work at Club Space, downtown Miami's first 24/7 dance club, which he owned and operated for 13 years until 2013, when he sold the EDM palace. Five years later, he launched his next ambitious project: Wynwood Factory.
The 14,630-square-foot warehouse is owned by Bloomberg, a Miami Beach-based commercial developer, and Levine, the founder of the gym franchise Crunch Fitness who owns other commercial buildings in Wynwood.
"I've known one of my landlords [Bloomberg] for 30 years. And the other landlord [Levine] is my next-door neighbor," Puig says of the partnership.
In addition to paying monthly rent of $55,000, Puig says, he bankrolled the buildout of Wynwood Factory, including all the furniture, fixtures, and sound equipment — a standard arrangement in commercial leases. "The plants, the decorations, the point-of-sale system, the iPads, the office chairs — that is all mine," Puig says. "Everything in there is close to a $1 million investment I made."
With this year's Miami Music Week, the late-March gathering of EDM lovers that takes over the city and culminates with Ultra Music Festival, Puig says Wynwood Factory was finally on track to turn a profit. But the pandemic upended those plans. Ultra pulled the plug, and city and county officials began restricting large gatherings. Wynwood Factory closed on March 17.
An announcement posted on the nightclub's Instagram account that day stated, "While we are committed to keeping nightlife in Miami alive, the health of our patrons and community are top priority in this unique time we are living through."
Wynwood Factory issued refunds for 15 sold-out parties that had to be canceled and lost close to $2 million in marketing and promotions, Puig says. When the rent came due on April 1, he sat down with Bloomberg and Levine.
"I told them there was no way I would be able to pay rent until this thing goes away," Puig says. "If they found a new tenant, I would be happy to work out a deal with them."
A few days later, Puig alleges, Bloomberg and Levine changed the locks without notifying him. "Without due process and without an eviction order, they locked us out of the building," he says. "They didn't wait a month or two."
Melendez, the spokesperson for Bloomberg and Levine, disputes Puig's account. He says Puig did not have a traditional tenant-landlord relationship with the property owners. "Mr. Puig was the former operational partner in what used to be the nightclub under the Wynwood Factory brand," Melendez maintains. "He had certain responsibilities in terms of providing the furniture, the fixtures, and the equipment, as well as running the place."
Melendez says it's inaccurate for Puig to portray Bloomberg and Levine as villains and himself as a victim who was thrown out of his own enterprise. "They met with him to work out some kind of plan so they could remain operating the partnership," Melendez says. "Mr. Puig said, 'Nope,' and that he wasn't going to pay anything. This is essentially a business dispute between partners. He failed to live up to his end of the bargain."
Melendez dismisses Puig's criticisms of his former landlords as sour grapes from an entrepreneur who was unable to resume operating the nightclub amid the pandemic.
"Mr. Puig wants to create this picture that [Bloomberg and Levine] are these ravenous, crazy landlords that demanded he pay his pound of flesh," Melendez says. "In reality, they were all partners trying to make it work. He chose to no longer participate and a few months later, when it is clear someone else has come in who can operate, I guess he wants back in."
Further, Melendez says Puig didn't pay some vendors and employees and left behind fire-safety issues that Bloomberg and Levine had to clean up.
"B.S. I have the lease," Puig responds. "Everyone was paid except for a small liquor bill and some taxes. But that has nothing to do with the landlord-tenant relationship or them locking me out."
Enter the Dirty Rabbit?
Over Thanksgiving weekend, Puig was vacationing with his family in Costa Rica when his phone began buzzing with texts from friends and former business associates about the party at the defunct Wynwood Factory.
"I started getting pictures and videos of the people with no masks inside the club," Puig recounts. "When I saw one of the flyers — they hired the same DJs I hired. They are using all of my infrastructure that I worked hard to put together. My lawyer sent them a cease-and-desist letter to stop using the Wynwood Factory name."
Before the event, one of the DJs, who goes by the stage name Dagher, posted the flyer to his Instagram account (@djdagher), writing that he was "very happy to announce" he would be spinning at "The Factory." He also posted the flyer in his Instagram Stories, where he tagged Wynwood Factory's now-dormant account and geotagged the location. Promoters who worked the event and attendees also geotagged Wynwood Factory on Instagram.
Melendez points out that Wynwood Factory comes up in the geotagging because that's the name Google and Instagram have linked to the street address. The venue's new name is MAD, according to a fictitious-name registration filed November 23 by Automatic Slims Club LLC, a corporation managed by Bloomberg whose address is that of the warehouse property.
Melendez says MAD is the name that San Martin and Taborda came up with and that the duo is launching MAD as a separate venture from the Dirty Rabbit Group.
That second assertion is confirmed by Dirty Rabbit Group operations manager Joey Vega.
"As far as our operations are concerned, there is nothing going on at Wynwood Factory from the Dirty Rabbit Group," Vega tells New Times. "I was not involved, nor do I know anything about it. And I am in weekly meetings with [San Martin and Taborda]."
Melendez reiterates that San Martin and Taborda are the nightclub's new operational partners, and he adds that their agreement with the landlords requires that they obey all relevant COVID-19 rules and regulations.
"We want to create a balance so we can operate safely and for the benefit of everyone who participates in the industry," Melendez says. "No one wants a situation where people are going crazy, breaking rules, and creating a superspreader event. That would be terrible for business."
Taborda, however, took pains to distance himself and San Martin from any past or present goings-on involving the space formerly known as the Wynwood Factory. But he says he has been in discussions about running the club.
"There is talk of a new joint venture with five other groups," he maintains. "We are all still working out the legal parts of it, and no one has signed anything."
Taborda says some Dirty Rabbit venues are located in buildings owned by Bloomberg and Levine, adding that the property owners told him and San Martin they had a warehouse converted to a nightclub that was ready to go — presumably, the former Wynwood Factory space. But Taborda insists that nothing has or will move forward until Bloomberg and Levine resolve their drama with Puig.
"We told them to settle whatever is going on with your previous tenant and when you empty the space, let us know," Taborda says. "And if you see the flyers for the party, it says 'Pressure Miami.' Those are the promoters, not us."
That doesn't explain a photo San Martin posted to his Instagram account (@madfreckles0) on November 26 that appears to show him and three other people at the Pressure Miami event at the venue. Beneath the photo, San Martin commented, "MAD."
When asked about Taborda's comments, Melendez connected New Times with Bloomberg, who says he only knows San Martin and that’s who he has been dealing with. "Doug and I entered into a deal with Andres with a company he created," Bloomberg asserts. "He has a number of business associates he works with. What role they play I couldn't tell you."
What is certain, Bloomberg states, is that a new partnership exists with San Martin through Automatic Slims Club LLC, which holds the liquor license for the venue. According to state corporate records, Puig was removed as a manager of Automatic Slims Club LLC in June. Bloomberg says an amendment adding San Martin as a new manager is pending with the Florida Division of Corporations, and that San Martin has made payments to Automatic Slims Club LLC as part of the agreement.
Asked why San Martin himself would have been reluctant to clarify the arrangement when speaking to New Times, Bloomberg responds, "Andres is a good guy. I chalk it up to immaturity."
Putting on the Pressure
David Garay, owner of DAG Productions, the company that produces Pressure Miami, declined to comment on how his event ended up at the former Wynwood Factory space and who had the keys to open the venue. Garay did reveal that Puig's attorney sent him a cease-and-desist letter that he forwarded to the landlords. He also says the current leaseholder is an entity affiliated with San Martin and Taborda.
"I don't want to get involved because of what is going on between Puig and the landlords," Garay tells New Times. "I don't have a contract with the landlords, and I don't have a contract with the Dirty Rabbit guys."
Still, Garay maintains, the event did not violate any COVID-19 restrictions or safety regulations. "Code compliance was everywhere that night, and they shut down other places," Garay says. "Why didn't they shut us down? We are good people. We are not trying to harm anyone."
Garay says Puig is misdirecting his anger by criticizing his fellow nightlife entrepreneurs instead of the landlords.
"He's barking up the wrong tree," Garay contends. "Puig is trying to hurt us. I don't understand why he's coming with all this negativity."
Puig, meanwhile, suspects that his rivals are engaging in damage control. "Now my landlords' lawyer is telling us that they didn't lease the place to the Dirty Rabbit guys, that they hired them."
If he were still running the show, Puig says, he would not have reopened. It would be the right moral decision and the correct business decision for him, he says, but also a personal one: His father and uncle both died from COVID-19, he says, and he too contracted the coronavirus, in August. The illness was so bad, he says, that he was treated with plasma, anticoagulants, steroids, antibiotics, and the antiviral drug remdesivir.
"I was in the hospital for a week when I got the news my uncle died," Puig says. "I had double pneumonia and fibrosis in my lungs. I really believed I wasn't going to wake up the next day."
Despite the drama — and the Miami City Commission's recent vote to renew enforcement of the county's midnight curfew — DAG Productions is advertising another Pressure Miami event on December 28 at a nearby Wynwood venue, offering free admission from 9 to 11 p.m.
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