After a raucous week of spring break that involved massive crowds, viral videos of fistfights, and at least a few recorded instances of restaurant-goers skipping out on their tabs, the City of Miami Beach on Saturday declared an official state of emergency.
On Saturday afternoon, city leaders called a 4 p.m. press conference and announced they'd be enacting an 8 p.m. curfew in the entertainment district surrounding Ocean Drive. As part of the emergency declaration, the city said it would be shutting down the three main causeways leading into Miami Beach — the MacArthur, the Venetian, and the Julia Tuttle — later that night.
The last-minute declaration, predictably, led to chaos in South Beach and beyond. Spring breakers who failed to vacate the strip were met by police firing pepper balls filled with tear gas. Residents who didn't get the memo were caught in standstill traffic on the causeways for up to four hours. Miami Beach's spring break insanity once again became a national story.
For the past several years, South Beach has drawn crowds of thousands of mostly young, mostly Black tourists during spring break, which can last from late February into early April. And over time, the city's handling of spring break has become a major point of contention. Some residents maintain that police and city leaders aren't doing enough to control the crowds, while critics have said the real problem is racism. The disagreement has created a political tinderbox that seems to explode every year.
During an emergency meeting on Sunday, the city commission voted to extend the short-term emergency order from Saturday. The new rules will trigger an 8 p.m. curfew and a 10 p.m. shutdown of the causeways on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through April 11. But beyond that, commissioners failed to offer anything that sounded like a reasonable, long-term approach to crowd control and public safety during spring break and other high-impact weekends — including Memorial Day, which looms ten weeks away.
In fact, the city's emergency plan has been criticized by just about everyone who lives in, works in, or visits Miami Beach — including one city commissioner himself.
"We cannot, guys, continue to just do causeway closures and curfews and business shutdowns," Commissioner Ricky Arriola said at yesterday's virtual meeting. "Shutting things down cannot be the way this city does business. It is embarrassing, and it just shows that we don't know what we're doing."
The City of Miami Beach Updates State of Emergency Relating to the High Impact Period.— Miami Beach Police (@MiamiBeachPD) March 21, 2021
Eastbound Causeway Closures Begin at 10 p.m.
Delivery Services May Continue Past Midnight.
Curfew in Entertainment District Begins at 8 p.m.
Read More: https://t.co/eVTl0KIg8P pic.twitter.com/dfv55q9BJZ
Although members of the public were not invited to speak during the two-and-a-half-hour-long meeting, more than 1,100 people commented on a Facebook livestream of the proceedings, which at times had over 200 simultaneous viewers. Many were angered by the causeway closures, which left some residents stuck in horrific traffic and others feeling trapped on the barrier island. Other commenters noted that rowdy spring-break crowds have been a part of the city's landscape for several years now and criticized city leaders for not doing enough to quell the crowds and occasional violence.
"Every year we go thru this, and every year nothing changes," one person said.
"There is not a solution," said another.
A handful of Facebook commenters called for the city to bring in the National Guard.
After city commissioners discussed designating certain lanes of the causeways for Miami Beach residents only, Daniella Pierre, president of Miami-Dade's NAACP branch, tweeted that the idea "resembles a play from the 1960s." (For decades, beginning in the '30s, Miami Beach infamously required service workers, many of whom were Black, to carry ID cards in order to move freely throughout the city.)
#BreakingNews but not innovative: Miami Beach is considering two lane MOT checkpoints along Julia Tuttle and Macarthur Causeway for "residents only" & "worker only."— Daniella Pierre (@Daniella4Change) March 21, 2021
Resembles a play from the 1960s not the 21st century.
Pierre and other critics, including 2 Live Crew rapper and New Times columnist Luther Campbell, have urged the city to put together programming for the spring-break crowds to keep visitors entertained and occupied. While city leaders had initially proposed spending $1.1 million on concerts and other activities this year, commissioners voted down the plan in January, saying they didn't want to do anything to attract more crowds during the ongoing pandemic.
But Arriola, the commissioner who criticized his colleagues for their shutdown tactics, noted that the city has green-lit other large events during the pandemic, including the upcoming South Beach Wine & Food Festival.
"We have to explore programming," he said at Sunday's meeting. "We could handle and accommodate large crowds. What we can't accommodate and tolerate are large unruly crowds that come here to make trouble."
He urged the commission "to start doing something different."
"We have failed, and we need to do something new," he said.
Other than the programming suggestion, few solutions were proposed on Sunday. Commissioner Michael Góngora asked if the city could bar people younger than 25 from renting hotel rooms, or if it could tax hotels that offer particularly low prices, suggesting the cheap rates are "problematic."
"I do believe that hotels and Airbnbs are contributing to the problem by lowering their rate and by allowing large groups to stay in there," he said, echoing prior commission discussions that have been criticized as elitist. "It's allowed a group that normally wouldn't be able come to Miami Beach to come here and party in the streets, because that's where they're partying. They're not able to spend money, really, and go to the restaurants and other establishments."
At one point, Góngora floated the idea of enacting a toll for anyone coming into Miami Beach who doesn't live or work there.
"I don't think we can do this without the state's permission — I don't even know that our residents want this — but we've discussed in the past whether we should charge a toll, period, for non-residents and non-employees to come into our city," he said. (The acting city attorney basically shut down the idea immediately, noting the many legal complexities involved.)
Although each of the city's six commissioners said safety was their first priority, the majority seemed stumped when it came to solutions.
"There's no easy answer here because if there was an easy answer, we all would have found it many, many years ago," Commissioner David Richardson lamented.
Think you know what Miami Beach should do about spring break? You can submit your ideas through our Google Form.
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