With Miami Beach Closed, Memorial Day Weekend Will Be Different This Year

Memorial Day weekend 2018
Memorial Day weekend 2018 Photo by George Martinez
If times were normal, tourists and some locals would pack Miami Beach's shoreline, bars, and parks for Memorial Day weekend.

Thousands of visitors would flock to South Beach for Urban Beach Week, the days-long, loosely organized hip-hop festival that city officials have fought for some 20 years. A number of Miami Beach residents and those from the mainland would come out for the annual Air and Sea Show, a relatively new creation honoring members of the military.

But 2020 is a different year.

Beaches and hotels remain closed. The county has allowed restaurants to open their dining rooms with strict capacity limits, but some cities — including Miami Beach — are marching to the beat of their own drums and delaying reopening certain businesses until after the long weekend.

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber says he doesn't think crowds will be a problem this weekend, especially with most of the city still closed.

"Beaches aren't open, hotels aren't open. Restaurants won't be open until after Memorial Day," he says. "There's not that much to go to at this point."

Miami Beach Police spokesperson Ernesto Rodriguez says the department has already placed more officers throughout the city because of the pandemic.

"We will have a handful of additional officers to navigate any issues that may arise [over the weekend]," Rodriguez says. "This includes patrols on our waterways as well as the existing patrols on our beaches and citywide."

Gelber says the community has been mostly compliant with beach closures. Police arrested a woman earlier this month when she refused to leave the beach. WSVN, meanwhile, got footage of a few rogue beachgoers on Tuesday.
Gelber says the city is waiting until after the long weekend to reopen because officials don't want to do anything that could facilitate crowds.

"I definitely don't want to repeat what it looked like during spring break in early March," he says.

Miami Beach did have a rough spring break that coincided with the start of the coronavirus pandemic in Florida. The city also has a long, charged history with Urban Beach Week, which has been mostly attended by young, black visitors, since its start in 1999. City officials' statements and their handling of past events have at times reeked of racism. The NAACP and ACLU have criticized the city for discriminating against black visitors and making them feel unwelcome in the city.

"Rather than welcome this event as it does other events that draw predominantly white crowds, the City appears to be going out of its way to make this event as difficult as possible for visitors to attend, creating the appearance that it is trying to discourage African-Americans from visiting the City," a 2012 letter from the civil rights organizations reads.

Citing unsanctioned events, disorderly crowds, loud music, and increases in crime, officials over the years have banned coolers and speakers on the sand, installed license plate readers and closed lanes of traffic on the causeways, prohibited loud music, and hosted the air show as "alternative programming" to "take back Memorial Day weekend."

Florida Rep. Florida Rep. Michael Grieco, a former Miami Beach commissioner, previously wrote that Urban Beach Week needed to come to an end, claiming that tens of thousands of residents "have fled or locked their doors during the Memorial Day holiday weekend due to crime and violence, exponentially more than any other weekend."

Over Memorial Day weekend in 2011, Miami Beach police fired more than 100 shots into a car following a chase and a standoff, killing 22-year-old Raymond Herisse. And last year, when the city decided to take a new approach and "reframe" the narrative and perception of Urban Beach Week through an art exhibition, City Manager Jimmy Morales asked an artist to take down a piece memorializing Herisse. Artists involved in last year's event said the piece was taken down "under duress" and under the threat of having the entire exhibition taken down.

Last year, when the city passed new restrictions to keep promoters from hosting events during peak tourist season in South Beach bars and clubs, it was enough to thin the crowds and for some revelers to say they'd find a new place to party.

Now, with a deadly virus on the loose, it's all but certain this weekend's festivities will look a lot different.

At least, that's what city officials are expecting: Rodriguez, the police department spokesperson, says lanes of traffic on the causeways won't be reduced this year. And Mayor Gelber says he believes concerns about social distancing will keep large groups from gathering.

"I think the whole world and our community have become careful about crowds, so I would expect and hope that we'd have that same thought during Memorial Day," Gelber says.
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Alexi C. Cardona is a former staff writer at Miami New Times.