The discussion followed a difficult, high capacity weekend in which several Ocean Drive businesses were forced to close their outdoor cafes due to large crowds and human stampedes, one of which occurred when members of the crowd mistook a bottle breaking for a gunshot.
In what he called an “oversaturated” crowd situation, Miami Beach Police Chief Dan Oates (above) told Commissioners, “I think we struck the right balance of enforcement and crowd control.”
While praising the police, Mayor Dan Gelber said, “Saturday night and over the weekend, it really felt like we were losing control.” Saying “There’s absolutely no way the City can absorb that party atmosphere,” he called on the Commissioners to have a dialogue to prevent another occurrence like this weekend. “Everything ought to be on the table,” he said.
City Manager Jimmy Morales came with a list of ideas.
First he, said, “It’s clear that we need to begin to message very proactively and aggressively starting months before spring break to prospective visitors, to the universities, to the people in the hospitality industry, etc. what our rules are. One thing we learned is that most people don’t have any idea that we don’t allow drinking on the beach.”
He mentioned other cities including Fort Lauderdale and Panama City which do something similar. He said Miami Beach needs to do the same, to “educate folks what we expect behavior to be here, what we won’t tolerate and that we’re going to enforce the rules so at least when they get here they at least know what we’re expecting, can’t feign ignorance.”
In Panama City Beach, he said there are no liquor sales after 2 am. That is another option here, he said.
More aggressive enforcement of rules, more police staffing, more beach checkpoints, and a limitation on what beachgoers can bring, are also on the table. Morales suggested only being able to bring a towel on the beach. “We know that college kids are very creative with how they hide their liquor, a bottle of water filled with vodka,” for example, he said. The City would work with concessionaires to have water and refreshments on the beach.
Traffic management is another critical part of any plan going forward, Morales said. He noted the City could consider a traffic loop to restrict the flow of traffic to Collins and Washington, prohibiting access to neighborhoods, eliminating the parking on Collins and Washington as well as Ocean Drive, and raising parking rates to discourage driving onto Miami Beach.
Further, he said, the City could look at having DUI checkpoints along with the successful License Plate Reader program on causeways.
“The scooters and motorized vehicles, 2 and 3 wheel vehicles, have become a major problem,” Morales said. “They’ve become a real real problem in managing traffic and even public safety. In curbing its own spring break behavior problem, Panama City Beach prohibited overnight rentals of scooters. Morales said the legal department is now working on legislation to regulate them here during spring break, though he did not give details.
In addition to potentially ending the sale of alcohol after a certain hour, Morales suggested early enforcement of the noise ordinance. “They don’t come here for the clubs,” he said of the spring breakers. “They come here to hang out on the beach, they hang out on the streets [for] that cabaret environment, so we need to kill that cabaret environment if that’s how we’re going to get them not there.”
He also suggested not allowing special events permits to prohibit promoters from hosting events, noting a “Bad Behavior” promotion where one club encouraged bad behavior.
“There’s a lot of good kids who come and spend a lot of good money,” Morales said, “but we really have to crack down on the bad behavior and send the message very strongly out there including to the promoters.”
When Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez tried to quantify the cost of increasing the police presence to enforce the rules, Police Chief Dan Oates said the heightened presence for the four day Memorial Day Weekend costs $1m including overtime and equipment.
“We had this conversation last year right after spring break,” Rosen Gonzalez said. “We’ve already had this conversation and it didn’t work. Whatever we did, it’s become worse this year.”
“I would take every single action that you possibly can to do whatever Fort Launderdale did,” she said. “Fort Lauderdale didn’t want spring break. Was it Panama City? They shut it down. If you have to shut down everything for two whole weeks so that we no longer host spring break and we lose that $5-7m in revenue, that’s what we’re going to end up spending in costs anyway. It’s unsafe.”
READ our special report on Spring Break: Is this Miami Beach's Fort Lauderdale moment?
Rosen Gonzalez picked up on Jenkin’s comments. “I think we send a message to the world you can come to Miami Beach and we’re not going to, you know, there’s going to be no consequence or very little consequence. And I think that’s why we have now become this partying spring break mecca.”
To audience applause, she said, “I believe that we need to reverse, reverse the marijuana legislation because what we have right now are drugs being sold on every corner, children being offered drugs, its wafting through the air, and it sends this message you can come here and do whatever you want … We are a city of residents that smoke marijuana but you can’t do it in the MXE. I don’t know what to say maybe you can’t do it on the beach, you can’t do it in the MXE.” The MXE is the Entertainment District between 5th and 15th Streets on Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue.
Commissioner Mark Samuelian said the weekend wasn’t good for anyone, residents or businesses. “We’ve had an outpouring from our residents … perhaps what most struck me is that businesses were not doing well in this environment. Clearly, we taxed our City staff and maybe, frankly, for the guests who thought they were having a good time, they were in a dangerous situation.”
“My headline is we were darn lucky,” Samuelian said. “That we’re all sitting here having this conversation with the limited sort of impact given what we had, we were lucky.”
Samuelian supported short-term and long-term planning to including upfront messaging, enforcement, reduced hours for alcohol sales, scooter regulations, and towels-only on the beach.
“But this is no simple undertaking,” he said, advocating for a “very disciplined, comprehensive planning” process and hiring an outside consultant to help.
In the short-term, Samuelian asked to “pressure test our plans for Memorial Day, make sure we have everything we need.” To Chief Oates, he said, “If you need something, we should have that conversation sooner rather than later.”
Commissioner John Aleman said, this is the worst spring break she has seen in her 24 years as a Beach resident, “What I mean by that is the volumes of people. As the Chief said, most people here were not doing anything wrong. They were having a good time and that’s great, but the problem was we had so many people in one place, one confined place, if something goes wrong it can turn out disastrous. I do agree with my colleague we were lucky that nothing happened worse than it did.”
Aleman suggested the City may have seen larger numbers this year due to other areas that remain closed by Hurricane Irma.
She said she remained concerned about the 12 special events permits the Commission approved at its last meeting for curated activities during Memorial Day Weekend and she asked the Commission to revisit that proposal at its next meeting.
Finally, she said, “I’m really culturally concerned by the level of disrespect that I see [on videos shown by Oates from the weekend] … I can’t believe what a good job our Miami Beach Police officers do for tolerating that level of disrespect and staying professional and doing their jobs. I want to commend each and every one of them for that.”
Mayor Dan Gelber spoke of his background as a prosecutor in commending the police actions. “It’s so hard. It’s a tinder and every decision that’s made can light it,” he said. “We weren’t just lucky, honestly, I think you all were put in that situation where once you have that capacity problem, there are very few good options you really have. You’ve just got to figure out have to navigate that and I want to thank you all for not – this could have been so much worse than it was, although I think, obviously we should use this moment to figure out how to not have this situation again because I don’t think we can tolerate it.”
Commissioner Michael Gongora supported more police, if necessary, including using the City's agreements with agencies from other cities to supplement their presence. “With regard to problems of the bad behaviors on Ocean Drive, we need to get these small crimes under control,” he said. “Just like people can’t drink … people shouldn’t be able to go around blowing marijuana in people’s faces on Ocean Drive and from what I’m hearing and what I’m smelling when I’m walking down Ocean Drive, that is exactly what’s happening. So If we’ve given some instruction from a previous Commission to allow that, then that is wrong and we need to reverse course because I think it’s all these little crimes people get away with – they feel cool drinking on the street, they feel cool smoking on the street, they’ll feel cool fighting on the street, and getting into all sorts of other crimes. I think we need to be pretty vigilant in going after the small crimes.”
Gongora also supported an outside consultant to “get things under control”.
In addition to the resort areas shuttered by Irma, Commissioner Ricky Arriola surmised that crackdowns in other spring break destinations including Fort Lauderdale and Panama City Beach “may be pushing people here”, otherwise, with the costs of hotel rooms and drinks here, he didn’t get why anyone would come to Miami Beach for spring break.
In addition to all the suggestions, Arriola said, “Policy wise, we have to decide do we want spring break or not? And that’s a policy decision. If we don’t want it, we can implement a lot of polices that are very draconian in nature to drive it away. If we want it, up to what point are we going to tolerate certain things?”
Commissioner Micky Steinberg was brief and to the point. “We have ordinances. We have lots of ordinances that deal with promoters, that deal with the beach, that deal with so much,” she said. “We need enforcement of the ordinances we have on the books. Illegal is still illegal and we need to make sure we are doing everything we can whereby everybody is safe and having a good time but the rules are enforced and the laws are enforced.” That comment also generated applause from the audience.
And, then, Rosen Gonzalez suggested an unusual idea that would dominate headlines the day after the discussion ... blast “the most un-party friendly music that you could possibly think of, like the John [Philip] Sousa March [or] Hava Nagila. I don’t care what we’re going to play. I would play it. I would blast it. I would disperse the crowd and I think you’re going to see spring break will go away.” She reasoned it wouldn’t cost any more money this year as the Police Department had DJs on the beach during weekends in March. “We already have the equipment there. We’ll drown out all the music they have [with] the music they’re going to most dislike, and blast it and say ‘You know what guys? We don’t want to host the party anymore.’”
She continued, “If it’s unsafe, it’s unsafe for everyone. It’s unsafe for the kids. It’s unsafe for the cops. It’s unsafe for the businesses. It’s unsafe for the children that are walking to ballet school. So, if we’re going to break up the party, I think we should break it up.”
Rosen Gonzalez concluded, “We can’t just turn off the music. I think we should do something radical because we were here last year. I feel like its Groundhog Day. We’ve been here. We’ve done this. We have a high impact ordinance. It didn’t work. The only thing that we can possibly do is outsource some kind of expert who can come in and tell us what we possibly need to do to break up spring break or we can music everybody out.”
Arriola said, “Commissioner Rosen Gonzalez asked a very provocative question. What do we do to make this uncool to kids?” He suggested inviting their parents. Gongora responded, “Mozart on the beach?”
Gelber noted City Manager Morales has the authority to hire consultants up to $50,000 and suggested he do so, then added, “We haven’t answered Commissioner Arriola’s statement. Do we want spring break or not?”
“I think what we’re very sure we want is to not have a spring break like we’re having,” he said in response to his own question. “I think it’s absolutely certain that this Commission does not want people coming here to simply hang around in throngs drinking and deciding that they’re going to do here what they wouldn’t do where they come from, but,” he said to Chief Oates, “we can’t get in this position again where on a Saturday night you’re powerless because If you try to enforce the law you’re gonna create a much different and probably more perilous and dangerous situation. I commend the very, very difficult decisions and judgment and your officers. I don’t think it was simply luck that we survived that weekend. Let’s just not have that weekend again.”
Post script: Classical music has been used as a punishment on Miami Beach before. South of Fifth residents, Marian and Frank DelVecchio shared a 2004 article from The Guardian which details how Judge Jeffrey Swartz gave club promoter Michael Carreras a choice in his sentence for violating the City’s noise nuisance ordinances. He could pay a $500 fine or listen to 1 ½ hours of La Traviata with Swartz saying “You impose your music on me, I’m going to impose my music on you.” Carreras chose the classical music punishment. According to The Guardian, “He subsequently claimed, possibly to vex Judge Swartz, that he quite enjoyed it - although one imagines that he learned his lesson.” According to Marian DelVecchio, word of the enforcement – and sentence – cleared the City’s boombox problem up in 30 days, as promised by then Police Chief Don DeLucca.