Early End to Alcohol Sales During Miami Beach Spring Break Passes First Reading

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Early End to Alcohol Sales During Miami Beach Spring Break Passes First Reading:

Deep divide continues over how to tame rowdy behavior

Once again, as another Spring Break looms, Miami Beach City Commissioners spent hours debating how to curtail the “anything goes” attitude during the month of March. While most residents, businesses, and elected officials agree on the problem, there is yet to be a strong consensus on a solution.

Commissioners did approve on first reading a measure to roll back the hours of alcohol sales on a limited basis in parts of South Beach during peak Spring Break but it was a less restrictive measure than what Mayor Dan Gelber wanted. For twelve days alcohol sales and service must stop at 3 am on Ocean Drive in the MXE District and in parts of the CD-2 District including Collins and Washington Avenues to Pennsylvania, all from 5th to 16th Streets and Collins Court. The area includes Española Way. Currently, establishments there can serve until 5 am. 

Gelber’s initial proposal covered 17 days starting on the first Friday of the month with a 2 am cutoff time but Commissioner David Richardson asked that the dates around Winter Party be excluded. Winter Party, a weeklong LGBTQ celebration, runs from March 4-10 this year. 

As amended, the ordinance would go into effect the second Wednesday in March, which this year is March 11, and continue for a period of 12 days. Richardson also proposed the 3 am time. While it passed 5-2 with the amendments, the debate showed how divided opinion is on whether the early morning alcohol service is the problem. The ordinance still needs a second reading on February 26 and may be amended to further reduce the number of days.

During this year’s peak weeks, the second and third weeks of the month, there will be 263 schools and 243 schools out, respectively. In recent years, those weeks in particular have been marked by rowdy, drunk crowds. Last year, the City was forced to take aggressive measures that included sending police in protective gear onto the beach.

Gelber said the proposal “is not a silver bullet to solve the problem… [but] part of the tool kit.” He readily accepted the 12-day amendment but sought to keep the 2 am time until he realized he didn’t have the votes for it. “2 am, 12 days this calendar year, 36 hours total of alcohol sales. That’s it. That’s it.”

“It’s extremely limited, extremely constrained in what it affects,” he said regarding the time and geographic limits.

“This is a moderate constrained response and, frankly, it would be easy to justify something far, far deeper and wider. I urge you to consider it that way,” Gelber told Commissioners. “When your police chief says you need to do this, you should listen to him.”

“Every community that has had this kind of Spring Break has stiff-armed it… all responded in ways very similar to the way I’m suggesting we respond,” he added.

Commissioner Michael Góngora emphasized the City has taken a number of actions since last year’s Spring Break including efforts aimed at stopping the privately promoted parties, stronger penalties for underage alcohol service, and additional powers for the City Manager to take certain actions he deems necessary.

Ceci Velasco, Executive Director of the Ocean Drive Association, said those measures had not yet been applied to a Spring Break though they have worked successfully during Memorial Day and New Year’s Eve celebrations. She urged the City to give those a chance to be used during this year’s Spring Break before resorting to the early cutoff of alcohol sales.

Local businesses say March is a critical month that sustains them through the difficult months. Velasco, told Commissioners, “March carries people over August, September, October. It’s the trickle-down effect.”

Troy Wright, Executive Director of the Washington Avenue Business Improvement District (BID), said, “The businesses are terrified on Washington Avenue. A lot of them have held on for the last several months by a shoestring hoping for this month in order to make money to last moving forward.”

Many of the business owners have spent their life savings on their businesses, he said, “but that is in jeopardy for a lot of them because they know if they are not able to make money for the month of March that most of them will be out of business.”

“I’ve worked and the BID has worked hard to try to create a different environment on Washington Avenue,” he told Commissioners. “We are successful in that the vacancies are down, but we’re concerned because the businesses we’ve reached out to, potential restaurants, are now saying ‘Hold on. Now we’re not sure we really want to come to Miami Beach because if I know for a month out of the year that I’m not going to be able to sell alcohol between X amount of time or after 12:00 pm,’ that could be potentially dangerous for their business and why would somebody want to invest millions of dollars knowing they only get to operate 11 months out of the year. So, it is a concern, not only for Washington Avenue but, like I said, for the people that have invested their life savings here.” 

Daniel Danilovic, General Manager of Rockwell Miami, a club at 743 Washington Avenue, is one of those who said the early cutoff would have severe consequences for his business. “I’m not here today to argue the ordinance. I understand where it’s coming from but I’m here to ask that we be excluded from the zone as we are a high-end establishment that caters to local clientele.”

“We don’t cater to the Spring Break crowd,” he said. “We’ve been open for about 4 ½ years. I don’t think that we’ve had a single incident since.”

“Mayor, a little bit ago you mentioned it’s only a few hours for these weeks, about 36 hours that we’re cutting off liquor sales,” Donilov said to Gelber. “Particularly for us, we do about 5% of our liquor sales before 2 am and 95% between 2 and 5 am in our establishment so, for us, that would be a devastating blow and we don’t know how we would continue to do our business after a couple weeks like this.”

In an interview with RE:MiamiBeach prior to the meeting, Gelber said, “There’s no amount of drink sales that are worth what I saw a year ago. There’s nothing on the other side of the scales to me, so we’re gonna do something and I’m all ears to hear the ideas, but hope and optimism is not a policy that I’m prepared to rely on.”

One of the themes of discussion was the City’s “brand” – what it is and how it might be impacted by the early cutoff.

Mango’s owner David Wallack, said, “Our main business is tourism. It’s an international level of tourism. We are loaded with hotels. We are known throughout the world since the ‘30s as the world’s playground and that was what differentiated us from other big tourism communities in the world, our nightlife. It always has been our absolutely defining thing.”

Velasco said, “I think you have to be very careful about the message you’re sending to the tourists around the world: ‘We’re closing down at midnight because it’s not safe to be here’ so it’s a branding message.” 

She said the time period also impacts the weeklong Winter Music Conference and Ultra Music Festival. “Our average hotel rate during that time is $350-400… Those are not the people that are in the street with bottles.” Noting the positive Super Bowl experience mentioned by a number of speakers, she said of the music conference attendees, “They’ve already booked. They’re also expecting to be here to have the Super Bowl experience and we’re going to tell them that they can’t.” Its “brand damaging” she said for future bookings.

Góngora said, “I am concerned that the voters voted this measure down, two years ago… and I do recognize that this is for a specific time period that we’re looking at, but the voters looked at this in the same area and shut it down… and, for the residents that think this means the party’s over at 2 or 3 am, it’s really not over because this ordinance only applies to the MXE District... and so the party could still go on on Lincoln Road, Collins Park, inside the hotels. There’s lots of other places that are not impacted by this earlier closure time.”

Richardson, just three months in office, said, “I’m struggling because I just ran a campaign and I had a very, very specific platform that I ran on and I said I want to maintain our brand and that’s a 5 am brand.”

“I’m struggling because, while this is only twelve days, I don’t want it to be interpreted as a test model for the next step,” Richardson said which might be a broader effort to roll back alcohol hours completely. “I’ve got to stay true to the people I represent, to what I said I would support, so I’m struggling with that.”

Some local residents, however, say it’s the “party ‘til you drop” brand that’s the problem.

Carla Probus, said, “We need to shut it down, whatever you can do to shut it down. Residents are now leaving in March. It’s just like Memorial Day. It’s a month of Memorial Day… I’ve seen officers get beat up on the beach at this time. I’ve seen a lot of things on the beach.”

Frank Del Vecchio, responding to statements about visitors who have already booked trips being surprised about the temporary alcohol rollback, said, “There are [also] many, many unsuspecting hotel guests who didn’t know what they were getting into.”

He held up a Spring Break t-shirt from 2010 that he said exemplified all Spring Breaks since. The shirt read, “Spring Break 2010. Party ‘til you puke. Sleep all day, party all night.”

The early closure proposal, he said, “is a singular effort to try to effect that image.” Through good messaging by the City, he said, “[We can] let them know we’re not turning away our tourist industry, we’re trying to contain the worst excesses.”

Mitch Novick, who owns the Sherbrooke Hotel, said “Guests that I catered to for decades no longer return” because of the activity he witnesses and often posts videos of on social media, including drunken behavior and fights. “The image of our city… is one of a party ‘til you drop image which must be changed. The message must be ‘The party is over kids. Find another city to destroy.’” Novick supported the referendum for a citywide 2 am rollback of alcohol sales, which he still advocates for. 

Acknowledging the positive Super Bowl images from just ten days ago, Gelber said, “Think about what happened in March and our brand coming from March” referring to the viral social media images of Spring Break fights. “It was one of the worst things our city’s ever had to withstand. I’m happy about the Super Bowl but we need to do this.” 

One of the concerns, in addition to Winter Party which was carved out of the time period, is the Winter Music Conference March 16-22 with the Ultra Music Festival on the tail end of that. Richardson hopes to come back to the February 26th meeting with a proposal to shrink the restrictions to an eight-day period on a trial basis to keep Ultra out of the window with the option to extend the restrictions only if necessary. The City’s legal department needs to research if that could be accomplished as it would have to be done under an emergency measure to get around the ten-day period that is required before ordinances take effect.

“I don’t want to shut out the Ultra visitors because I don’t think they typically cause an issue for us,” Richardson said.

“This is very creative,” Góngora responded, “but the way that it’s passing exemplifies the fact that nobody voting for this really thinks it’s that necessary or you wouldn’t water this down in such an odd way.” He said, without certainty, the business community couldn’t plan anything for the Ultra weekend. “So, while this is well intended, it really makes no sense. I think you either do it for twelve days or you do it for eight days and you make the decision now and you live with it.”

What frustrated many of the Commissioners was being two weeks from Spring Break and having a conversation they have had for the past two years.  

Commissioner Ricky Arriola said to City Manager Jimmy Morales, “A year ago you were given very specific direction on how this Commission wanted to handle this year’s Spring Break and that was go forward with programming. We didn’t get a plan until six weeks ago. It was super half baked. You asked us for a $1.5 million amendment to the operating budget for a plan none of us vetted prior to that meeting and it was half baked. We didn’t have any specifics and that’s how we were supposed to handle Spring Break. Because we didn’t get a plan and it was a huge number, we all rejected it,” opting instead to spend $500,000 on daytime programming on the most problematic sections of the beach in an effort to disperse and better control crowds.

“As I understand, the person who was spearheading that effort resigned in protest over this whole fiasco,” he said referring to Matt Kenny, the City’s Director of Tourism and Culture, who gave his notice the day before.

“So now, the only thing we have to actually vote on for Spring Break is a 2 am shutdown,” Arriola said. “None of us feel comfortable that this is going to be an actual solution to the problem. I feel like we were misled. We were manipulated. A year ago we told you what we wanted and you didn’t give it to us. You did not give it to us.”

Morales later said, “No one seemed interested in a big festival, no one came forward” to the City’s request for interest in Spring Break programming.

“I don’t think any of us, maybe with the exception of the mayor, have a lot of confidence the 2 am is going to solve this issue so, part of me, I’m just going to vote no today as a protest because we’re jammed into a situation where the recommendation being made to us is in clear conflict with the direction we gave this administration a year ago,” Arriola said.

Commissioner Micky Steinberg said, “I feel like we’re almost pushed into a corner to do something and it’s not a great feeling… We have been waiting so long for something else to come up. I think we’ve all said that and stated that but here we are now. We can’t cry over what didn’t happen. We need to move forward and figure out what we can do so that everybody has a good time and everybody is safe. With that being said, it is only first reading, so we have time to process and really figure out if we surely, ultimately, want to do this.”

“It’s February 12th. Spring Break is imminent,” Commissioner Mark Samuelian said. “It’s very late for us to have to be doing this.” He suggested a 90-day after action report and “six months after Spring Break that we have a plan for next year. Heaven forbid we’re sitting here a year from now.” 

“We do live in a great city,” Samuelian said, “and part of what makes it great is our businesses and I really have great respect for our businesses… What also makes our city great is that everyone is welcome. We are a most diverse and accepting community and there’s just one stipulation: If you come, you gotta play by the rules. Everyone’s welcome if you play by the rules.”

“The current situation we have in Spring Break is unacceptable… When our police chief looks and says, from a public safety standpoint, that he believes in his professional opinion this is what we need to do, then I am willing to try this reduction in hours as part of a holistic approach that we’re taking,” Samuelian said.  

The vote – for 12 days in March, early alcohol cutoff at 3 am, getting an after-action report in 90 days and having a plan for Spring Break 2021 in six months – was 5-2 with Góngora and Arriola opposed. Steinberg said she was a yes “on first reading.”

As initially written, the ordinance would have been permanent but Commissioners agreed to a sunset provision at the end of this year’s restrictions in order to evaluate it and determine any future steps. 

“We’re clearly putting our toe in the water, not much more, but that’s okay,” Gelber said.

After the vote, Góngora said, “I don’t want to be in this situation again next year.” He asked for the Administration’s plan in time for the budget planning process that begins in the spring. “Let us know what the plan is for next year’s Spring Break, what programming we have, however much it’s gonna cost so we can include it in the budget process this year and we’re not sitting here in the same place we’re sitting here this year, trying to figure it out at the last moment.”

During the three-hour debate, Commissioners couldn’t agree on additional powers for the City Manager to take during March. While a resolution was passed last month that would allow Morales to implement measures such as closing cafés early and prohibiting coolers, tents and consumption of alcohol on the beach, among other measures, it was not circulated in advance. The version presented at this meeting included the potential for ambient music only on Ocean Drive between the hours of 7 to 10 pm. Tom Donall, owner of the Palace, an Ocean Drive staple with its popular drag shows that extend out onto the sidewalk, said he has “reservations from all over the world” for shows during March. “We do our show from 7 to 11:30 so if you do twelve days of this, this is going to really detriment us and I think the others on Ocean Drive… I am booked every day on those weekends because people are coming from around the world internationally to see a show at the Palace, so it’s very important.”

Commissioners discussed the ability to carve out the Palace from the music restrictions. Morales mulled exempting the drag shows due to the “historically” significant nature of the business which generated protests from other businesses including Mango’s and the Clevelander, which also arguably could be considered “historically” significant. After being challenged on the ability to single out one business over another by Arriola, Morales agreed it would make him “uncomfortable” to do that. 

The item with the extended powers was later deferred until the February 26 Commission meeting for further discussion about the impacts of the specific items.

We break down some of the other key questions that will continue to be discussed at that meeting.

Does an early cutoff solve the problem?

One of the questions raised during public testimony and by Commissioners themselves was if cutting off alcohol sales would solve the problem.

Ray Breslin, head of the Collins Park Neighborhood Association said, when he was in college, “I couldn’t afford to go to the bars. We bought beer and drank on the beach, on the street or in our room. Same thing is happening today.” 

The issues Breslin sees are during the daytime. “It’s the overcrowding of our city by a similar age demographic and I don’t know how you’re going to solve that but it’s not by rolling back the bars,” he told Commissioners.

Commissioner Michael Góngora recalled looking at arrest reports after last year’s Spring Break, noting, “The peak prime time was from 7 to 11. They weren’t 2-5.”

Commissioner Steven Meiner, elected in November, is new to the Spring Break discussion. “The issue that I’ve had a tough time grappling with is having some concrete and hard data that the issues that we’ve seen the last couple years are coming from the 2 to 5 am period… I haven’t gotten comfortable with the fact that the impact is happening from those hours.”

Are Spring Breakers actually the ones in the venues being impacted?

Also new on the dais, Commissioner David Richardson who asked if the patrons of the businesses impacted are actually the Spring Break crowd. He listed what he believes are the three categories of people here during that time: Spring Breakers, hangers-on “who come to join the party locally”, and tourists here for other reasons. David Wallack, owner of Mango’s Tropical Café, said the Spring Break crowd is not in his club but “out on the beach and the streets,” and the hangers-on “are out with the Spring Breakers trying to sell them drugs and start fights.” But, he said, at 10:30 pm, “That entire beach scene is almost gone and you almost don’t have enough people walking down Ocean Drive to even close the street from traffic. That’s how few were actually milling around after 10:30 pm so, really, the problems are not late night.”

Richardson asked Miami Beach Police Chief Rick Clements if the statement was accurate that the Spring Breakers are not in the clubs and, if they’re not, where are they?

Clements indicated one of the biggest problems for police has been the private parties promoted directly to the Spring Break crowd which have been “overpromoted”, creating capacity issues. “That has been a problem for us from a crowd control perspective,” Clements said.

When Richardson asked if that is where the Spring Breakers and hangers-on are and not in the clubs, Clements responded, “I would be guessing if I said yes, but I would say that is probably accurate.”

Richardson noted one of the new ordinances implemented since last year’s Spring Break prohibits business licenses for promoters and special events permits for the private parties. Though there still may be unauthorized parties, Clements said the City would shut those down immediately, if found.

What happens if you push everyone out onto the street at 2 am?

Ruben Roberts, President of the NAACP, Miami-Dade Branch, said he understood the Commission’s “wanting to make the community safer, wanting to make sure that the officers are safe,” but, he said, his primary concern was where people were going to go at 2 am. With everyone “out and about walking aimlessly,” he warned Commissioners, “There’s going to be more arrests. For the record, there are going to be more arrests [of] disproportionately African-American people.” He urged allowing businesses to have activations, “activities where they can disperse the crowd” in a more controlled manner.

Resident Stephen Cohen expressed concern about the crowd after 2 am leaving the Entertainment District and spreading out across the City to the privately promoted parties. As part of a longer-term vision, he asked, “How do we get the entertainment back into the entertainment areas?” Doing that, he said, “will make it easier for the cops because right now the entertainment is all over the city.”

James Echols, a resident and event producer, asked, “Is the idea of this proposal to reduce the number of tourists by making it less pleasant to be here? Because if it’s not, you’re going to have exactly what this gentleman [Cohen] said.  We’ll have the same number of people coming except, instead of trickling out of the clubs from 2 to 5, they’ll all be coming out at 2 am. You think anybody’s going to go to bed at 2 am? I mean, really? Were you ever 18? 19? No. Where are they going to go? Across to Alton, to West, to hotel parties across the causeway to buy liquor, come back. You’ll have so many more people driving, so many more people out walking around.”

“Unless the goal, really, is to reduce the number of tourists – which could be a possibility, right? – then you still have the same number of people to deal with but now you’ve got three more hours of the night to deal with them outside,” Echols said.

Asked how the police would handle the crowds leaving at 2, Chief Clements said, “As clubs are vacating, we will move them along with very careful tactics… where they’re going to go after they leave, I can’t answer that question. I don’t know where they’re going to go.”

Will this reduce the need for police resources?

While voting no on first reading, Arriola said, “If push comes to shove and this is really going to keep our city safe and help our police officers get some rest, then I will support it on second reading, but, Chief, you’re going to be on Alpha Bravo anyway, right? So, it’s not like our guys on the force are going to get more rest, they’re still going to be Alpha Bravo, right?

Responding about the utilization of the Alpha Bravo (all hands on deck) schedule, Clements said officers would still be working 13-14 hour days, six days a week during the Spring Break period with supplemental police resources in the second week of the peak break schedule.

How will the City control the crowds on the beach and coming off the beach?

Clements said a few measures were taken last year that proved successful, including eliminating the problem area around 8th Street. Exits were moved to 10th and 15th with crossover areas with police officers to direct pedestrian movement. Barricades to separate the crowd coming off the beach from the sidewalk cafés created a buffer zone to keep the crowds moving from north to south.

He noted the Ocean Drive Association worked with their members to voluntarily lower music volume from 7 to 10 pm. “Instead of congregating in front of one location where music was blaring, the crowed moved around more freely. That was a good thing for us,” Clements said.

And, unlike 2018, he noted, “We didn’t rush the kids off the beach last year which kind of diffused the crowd a little bit.”

What types of “counterprogramming” will there be to give the crowds something to do?

While the City tried, unsuccessfully, to generate programming for March 2020 (and 2021), Commissioners authorized $500,000 for daytime programming only to “curate the public beach” to, as Chief Clements said, “take out hot spot area from 7th to 10th Streets.”

The presentation by Bruce Orosz of ACT Productions, the company hired to implement the activations, came at the end of a long day and nearly three hours into the Spring Break discussion. 

Arriola who didn’t like what he was hearing about morning beach cleanups, yoga, kickball and DJs said, “We’re a bunch of middle age white people trying to figure out what Spring Breakers want.”

“I want this to be successful and I don’t think this will get us there,” he said.

Part of the plan calls for controlled beer and wine service from 6th to 8th Streets.

David Wallack of Mango’s said being in the business of serving alcohol is very complicated with “so many fake IDs… You’re talking about a mass of people where you would not be able to supervise underage drinking.”

Orosz told Commissioners, “You can literally, suddenly, make it so unattractive you scare off the Spring Breakers… or make it lawful and safe. Let’s make sure we have the programs and assets in place so we can regulate bad behavior.”

Gelber said he was in favor of “anything that takes part of this terrain out of commission [so] the police can be more organized.” Though he said it did concern him in one regard. “Are we trying to repel or are we trying to embrace and say ‘have a good time.’ I worry that the mixed message is there’s no message,” he said.


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