Miami Beach chooses “tough love” over “fun” for Spring Break

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Miami Beach chooses “tough love” over “fun” for Spring Break:

Expect enforcement and restrictions on alcohol sales and music

Miami Beach Commissioners nixed an ambitious programming plan for Spring Break opting for “tough love” over fun. Instead of nighttime concerts with “controlled sales” of alcohol, Commissioners voted to declare the entire month of March a “high-impact period” with restrictions on music, early closures of sidewalk cafés, and suspension of licenses for special event promoters in the Entertainment District (MXE). Next month, they will consider legislation that would require midnight closures during the month for any business that sells alcohol in the MXE, including package stores, and to expand the geographic area in the high impact periods ordinance to include the Collins Park commercial district which would extend the restrictions to that area. 

The City has struggled in recent years with controlling rowdy crowds of revelers during Spring Break and, last year, sent police in heavy gear onto the beach to curtail the party. Commissioners later voted to give the City Manager the ability to implement emergency measures as he deemed appropriate such as closing sidewalk cafés and turning down the music in the Entertainment District but only for periods up to 72 hours. Extended restrictions require Commission approval which led Morales to ask for the month-long “high-impact” designation for March.

Morales said his team had been working on “carrot and stick” measures to include programming as well as restrictions. “If we’re going to be successful, we need a tough hand as well,” he said.

Police Chief Rick Clements, told Commissioners Spring Break “once again is going to prove to be a challenge.” Plans were still in flux pending Commission direction on programming but, he said, he anticipated a similar deployment of police officers as last year, an Alpha Bravo schedule with all-hands-on-deck during the heaviest period from March 9 through the 22 when 263 schools will be on break and enhanced staffing during the first and last weeks of the month.

With costs of policing Spring Break estimated as high as $4 million, Mayor Dan Gelber and Commissioners sought alternatives. One idea was to program the month to give spring breakers something to do and to change the dynamic for residents, similar to the way the City changed the tone of Memorial Day Weekend with the annual Air and Sea Show. After Commissioners rejected Commissioner Ricky Arriola’s proposal to bring the Ultra Music Festival here, the City sought a producer to program the month with daytime and nighttime activities including sports and fitness during the day and concerts at night.

Miami Beach Director of Tourism and Culture Matt Kenny presented Commissioners with a $1.5 million proposal that included hiring ACT Productions, a local company that produced both the City’s Centennial celebration and was behind the recent effort, ultimately postponed, to bring a Pop Music Festival here last November. They were the only respondents to the City’s Request for Letters of Interest for March programming. Live Nation, which had expressed some interest in bringing artists to Miami Beach for Spring Break, was still in the mix but did not want to take on responsibility for the entire program, Kenny said. With a producer on board, he expected to continue those discussions.

Kenny said the plan was “to embrace the majority of the tourists that are coming, give them something to do, engage our residents and bring them back to Ocean Drive, and tell the people that are creating problems, 'Go somewhere else.'” He proposed daytime programming that included beach cleanups, Ninja Warrior challenges; a “day club” with lounge chairs, cabanas, and food and beverage options; and an open area with sports and fitness activities including beach volleyball and soccer. A main stage would take up a large portion of the beach for nighttime concerts. Other ideas included a beach bonfire on Monday nights, movie night on Tuesdays, and a Latin night for Wednesdays with the party into the weekend starting on Thursday with a “SoBe Beach Club” night, Flashback Friday that might include a 90s hip hop theme or other theme party, and then concerts on Saturdays and Sundays. Artists mentioned that might be interested included Pharrell, Juanes, Black Coffee, Questlove, Emily Estefan, Nuc Deco Ensemble, Aloe Blacc, and DJ Benbona

Commissioners weren’t buying it. Arriola complained “This is not a winning line-up – with one or two exceptions – for Spring Break” adding “I’m not going to be favorable to spending $1.5 million to get mediocre talent… I’m not going to do something half-ass that embarrasses the City and doesn’t accomplish our ultimate goals.” Kenny noted the most popular artists are beyond the City’s budget and that’s where Live Nation would come in.

Concerns were raised over bringing more people to the Beach while “bad actors” remained. “It could be worse, not better,” Commissioner Michael Góngora said.

Both the late hour – the item was scheduled to be heard at 3 pm but wasn’t taken up until 7 nearly eleven hours into the meeting – and the material being presented for the first time just six weeks prior to Spring Break month frustrated Commissioners.

“Frankly, I’m pissed off the Administration is giving us this six weeks in advance,” Arriola said. Without appropriate time to market events, he said, “We’re going to blow $1.5 million… It’s such a tough thing to vet at the 11th hour.”

“This presentation is coming at me very, very late,” Góngora said. With a $1.5 million price tag, he added, “I don’t have enough information… We need to get [items like this] much sooner if we’re expected to have these huge expenditures.”

With concerns that the cost was likely on top of the $4 million policing costs, Gelber asked Clements and City CFO John Woodruff, “If we spend money on programming, are you pretty certain you don’t need the same amount of money for the ‘no fun’ part? Are you going to cut your ‘no fun’ part by the amount we’re spending on the ‘fun’ part?”

Woodruff noted the “huge price tag” for policing and said, “From a fiscal perspective, we can’t afford that… so anything we’re going to do is going to be cheaper than that. Until we know what the programming is going to be, [Chief Clements] can’t give you a final figure.” [Note: When the FY 2020 budget was approved, it only included $1.1 million for Spring Break. Woodruff said at the time that the additional $2.6 million would be funded through a mid-year budget amendment once plans for programming became more clear. ]

“We’re going to spend whatever it takes. We learned that last year,” Woodruff said emphasizing the Alpha Bravo model is “not sustainable. That’s not something we can really afford and that’s why we’re here” with options.

Commissioner Mark Samuelian said, Miami Beach is a “welcoming community as long as you play by the rules… When we stepped up our enforcement [last year], it really made a difference… that needs to stay.”
 
“The idea of zero tolerance, positive programming, and some of these enforcement measures, broadly I support,” Samuelian said. “What alternatives do we have? The status quo is not acceptable.”

Gelber worried “We’re trying to program our way out and I’m just not convinced our programming – whether it’s high level or not – is going to solve the problem” or allow the city to reduce its police expenditures.

“Maybe we don’t do programming and we just do the tough love, close things down early and have a lot of cops out there and change the narrative,” Morales responded, though he noted the idea with the programming was how to “repurpose” Spring Break similar to Memorial Day Weekend with a more positive experience.

In the end, Commissioners voted to try the daytime programming only and authorized up to $500,000 to cover the costs.

Morales made his pitch to “end this party ‘til you drop attitude” with the ability for him to use the powers given him in the high impact periods ordinance over the entire month of March.

They include:
  • Closing Ocean Drive to vehicular traffic from Thursday – Sunday morning each week, and use of French barricades to create buffer areas between businesses and pedestrian areas;
  • No live or amplified music in the High Impact Zones except with a special events permit;
  • Noise ordinance exemption will not be in effect for any portions of Ocean Drive. Currently the 9th through 11th Street blocks are exempt;
  • No amplified music on Ocean Drive between the hours of 7 pm and 10 pm daily;
  • Sidewalk Cafés located on Ocean Drive will close daily at midnight;
  • Española Way from Collins to Washington Avenue will be closed to vehicular traffic from Thursday – Monday morning each week;
  • Ninth Street from Ocean to Collins Avenue will be closed to vehicular traffic from Thursday – Monday morning each week;
  • No street parking on Collins Avenue from Thursday – Sunday morning each week; 
  • If needed, the establishment of occupancy limits for different segments of the beach and prohibiting access to areas that have reached those limits;
  • Implementation of a license plate reader police detail that may be utilized on the eastbound traffic lanes of the MacArthur Causeway and other access points to the City; and
  • Suspension of all business tax receipts (business licenses) to promoters for any dance or entertainment event(s) to be held at an alcoholic beverage establishment located in the MXE (except Ocean Terrace and Washington and Collins Avenues).
Morales suggested, in addition to closing sidewalk cafés at midnight, that the Commission “consider actually closing the alcohol establishments altogether” at midnight in the Entertainment District during March, both inside restaurants and package stores, noting it was one of the measures Panama City took to get its Spring Break under control. 

The early closing was one of two ordinance changes he proposed. The other was to expand the jurisdiction of the high impact ordinance to include the Collins Park commercial district. In a handout distributed to Commissioners at the meeting, Morales noted, “We are already experiencing some issues with some of the clubs and bars in Collins Park, and the proximity of this area to the MXE provides spring breakers a convenient way to avoid restrictions imposed in the MXE.”

Gelber said if there was “an appetite” to stop liquor sales at midnight, he would sponsor the measure. “That may be the most effective tool, frankly, if the world knows that there’s not liquor after midnight in the Entertainment District.”

What that ordinance would cover – types of businesses and where – will be hammered out before the next Commission meeting on February 12. 

Góngora said the package liquor store sales “are probably worse than bars… the crowd is not going to bars,” adding “I don’t have a problem with going extreme on package liquor sales but I don’t necessarily want to put our businesses out of business either.”

Gelber said he would bring the item up for discussion in February but added stopping the sales early would “send a message to the marketplace, that, ‘Hey, if you’re looking to come and drink all night this ain’t the place to go’ which is exactly the message, probably, we want to send.”

The two ordinances will be heard first on February 12 and again on February 26 so that, if passed, they will be effect in time for the heaviest Spring Break period. (Ordinances go into effect ten days after being passed on second reading.)

John Deutzman, co-founder of the Miami Beach Crime and Prevention Awareness Group, has been outspoken about the need to tamp down the party atmosphere in the MXE. Reacting to the Commission’s actions, he said, “This is such an enormous and urgent problem that there’s only two ways to handle it. One is with a gigantic counterprogramming effort like Ultra, which I supported, or a complete shutdown of the alcohol supply throughout the entire Entertainment District to the best of the City’s ability. I proposed shutting down all the sidewalk cafés all day and all night for the [heaviest] two week period. The sidewalk cafés are a huge problem during that period.”

Deutzman expressed frustration that the Spring Break discussion was taken up so late in the meeting. Commissioner Michael Góngora had to leave for another commitment in the middle of the discussion and Commissioner Micky Steinberg mentioned she was sick and not at her best for a serious, later in the evening conversation.

“First of all, as a former television reporter,” Deutzman said, “I’m trained to go with the most important thing first, the lede.”

“This [discussion] was supposed to happen at 3:00 and it didn’t start until four hours later,” he said. “It sends a message that this is not important if this is the last thing you’re talking about and it’s altogether disrespectful to the people who are asked to come there at 3 and have to listen to all the cockamamie things that have nothing to do with the price of tea in China… and this major item of public importance is held to the last thing of the night.”  By the time the item was discussed, a number of people who were in attendance to address it, including Ocean Drive businesses, had already left.

“What I’m worried about more than anything with a cop in the hospital who was almost killed by an unstable person, you’re going to have tens of thousands of unstable drunk people here for Spring Break,” Deutzman said referencing the stabbing of a Miami Beach Police officer on Ocean Drive this past weekend.

“My concern is the amount of police resources and putting our police in danger to deal with stuff year after year after year and it gets worse and multiplies in intensity year after year.”

Alex Fernandez chairs the Miami Beach Police Citizens Advisory Committee. He spoke with RE:MiamiBeach about his frustrations with the process, emphasizing his comments were his own and did not reflect the Committee’s positions.

After last year’s Spring Break, he said, there was an “outcry” from people “feeling unsafe on how things went down and occurred in our community.”  

“A big part of what was supposed to happen was a special event for this year. For we to be as a city six weeks away from Spring Break and for the plan for the special events to have been presented for the first time at a Commission meeting at 8 pm last night is a complete disregard to the outcry from the community. Complete disregard,” he said echoing Deutzman’s complaint.

“I am very concerned that not having something concrete in place today places our Police Department in an extremely unfair situation when between today and Spring Break they have the mother of all special events that they have to deal with which is called the Super Bowl,” he said. “Who can reasonably expect our Police Department to be able to properly prepare a staffing plan for a special event that is happening in six weeks when we still don’t know what that special event will be when they have the Super Bowl in between.”

“I am extremely disappointed. I expect our Commission to adopt a policy that these plans be presented before the adoption of the budget so we properly prepare our City for these activities,” he added.

If something goes wrong during Spring Break, Fernandez said, “They’re not going to go to Code [Enforcement] or knock on the Fire Chief’s door saying ‘You didn’t protect us.’ You know who everyone’s going to blame at the end of the day if there’s a fiasco? No one’s going to blame the Special Events Department… They’re going to demand accountability from the Police, not the Special Events Department. I’m very disappointed that Special Events has not been able to secure a proper plan.”

Fernandez is in favor of the measures to end alcohol sales early, including prepackaged beverages “which was what was creating a significant problem last year,” he said, as well as securing the entrances to the beach with “proper security checks at the entrance, not just for weapons, but the driver of our problems which is alcohol and marijuana which dehydrates people in the heat and impairs their judgement.”

He’s also in favor of expanding the boundaries of the high impact area. “It’s unfair just to limit it to Ocean Drive,” he said.

And the music? Fernandez says turn it off when beachgoers leave the sand. Despite “ambient” music being allowed – defined as being able to hear a conversation over it – he said, “The moment they come off the beach, the party’s over. No ambient music.”

“The ambient music becomes free entertainment for people to be on the street,” he explained. “The businesses don’t benefit from that. The taxpayers don’t benefit from that and it becomes an unsafe situation for our visitors. No ambient music. The party is over.”

He’s also advocating private security for the daytime events. 

“Our officers are going to be working so hard during Super Bowl, which I called earlier the ‘mother of all special events’ and then a couple weeks later, three weeks later, we’re going to be asking them to be working 13-hour shifts with one day off during the week, very exhausting schedules,” he said. “They deserve to know what they’re going to be dealing with in six weeks so that they can properly prepare because everyone, at the end of the day, goes to them when things go wrong when in reality this is something that, it’s the Special Events people that need to make sure that this goes right.”

As to the late hour of the discussion and the proposal on the events not being made available in advance, he said, the Administration needs to remember it’s “working for the residents not for the tourists. [Residents] should have the opportunity to comment… And they were not consulted. The residents were not consulted at all.”

Updated to clarify the ordinance that will be considered in February regarding stopping all alcohol sales at midnight.

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