Citing public safety concerns, Miami Beach Interim City Manager Raul Aguila today declared a State of Emergency to reduce Spring Break crowds that have overwhelmed the City during the past week. Emergency measures starting tonight include:
- An 8 pm through 6 am curfew in the area bounded by 5th Street on the south, 16th Street on the north, Pennsylvania Avenue on the west, and Ocean Drive on the east, called the “High Impact Zone.”
In an effort to abate the crowds coming into the city, the City will close three causeways as follows:
- Eastbound lanes on the Julia Tuttle Causeway and MacArthur Causeways will be completely closed to traffic from 9 pm through 6 am except to City residents, guests of hotels in the City, and employees of business establishments in the City.
- Eastbound lanes on the Venetian Causeway will be completely closed to traffic from 9 pm through 6 am except to City residents.
- Effective at 8 pm tonight, Ocean Drive will be closed to pedestrian and vehicular traffic, except to City residents requiring access to or from their homes, guests of hotels requiring access to or from their hotels, and employees of business establishments. Other public roads within the High Impact Zone may be closed as deemed necessary by the Interim City Manager or Chief of Police.
- All sidewalk café operations including expanded outdoor restaurant seating will be suspended effective at 7 pm tonight in the High Impact Zone. Sidewalk café operators must stack or remove tables and chairs no later than 8 pm tonight.
- Restaurants in the High Impact Zone may remain open until midnight for delivery services only.
The measures will be in effect for 72 hours and will be assessed at an emergency meeting of the City Commission, scheduled for Sunday at 3 pm. To watch the meeting, join via Zoom at https://miamibeachfl-gov.zoom.us/j/81392857671. The webinar ID is 813 9285 7671.
In an announcement of the measures, the City said it “strongly urges all businesses in the High Impact Zone to close voluntarily during the State of Emergency.”
Mayor Dan Gelber said, “Too many people are coming here right now and too many people are coming here with bad intentions.”
In addition to seeing the images and videos of crowds, fights, and large groups of people running away from something, Gelber said he has been out there as well. “A lot at times it is perfectly fine, during the day especially, but at night… it feels out of control.”
The moves are “pre-emptive,” he said, “to stop something terrible from happening… Our city in this area has become a tinder and we cannot have a policy of simply hoping that it’s not lit.
Aguila who has been Interim City Manager for three months said, “This is not an easy decision to make” but one that was necessary after “crowds numbering into the thousands” gathered Friday night.
“As we hit the peak of the peak of Spring Break, we are quite simply overwhelmed in the Entertainment District,” Aguila said. “I received emails from several businesses who have either voluntarily closed or who do not want to open due to the crowds and the overcapacity that is surging in the Entertainment District.
The Clevelander announced yesterday it would close its food and beverage operations through at least March 24th due to safety concerns. The hotel will remain open and only guests will be able to have food service.
When Commissioners meet, Aguila said, they could decide to keep the measures beyond 72 hours, modify them, or adopt additional measures.
“Last night, it was quite simply overwhelming,” he emphasized. “It looked like a rock concert. You couldn’t see pavement and you couldn’t see grass. We feel this is necessary to protect our residents and to protect our visitors including our Spring Breakers who we want to keep safe.”
Miami Beach Police Chief Rick Clements said despite the increased police presence that includes MBPD officers working twelve hour shifts and help from Miami-Dade County and other local municipalities, “We’ve done everything we can to try to mitigate the behavior that we’re seeing but, quite frankly, I’m getting concerned that the behavior is getting a little more for us to be able to handle.”
He cited one incident Thursday night in which people ran, tables and chairs were thrown “and used as weapons” and property destroyed. “We hoped that it was a one-time event. Last night we had three. We had three of those situations.” During one, a young woman was hurt as she tried to run away, he said.
“We need to mitigate those circumstances to keep them from getting worse,” Clements said. Police staffing will continue at the enhanced level, but the “pre-emptive” measures are important to take now, he emphasized.
In response to a question about accusations of racism due to the primarily African-American makeup of the crowd, Gelber said, “Look at the videos. Look at the pictures. We’re not targeting people or any people. We’re targeting conduct. Is there any community anywhere that would say it’s okay to have somebody fire a weapon in a crowd and the crowd then almost riots across open blocks? We can’t allow our guests or our residents or our workers to be put in danger because we can’t control everything.”
The issue, he reiterated is the volume of crowds overwhelming the number of police. “This is happening on weekday nights, not even weekend nights,” Gelber said. “I don’t recall that happening with any kind of regularity even in our most challenging of times … This is something different.”
“The pandemic has limited the amount of destinations and there are a lot of cheap flights" to Miami, he added. “We are targeting conduct that is obviously something that needs to be diminished.”
Jonathan Plutzik, owner of The Betsy Hotel on Ocean Drive and Chair of the Ocean Drive Association, said, “To some extent we have these challenges because we may be the best destination in the world at the moment … I struggle to find a better place to be at the moment and, frankly, it’s being validated every day by who is choosing to come to live here and visit here.”
Plutzik supports the Mayor and City Manager’s decision. “I think it was time for the City to act in a decisive way. The reality is that however wonderful this crowd of young and not so young people, because of course not all of them are college students, we just have very large crowds and large crowds are very difficult to handle under any circumstance. That’s true of a Super Bowl, a World Series, or a big rock concert.”
But with Spring Break, he said, “We have it in our streets and the difficulty is it doesn’t take much of an issue – real or imagined – to set a crowd off in the wrong direction.”
“We can’t wait until something really bad happens,” Plutzik said, echoing Gelber and Aguila. “Obviously, there are short-term consequences for businesses that are impacted including mine but, in the end, the future success of my business and any business is tied directly to the future and success of Miami Beach as a community. We can foolishly take a very short-term view and see how much money we can make tonight or we can ask ourselves what is the right path forward for the community as a whole.”
Plutzik said the majority of Ocean Drive operators support today’s actions. “I think the wise operators among us understand that we’ve got to look past tonight, tomorrow night or the next night in terms of the rules and say what is the right path to make this as successful a place as possible… not narrowly tailored for a particular business but for everyone that chooses to make their life here.”
What about next year? How do we avoid the same pitfalls? “I wish I had a crystal ball, but I think we have to think about the kinds of things that we – and we is really our elected and appointed leadership – need to do to set the guardrails earlier,” Plutzik said, and that will include what is learned over the next 72 hours.
The crowds, he said, were really unexpected following the COVID shutdowns. Last fall, hotels were doing analyses and making projections for 10, 20 or 30 percent occupancy and making staffing plans for those numbers. “My guess is very few” were making plans “for what if we were at 80 or 90 or 100 percent occupancy and that’s where we find ourselves by some good fortune. But with that comes challenges and we have that and we’re dealing with them,” Plutzik said.
Photo: Left to right, Jonathan Plutzik, Mayor Gelber, Commissioner Mark Samuelian, Raul Aguila, Chief Clements, Assistant MBPD Chief Paul Acosta