Miami Beach Spring Break Alcohol Restrictions Curtailed

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Miami Beach Spring Break Alcohol Restrictions Curtailed:

Ultimate decision by City Commission will close bars at 3 am for six days in March

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber ultimately got the support of City Commissioners for an early end to alcohol sales in parts of South Beach during peak Spring Break, but it’s a lot less than he wanted. After initially proposing a 2 am cutoff for 17 days in March, he won support for a 3 am end time for six days after residents and businesses objected to the longer timeframe. The impacted area is the MXE District which is generally Ocean Drive from 5th to 16th Streets and a portion of the CD-2 Commercial District between Pennsylvania Avenue and Collins Court, from 5th to 16th Streets, which includes Collins and Washington Avenues and Española Way.

Because of Winter Party on the front end and Ultra on the back end of the proposed dates, Gelber condensed the time period down to the days between March 13 and 19, including the St. Patrick’s Day weekend which has been the subject of serious overcrowding the past two years. In 2018, the City had to close the MacArthur Causeway briefly over the weekend due to overcrowding and gridlock.

“I presented this because our law enforcement professionals said we need to do something,” Gelber said. “Since I’ve been mayor, on both weekends we’re talking about in this measure, I’ve gotten calls from two different police chiefs saying that the City is poised to be ungovernable.”

“Public safety drives this debate,” Gelber continued. “I’m sure that a rollback isn’t the silver bullet, in fact it’s not the silver bullet, but it should be in the tool kit.”

“Something really devastating could happen and I don’t want to be the mayor that presides over that,” he said.

“I don’t think we’re going to do it every year… I think we should try it for a period of time.” Noting the objections of local businesses, Gelber said, “I have no interest in gratuitously hurting any business… but on the other hand we have to be mindful of public safety.”

Miami Beach Police Chief Rick Clements said he’s concerned about officer safety. As they have in previous years, MBPD will be on Alpha Bravo staffing – all hands on deck – working 12-14 hour days for 6 days for the entire month. During peak periods, they will be supplemented with officers from Miami-Dade County Public Schools and Miami-Dade County.

With early bar closures, Clements said officers will be less physically taxed. Of the shorter time period, he said, “The entire month of March would have been good for me. I know that’s not realistic.”

Joel Stedman, owner of Twist nightclub on Washington Avenue, told Commissioners, “The number of days doesn’t matter.” He said police would still “be busy 24-7” for all of Spring Break.

“We have zero to do with Spring Break,” Stedman said. “We lost business last year for Spring Break like a lot of people so, truth be told, we’re on the same team here.”

“We agree with ‘tough love’” as a means of dealing with the problem, he said, “But the tough love should not be centered or geared or focused toward my staff.” Commissioners last month signaled a “tough love” approach when they nixed nighttime programming as a means of engaging the Spring Break crowd.  
“These guys are going to lose a lot of money,” he said of his employees. “I worry about them. They’re going to lose over $20,000 in wages just at Twist… The business is going to lose tens of thousands of dollars, but I’m more worried about my staff.”

“Show the tough love to the people that are causing the problems, not the businesses trying to operate,” Stedman said. “Your public safety crisis is not inside the clubs, bars, and restaurants. Your public safety crisis is on the streets, sidewalks, and the beaches and that’s where you should focus your tough love.”

David Wallack, owner of Mango’s Tropical Café, echoed Stedman’s concerns. “The businesses are not the issue here and to be horsetrading with hours is only damaging our staffs.”

“The owners will get by,” he said, but he estimated that with the early closure, his night staff “will lose 25% of their income for the week. That’s an electric bill. That’s rent. That’s food for children.”

“Our police are going to be working all day,” Wallack said. “We are not saving any [police] hours by closing the businesses” which will then result in “thousands, literally, from all of our businesses, thousands of people exiting businesses at 2 am. [That] is not going to be a safe situation,” he added.

Commissioner Michael Góngora, one of the “no” votes on first reading, called the proposal “a solution looking for a problem.”

“Our voters voted at almost 65% a little over two years ago not to do what you’re doing over the will of the voters,” he said referring to the referendum to close alcohol establishments citywide at 2 am. The proposal on the table for Spring Break “does not follow what our residents voted for us to do.”

“The huge turnout here today shows that you are punishing innocent people,” Góngora said. “You’re taking money out of their pockets and stopping them from working to the tune of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars just to pass your legislation.”

Commissioner Ricky Arriola, the other “no” on first reading, said, “I think this whole thing is ill conceived. I think it’s embarrassing.”

“I think it’s the wrong approach, the wrong direction for so many reasons,” Arriola said. “Not only does it hurt small businesses that we really need, especially now, it’s inconsistent with our brand. We are a tourist destination whether we like it or not.”

“The kneejerk reaction to cut off the alcohol, it’s such a puritanical mindset,” he said. “Let’s just get rid of it once and for all and realize that the city that we live in and the city that we love does have a strong nightlife component.”

“We’re trying to solve a problem that is largely taking place out on the streets and last year out on the beach,” he noted. “I worry that all we’re doing is pushing people out on the street all at the same time and possibly putting the police officers in danger.” That said, “Out of respect for the Chief” who asked him to reconsider his vote, Arriola said he would vote in favor of the ordinance on second reading. 

Góngora said, “The two-hour closure is not tied to any crime statistics.” The statistics presented to him, he said, “show crime occurring much earlier in the evening so there isn’t a legitimate safety concern that’s been laid out by our Police Chief.” 

While saying he also respects Chief Clements, he noted the police union doesn’t support early closures “so there is a conflict within the Police Department about whether this is needed and helpful.”

“This only closes these poor business owners. It’s not closing down the city at 5,” Góngora said, echoing concerns that “We’re just pushing a problem from the entertainment district, the area that we’ve zoned to have nightlife and bars and pushing it closer to the residential neighborhoods.”

The vote was 5-2 in favor of the 3 am closure for six days between March 13 and 19. Commissioner Micky Steinberg joined Góngora in voting no.

Commissioners also voted to give City Manager Jimmy Morales the discretion to take actions he deems necessary during the month of March to protect the public health, safety and welfare. Those actions include prohibition of coolers and tents on the beach, implementation of a license plate reader police detail, suspension of sidewalk café operations in the restricted area at midnight, suspension of licenses for promoters of events at alcoholic beverage establishments, and suspension of the noise exemption from 9th to 11th Streets on Ocean Drive.

The most controversial provision when it was brought forward earlier in February was that there be no amplified music on Ocean Drive between the hours of 7 pm and 10 pm. Tom Donall, owner of the Palace, an Ocean Drive staple with its popular drag shows that extend out onto the sidewalk, told Commissioners on first reading that he is fully booked 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.” Commissioners delayed voting on the resolution until a solution could be found that would allow the Palace shows to go on.

At this week's meeting, the new version of the resolution contained a provision that “any live or amplified music shall be limited to ambient level on Ocean Drive between the hours of 11 pm and 7 am” but that was pulled off the table after objections from businesses who said the hours were randomly chosen, thrown in at the last minute and without consultation.

After the vote, Miami Beach FOP President Kevin Millan said Spring Break is “a grueling, exhausting schedule over a three-week period. Nobody else in any other law enforcement agency or department is asked to do what we do. It’s tiring.”

The Alpha Bravo scheduling has a big impact on families, he said. This year, officers are coming off long shifts for the Super Bowl earlier in the month.

“Over the long term, it’s going to be very unsustainable,” he said. “We have more and more special events coming all the time and we’re really at a tipping point where I don’t know how we’re going to handle them with the workforce that we have. We have 416 police officers which, in certain respects, for certain events is not enough.” He noted weekends like Memorial Day and the Spring Break period where the force needs to be supplemented with outside officers.

“We have officers that are still tired from Super Bowl and we’re rolling right into Spring Break.” When so many hours are worked over long periods of time, Millan said “Accidents go up. Complaints go up. Mistakes get made. Guys get hurt.”

“Regardless of what happened with [the Spring Break] measure, we are working the same schedule,” he said. “We’re going to be working the 12-13-14 hour shifts whether that measure passed or failed.”

Millan said he hopes the City finds a way to program the Spring Break period with something “that follows in the path of an Art Basel which is well established and brings a different crowd to town” and which might allow the Police Department to staff it differently with on-duty and off-duty officers. Then, he said, “If you want to work it you can work it, not that you’re forced to work it. We just want to stop giving up our lives for weeks at a time… We do it because we’re dedicated to the City and to the community” but he noted, again, that “We’re at a tipping point.”

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