Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber says, “The party’s over” for Spring Breakers who have gathered here once again for the annual school holiday but, this time, there’s a pandemic that has now reached South Florida at the same time. In an effort to limit crowds and the spread of the coronavirus, Gelber and Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis announced measures to close beaches, require non-essential businesses to close early and, in South Beach’s Entertainment District (MXE), institute a curfew. The moves come as Miami Beach is, once again, dealing with a difficult Spring Break that has included clashes between visitors and police.
City officials began talking last spring about “counterprogramming” the month of March but that ultimately faltered when there was no interest by vendors in putting something together quickly for 2020. Matt Kenny, the City’s Director of Tourism and Culture, then proposed a plan for day and nighttime programming but Commissioners cut it back to daytime only. Kenny later resigned because of what City Commissioner Ricky Arriola described as frustration over the lack of a Spring Break program. In February, the City Manager’s office put together a last-minute plan for programming coordinated by DJ Irie in a closed area on the beach between 7th and 10th Streets. That plan was scrapped midway through when the need to curtail crowds became clearer in relation to the coronavirus.
Ocean Drive businesses, aware of the need to come up with both a solution to Spring Break as well as a plan to recover from the economic impact of the pandemic, want to begin planning now for March 2021. Ceci Velasco, Executive Director of the Ocean Drive Association said, “We need to immediately start meeting and preparing for next year. It cannot be delayed and we need to come together as a community which means not polarizing businesses, the residents, and the City. We need to come together and work together towards a viable solution but it needs to happen immediately.”
The Ocean Drive businesses say the Spring Break crowd, many of which are local, are not eating and drinking in their restaurants. “March is our prime month of the year,” Velasco said, adding guests staying in the nearby hotels are their customers. “There’s a difference between ‘What are we going to do with all these kids in South Beach' and how we are going to be able to create a profitable March for our businesses.”
“Creating a program that will fill our hotels is something we should be doing every month [but] March is the prime month,” though it is lacking in programming, she said. Velasco noted New Year’s Eve in January, the Food and Wine Festival in February, Pride in April, and the Air and Sea Show in May.”
“We don’t have anything in March that fills our hotel rooms, to help our tourism,” she said. “This coronavirus is really going to hit us hard. We need programs to bring people back. We’re going to have to figure out how are we going to rebuild our economy.”
Last month, when the Spring Break programming was reduced, police union president Kevin Millan spoke about the challenges of a full month of 13 hour days, six days a week. He said he hoped 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, “We’re at a tipping point," with work schedules that are not sustainable. 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.”
This week, following clashes between Spring Breakers and police, Millan said, “I really think that we really need to sit down and think about a long-range plan for Spring Break and for the next year.”
Those clashes were documented in viral videos that led the Miami-Dade Chapter of the NAACP to call the police actions racist. In response, the police union issued a statement saying it “fully supports and defends our officers actions as it pertains to the recent videos that were posted online. Although three (3) separate videos were posted, this is one (1) chaotic incident involving a hostile crowd. The videos, along with the police officers body camera footage, captured the hostile crowd and disorderly actions of numerous spring breakers. We are confident that a fair and thorough investigation will result in all officers being cleared of any wrongdoing.”
The statement continued: “The officers of the Miami Beach Police Department are among the most diverse and well-trained groups in the nation. We professionally police all events in the City of Miami Beach the same and have acted as a model for other police departments across the nation. We are offended to have such a label as racists to be used to describe us by opportunists. The Miami Beach Fraternal Order of Police is particularly saddened at the use of this label when we should be focused on the COVID-19 public health crisis. Our primary concern is the safety and welfare of our residents and tourists.”
A day later, following an officer-involved shooting of a man reported to have a gun, the local NAACP called for the resignation of City Manager Jimmy Morales and Police Chief Rick Clements. On Twitter, the group said, “[W]e’ve had enough of being racially targeted, treated unfairly, assaulted & shot by MB police officers.” They’ve also called for the establishment of a civil oversight panel, a new training program and “ending the use of excessive force and police brutality.”
Photo: Spring Break 2019 by Logan Fazio
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