Miami Beach Police have stepped up enforcement of COVID-19 emergency measures and to curb the “unacceptable” behavior in the City’s Entertainment District.
Enhanced staffing from MBPD and Miami-Dade County will put a focus on the Entertainment District and fill holes while nearly 10 percent of the City’s police force is quarantining following exposure to the coronavirus.
If the new enforcement “does not solve the problem, we will shut down [Ocean Drive] because we cannot have a health and safety crisis going on in our city,” Commissioner Michael Góngora said on Wednesday.
Following a directive from the Mayor and City Manager to enforce emergency measures and curb the “unacceptable” behavior in the City’s Entertainment District, Miami Beach Police commanders say they have stepped up staffing and will be “relentless” in getting the job done. As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to surge in Miami-Dade County, crowds without masks and not social distancing have drawn complaints. Frustration has boiled over as videos of fights and alcohol being carried openly on Ocean Drive make national news during the pandemic.
After a fight broke out in front of Voodoo Lounge on Ocean Drive two weeks ago ending in shots fired, Commissioners urged City Manager Jimmy Morales to take action to get things under control.
This past weekend, more videos emerged, including one of a group fight in which a young woman is hit and kicked repeatedly and another of topless women dancing in a convertible and drawing a crowd. On Monday, Mayor Dan Gelber posted on his Facebook account, "The behavior in the entertainment district is beyond unacceptable. I've urged our Manager and Chief of Police to take decisive actions immediately."
Later on Monday, Morales issued a letter to the Mayor and Commissioners saying there would be enhanced staffing, enforcement of the emergency mandates including the wearing of masks, social distancing, restaurant restrictions and the 10 pm curfew, as well as more foot patrols in certain areas.
On Tuesday, Morales announced the City would close and prohibit all short-term rentals in Miami Beach effective 12:01 am Thursday. According to the order, “Short-term and vacation rentals shall cancel all existing reservations, and shall refrain from accepting new guests or making new reservations, until the Order expires or is otherwise amended.” The emergency measure is part of the City’s effort to contain the spread of COVID-19 and to reduce the crowds, including those that have gathered in the Entertainment (MXE) District.
By Wednesday, Commissioners were firm in their direction to Miami Beach Police and the City: Get Ocean Drive under control or “shut it down.” At the Commission’s Neighborhoods and Quality of Life Committee meeting, Commissioner Michael Góngora said the “bad, trashy behavior” and fighting is “totally unacceptable” but the lack of mask wearing and social distancing creates a serious health hazard. He told MBPD Chief Rick Clements, “You have my support to go out and aggressively enforce the law… these images that we’re seeing are unacceptable.”
Clements and Major Enrique Doce discussed the new staffing plan – and the challenges – with the Committee members. Policing during a pandemic, which includes engaging with crowds, is taking a toll. The Department currently has 40 officers “exposed and quarantining” out of “just over 400,” according to MBPD spokesman Ernesto Rodriguez.
Clements said he’s concerned by the increase in COVID exposure, not only for the officers but also from a staffing perspective. “It’s a problem,” but he said he wanted to dispel any notion that officers were “afraid” to enforce the COVID measures because of exposure. What they are concerned about, he said, is “the national sentiment right now… people feel as though they’re empowered to go up and initiate confrontation” with police officers.
“I’m being very candid. They don’t want to be the next video clip on CNN or channel 7,” Clements said. The chief said he appreciated statements made by the committee members. “It’s what they want to know… that commissioners are behind them.”
“We all have been horrified at what has been going on in the Entertainment District,” Doce said. “There’s an overwhelming number of reckless partygoers coming down to South Beach doing whatever they want… [and] when confronted they become aggressive and nasty.” The behavior is something usually observed during high-impact periods but is now occurring on a more regular basis, he added.
Beginning this weekend, there will be 20 additional MBPD officers in the Entertainment District and 25 from Miami-Dade County along Collins Avenue.
“We will be relentless at this, I promise you that,” Doce said. “We are committed to this… We’re not going to let the city go down the drain. That’s our promise to you.”
Góngora said that was the message Commissioners and residents needed to hear. “It is out of control… it’s been out of control for a long time” but, he reiterated, “It’s not just bad behavior. Now we’re dealing with safety issues… For me this is about a health pandemic at this point and we’ll take whatever actions necessary to get it under control.”
If the new enforcement “does not solve the problem, we will shut down [Ocean Drive] because we cannot have a health and safety crisis going on in our city,” he said. Góngora asked to join officers on the street this weekend to see it for himself.
“This has got to stop. It’s needed to stop for a while, but it’s escalated now,” he said. “It’s unsafe… the party is over… you have my support to do what is necessary, shut it down and keep us safe.”
"the party is over… you have my support to do what is necessary, shut it down and keep us safe."
Commissioner Mark Samuelian told Doce, “I love your use of the word relentless. I think that is entirely appropriate and you have my 110% support because what we have is unacceptable and we’re not going to stand for it. We need real change.”
When Samuelian noted the number of scooters riding on the sidewalk, Doce said the Department was having a problem with operators not answering calls from police requesting a scooter be shut down for a violation. According to an ordinance passed last year, scooters must have GPS tracking devices, unique IDs visibly affixed to their front and sides, and operators must be available 24 hours a day for law enforcement to call to request a shutdown of the scooter. In that case, renters lose any money they have paid including their deposit.
The ordinance, Doce said, “is an amazing tool. Unfortunately, the rental companies have not been so forthcoming and willing to accept our phone calls recently.”
Clements added, the companies “worked very well with us in the past” but, he said, they “have not been as cooperative this time around… There’s no way to get in touch with them.”
“Quite frankly, they’re putting more scooters out there,” Clements said. “That makes it virtually impossible for us to stay on top of.”
Assistant City Manager Eric Carpenter said the City has issued violations “over the last several days” to scooter operators. According to City Spokeswoman Melissa Berthier, two violations were issued on July 4. Beach Scooter Rentals Inc on Bay Road was cited for not responding to the required 24-hour phone line and Mopeds 305 Corp on James Avenue received a violation for a faulty GPS on one of their scooters. The ordinance, she noted, “gives the City Manager the ability to file an administrative complaint to revoke the BTR after the fourth offense.” BTRs – or Business Tax Receipts – are licenses to conduct business in the City. Samuelian said he would bring language to a future Commission meeting to tighten up the law.
As to the overall issue, Samuelian said, “I agree this problem is untenable… I agree that what we have here has accelerated. We’ve had issues in this Entertainment District for a while… this [pandemic] is just making it a lot worse.”
“I look forward to solutions because I think it’s not just a policing issue,” Samuelian added. “What we have now is not working… it needs a more holistic approach.”
"...it’s not just a policing issue. What we have now is not working… it needs a more holistic approach."
Commissioner Steven Meiner told Doce, “Relentless is a good word. We’re looking for that. Actually, we’re demanding that.”
Meiner, noting that he has heard “nothing but support for our police force,” said he was hearing concerns about the “lack of police visibility,” not just on Ocean Drive, but throughout the City.
“This pandemic has caused a significant ripple effect,” Clements responded. The Department has been asked to deal with food distribution locations, enforcing beach closings, and being present at demonstrations but, he said, now they “need to get back to the normal day to day patrol operations.”
“It’s a matter of making sure we direct those resources there consistently,” he said. “We’re going to get back to basics and that has been a challenge.” He added there are 16 new officers in training that will soon augment the force.
During a public comment period, John Deutzman, co-founder of the Miami Beach Crime Prevention and Awareness Group and a member of the most recent Mayor’s Ocean Drive panel, said he moved to Hawaii recently “because of the City’s failure to follow through on the clean-up of Ocean Drive."
"This is not a police matter. This is way above a police matter,” he said. Deutzman argued “bad operators” continue to receive sidewalk café permits and, during the pandemic, they have been given expanded seating areas into the street which the City provided to increase social distancing. Those cafés are “the source of bench clearing brawls,” he said.
Samuelian responded, “Operating on our public right of a way is a privilege not a right… If [businesses] are not adhering to rules, I’m not sure they’re earning the privilege to operate in the public right of way."
Former City Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez also called in to the meeting saying, “We’ve had the same conversation year after year.”
Following “bad videos that go viral internationally, we put items on the agenda. Elected City officials demand change, and then no change occurs… my question to the Police Chief and the City Manager, what is the change going to be this time?”
Clements responded, “I don’t think this is solely a police problem and we’ve said that for a number of years.” A solution will require the Police Department, businesses, and the Administration to be on the same page that “We need to do something now” about the atmosphere, he said.
According to Morales’ letter to Commissioners:
The Enhanced Staffing Plan
MBPD Command Staff will be working into the midnight shift, and on a nightly basis, to provide additional leadership and guidance;
We will have enhanced staffing in the MXE for this weekend supplementing our numbers with additional personnel from the Miami-Dade Police Department;
Beginning on Monday, July 20th, we will also be modifying the staffing plan of the Department to a staffing plan that resembles the COVID-19 staffing plan utilized in March;
MBPD will again emphasize addressing the homeless population in locations where they are known to congregate, and offer services while also dealing with quality of life issues;
MBPD will return to regular, and consistent, park and walk details and patrols in the area of 41st Street, the Washington Avenue corridor, Lincoln Road and SOFNA;
MBPD will continue to work closely with Code Enforcement to enforce the emergency orders as they pertain to area restaurants;
MBPD will continue to dedicate personnel to the enforcement of the City-wide curfew.
“Reverting to the previous COVID-19 modified staffing plan will enhance our ability to keep our officers from spreading the virus amongst themselves until the numbers of infected start to decline,” Morales wrote. “Moreover, the plan will provide for additional officers on the street thus enabling MBPD to have the much-needed extra personnel to manage the frequently uncooperative and unruly crowds that are completely ignoring all reopening guidelines in the Entertainment District. Moving forward, our intent is to ensure that we make every effort to enforce the Emergency Orders, restrictions and safety measures mandated by both Miami-Dade County and the city of Miami beach.”
During the Neighborhoods Committee meeting, Commissioner Michael Góngora asked the point of having face mask requirements if the rules are not being enforced. Prior to the City Manager's letter regarding enforcement of the emergency measures, RE:MiamiBeach asked the City for data on warnings and violations.
Face Mask Enforcement
According to City Spokeswoman Melissa Berthier, no fines have been issued by Code Compliance officers for not wearing masks, but warnings have been given. In some cases, these are “a byproduct and secondary to our calls for service,” Berthier wrote in an email. “If we notice no face mask where required, we warn and offer one.”
“We also respond to several complaints of no masks at businesses and many times the violation is not occurring on arrival; if it were to be occurring the business may be subject to shutdown and/or the patron ejected (as police did when the Licking called because of a patron refusing to wear a mask). Where we receive social media photos (although insufficient as prima facie evidence upon which to issue a violation) we share that photo with management and put them on notice,” she said.
In addition, at the recent house party where a shooting occurred body cam footage “showed a gathering of more than 10 with no social distancing or masks. Again, it’s secondary to the more egregious violation of using a single family home as a commercial property, but also adds to the Emergency Order violations noted,” Berthier added.
“All of these instances would count as ‘masks warnings’ or enforcement although captured and categorized differently,” she said.
Park Rangers issued more than 9,000 face mask warnings between July 2 and 13 with the daily breakdown as follows:
July 13: 527
July 12: 801
July 11: 570
July 10: 461
July 09: 708
July 08: 729
July 07: 556
July 06: 615
July 05: 938
July 04: 1199
July 03: 1081
July 02: 1112
MBPD had not issued any face mask violations prior to the new staffing plan and emphasis on emergency measures. MBPD spokesman Ernesto Rodriguez noted, “Our PD is doing the best they can with continued education and seeking compliance, which is the objective.”
Businesses Closed for Violating Emergency OrdersIn addition to the businesses we noted last week, the following were also shut down for 24 hours for violating the COVID emergency measures:
Subway, 847 Washington Avenue, customers inside ordering past 10 pm curfew
Collins Liquors, 7317 Collins Avenue, open and selling alcohol past 8 pm
Gulf Liquors, 1681 Alton Road, remaining open past 8 pm