As curfew struck and police moved to clear Miami Beach’s iconic Ocean Drive on Saturday, throngs of revelers stood shoulder to shoulder, packing the street. In footage captured by local media, people danced on top of cars, some clutching liquor bottles. One man threw out fistfuls of cash.
The chaotic scene played out the first night police enforced a curfew in response to an “overwhelming” volume of spring break visitors. City officials had declared a state of emergency earlier that day, pointing to several instances in which crowds of partyers turned disruptive and violent.
During an emergency meeting on Sunday, city commissioners voted to extend emergency orders imposing an 8 p.m. curfew in the entertainment district and limiting access to causeways leading to the island city. The measures are now set to continue Thursday to Sunday until April 11, the end of the spring break period.
“I have personally had trouble even sleeping at night, worrying about what’s going to happen in the city,” Mayor Dan Gelber said. “And that shouldn’t be the state of any mayor or any commissioner or any manager or any police chief.”
With its miles of beaches and famed party scene, Miami Beach has long been a spring break destination. City officials have for years attempted to crack down, citing raucous crowds and occasional fights. In 2019, for instance, police in protective armor patrolled the beach as prison transport vehicles stood ready to carry away noncompliant visitors. The next year, officers tackled and punched spring breakers who were resisting arrest, the Miami Herald reported.
Such actions have drawn criticism from the NAACP, with leaders noting that many of those who visit over spring break are Black. Some Black leaders expressed concern about the city’s latest crackdown attempts, including the use of pepper balls to help clear Ocean Drive on Saturday night.
“I was very disappointed,” Stephen Hunter Johnson, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Black Affairs Advisory Board, told the Miami Herald. “I think when they’re young Black people [on South Beach], the response is, ‘Oh, my God, we have to do something.’ ”
The mayor and other city officials insisted they were targeting conduct rather than specific groups of people. Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Clements said officers used pepper balls Saturday night in response to some in the crowd rushing toward them.
The city has been mostly calm during the day but volatile and unpredictable in some areas at night, according to authorities. Clements said there had been several stampedes, including one in which a woman cut her leg while trying to run away. Most alarming, he said, was when a man fired a gun into the air.
“How long can you go before something bad happens and you realize that you didn’t say something?” Clements asked.
Since Feb. 3, the police department said, about 1,000 arrests have been made, including 350 on felony charges. About 51 percent of arrests involved non-Florida residents. Officers also have seized 80 firearms. Police in nearby cities have sent reinforcements to help manage crowds.
The Clevelander, an Ocean Drive mainstay that often sees boisterous crowds, halted its food and beverage operations Friday, citing safety concerns. The closure will continue until at least Wednesday, the resort said in a statement, adding that it had “grown increasingly concerned with the safety of our dedicated employees and valued customers and the ability of the City to maintain a safe environment in the surrounding area.”
This year has seen more visitors and more disruptions than previous years, officials said, with interim city manager Raul Aguila describing it as “a spring break like no other.”
Miami Beach leaders attributed the surge in visitors to coronavirus-related closures in other areas, coupled with cheap flights and demand for travel. Florida reopened before many other states and has fewer restrictions.
“I believe it’s a lot of pent-up demand from the pandemic and people wanting to get out,” city commissioner David Richardson said. “And our state has been publicly advertised as being open, so that’s contributed to the issue.”
The emergency order noted that many revelers have not been wearing masks or keeping distant from one another. Gelber said the virus is “still very present in our community,” with people continuing to become infected and checking into hospitals, and variants posing a new threat.
Although the emergency measures passed unanimously Sunday, commissioners expressed dismay that they were necessary. Pointing out that the city has been battling spring break chaos for years, commissioner Ricky Arriola said the city has gone further this year than he had ever imagined, and yet problems persist.
“At what point are we going to think about doing something different?” he asked.