This surreal scene took place not just during Spring Break week, the traditional time for collegiate partiers to descend upon South Florida, but on St. Patrick’s Day, as if Miami Beach’s revelers require any additional incentive to throng the bars and clubs. Amid the near-silence of an impossibly balmy twilight, Chris and I continued toward our favorite restaurant, where only two of its 30-odd tables were occupied.
Just six days earlier, when Chris and I arrived for the annual trip we make for our wedding anniversary, the same stretch of Collins Avenue in the Mid-Beach neighborhood had been bumper-to-bumper, with taxis, Ubers and rented convertibles sending up a cacophony of hip-hop, reggaetón and impatient horn blasts.
To believe a widely shared March 18 Reuters video report, the entire spirit of Miami Beach amid the coronavirus pandemic was one of heedless, indeed callous, risk-taking. The video captured a shirtless college student from Ohio shrugging, “If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.” It sounds like the worst pun in the world to note that the video went viral.
As a journalist and journalism professor, I have no reason to doubt the report’s accuracy. In the days just before it was published, I watched one spring break bro shamelessly urinate on the beachfront walkway under the mid-afternoon sun and saw the millennial weed crowd pass around their joints and pipes. So I heartily share the sense of outrage and horror that many viewers of that video have felt.
Yet the Miami Beach that I experienced by the time I left bore precious little resemblance to those infectious excesses. On what sometimes seemed like the last vacation Chris and I would ever take, checking our smartphones for the soaring caseload and death toll, the most palpable sensation was of the unfolding tragedy for the workers we met in the hospitality industry, so many of them immigrants and people of color.
The most fleeting encounters, often accompanied by the squirt of hand sanitizer, usually ended with an extra-large tip and carried a harrowing subtext of imminent economic catastrophe.
There was the high school junior with the Caribbean accent who set up our beach chairs and umbrella one day, talking with such enthusiasm about going to college for hospitality studies and maybe opening his own hotel someday. One of his co-workers, who had the Americanized remnant of a Haitian tone, mentioned that he was begging his mother to come back from her job in New York as a maintenance worker in a hospital before the virus caught her.
There was the waiter at a new Cuban restaurant we discovered on Lincoln Road, a pedestrian mall lined with shops and eateries. On this night, you could have rolled a bowling ball down the promenade without doing much damage.
Born in Venezuela, the waiter had made his way via Chile to the promising land of South Florida, where he was going to a broadcasting trade school. Between delivering us mojitos and ropa vieja, he mentioned worriedly that the school had already shifted to online-only instruction. What went unsaid, but hung in the air between us, was the question of how this bright, motivated student would possibly pay for tuition — let alone rent and food — when his waitstaff job went away, as it surely would.
In these last unnerving and dangerous weeks, friends have sometimes asked me if I’m reminded of New York — where I live — after the 9/11 attacks. I can think of one parallel, yes: The stunningly clement late-summer morning of Sept. 11, 2001, so brutally contradicted by terrorism and mass murder, sprung to my mind as day after day of ideal beach weather cosseted Chris and me in an ever-sparser Miami Beach. Paradise, we came to realize, can be its own kind of presentiment of doom.