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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Miami Beach grapples with spring break shootings: ‘Go somewhere else’

City leaders want the party to end, but some say an emergency curfew is an overreaction

Crowds fill the sidewalks along Ocean Drive during spring break in Miami Beach this week. (Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald/AP)

Mitch Novick had a late dinner Saturday in Miami Beach. When he stepped onto Ocean Drive, a block away from the Sherbrooke Hotel he owns in the neon-trimmed, Art Deco-infused nightlife hub of South Beach, he had a feeling the night might take a turn. So he opened the camera app on his phone.

“That internal barometer told me something’s going to happen,” Novick said.

He started recording in the first minutes of Sunday morning as several men walked along a blue sports car. Police sirens blared, and officers on ATVs rode by. Then shots started firing, and crowds ran into a park full of palm trees wrapped in lights. “I took cover,” Novick said, continuing to film the scene playing out during another chaotic spring break.

The shooting Novick witnessed was the first of two over the weekend, leaving five innocent bystanders injured, city leaders said. In Miami Beach, some officials wish the party would end permanently, even if that comes at the expense of local businesses.

“We don’t ask for spring break, we don’t promote it, we don’t encourage it; we just endure it,” Mayor Dan Gelber said during a Monday news conference. “And frankly it’s not something we want to endure.”

State of emergency in Miami Beach extended as spring breakers overwhelm the city

The violence over the weekend prompted officials in the island city to declare a state of emergency during the March holiday window for the second straight year, instituting a midnight curfew and cutting back hours for retail alcohol sales in stores.

During a meeting Tuesday, one city commissioner suggested paying businesses to shut down preemptively. Another asked why they couldn’t declare the island full and turn visitors away.

Starting Thursday through early Monday morning, the curfew begins at 11:59 p.m. and lasts until 6 a.m., restricting the clubs, bars and restaurants that typically stay open until 5 a.m. In the curfew area, which includes all of South Beach, the sale of alcoholic beverages to consume off-site will be prohibited after 6 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

Meanwhile, belabored comments from officials about a spring break crowd that includes many Black tourists has once again drawn criticism from Black community leaders.

“Didn’t you hear? Black people on the beach is a natural disaster!” Stephen Hunter Johnson, a member of Miami-Dade County’s Black Affairs Advisory Board, wrote in a tweet. Michael Grieco, a Democrat in the Florida House of Representatives, tweeted the midnight curfew was an example of “embarrassing government overreach.”

Miami Beach saw a similar meltdown over spring break last year, when crowds flocked to the town after the pandemic brought an early end to festivities in 2020. Citing an “overwhelming” number of visitors in 2021, a time when many other destinations still had coronavirus restrictions in place, authorities set an 8 p.m. curfew in the entertainment district and restricted access to causeways that allow traffic onto the island. Video footage showed police firing pepper balls as they enforced the curfew.

“It’s almost as if hitting repeat,” Novick said of this year’s spring break, noting that 2020 was chaotic as well.

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City manager Alina Hudak said she has spent six months trying to ensure a different outcome this year. During a news conference, she said the city had enhanced its parking enforcement, code enforcement and police presence, coordinating with other departments in the region to bulk up coverage.

And the city introduced a weekly concert series in March featuring Wilson Phillips, Alanis Morissette and Juanes to draw an older demographic than the beachfront revelers. This weekend’s event, a Bernadette Peters concert, has been postponed due to the state of emergency.

Hudak said there had been “multiple safe weekends” for spring breakers — until the crowds swelled and gunfire erupted.

“Our city is an island with limited capacity,” she said. “It was not built for these types of crowds and it is not possible to accommodate the volumes of people we have seen this weekend in our public park, in our public streets and on our sidewalks.”

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Police chief Rick Clements said Monday that 100 weapons were seized during the first four weeks of spring break this year, compared to 85 during the same time period in 2021. Nine police officers had been hurt on duty, though none of the injuries were “extremely serious,” he said.

Between mid-February and Sunday, 618 people have been arrested citywide, Miami Beach Police spokesman Ernesto Rodriguez said in an email. He said more than half of those arrested were from Miami-Dade County, meaning the city can’t point the finger only at tourists.

The city has not extended the curfew past this coming weekend. And it’s not clear what will change next year. Novick said Tuesday his business is already taking a hit: he said the hotel received three cancellations from guests in 12 hours.

Novick said the curfew might prevent some bad behavior, but he is disappointed the city was again playing defense.

“They had all year for the last several years to do something, and now they’re just reacting,” he said.

Joshua Wallack, chief operating officer of the company that owns Mango’s Tropical Cafe South Beach, said in an interview that March should be the best time of the year for hospitality businesses: There is perfect weather, tons of tourists and dollars flowing. It’s “sacrilegious,” he said, for people in the industry to dread this time of year.

“These shootings were random acts of some idiots who ruined it for thousands of people who were there having a good time,” he said. “When that happens, you have to throw your hands in the air and say, ‘Party’s over for everyone.’”

While operating hours for his businesses will be cut because of the curfew, Wallack said he supports the effort to make residents feel safe.

“This needs to get figured out in the long term,” he said.

Gelber, the mayor, said he hopes the city will be successful at spreading a new spring break message: This is not the place to cut loose.

“Our hope is that we can, through this kind of messaging, tell the world, ‘Hey, if you want to come to spring break, go somewhere else,’” he said. “I hear there’s some wonderful all-inclusive resorts elsewhere. Go there, don’t come here. We don’t want that raucous crowd that is intent on doing whatever they want.”

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