Miami Beach is breaking up with spring break — or at least trying to

Mar 5, 2024, 1:55 PM

Pedestrians walk along Ocean Drive with its beautiful Art Deco buildings, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024, i...

Pedestrians walk along Ocean Drive with its beautiful Art Deco buildings, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024, in Miami Beach, Fla. Miami Beach officials are implementing a series of measures to discourage non residents from going to South Beach for spring break. They include curfews, DUI checkpoints and closing parking garages. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

(AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Miami Beach is trying to break up with spring break, but it’s not yet clear whether spring break will take the hint.

After three consecutive years of spring break violence, Miami Beach officials are implementing monthlong security measures aimed at curbing the chaos, including parking restrictions for non-residents and closing sidewalk cafes on busy weekends. The city has warned visitors to expect curfews, bag searches at the beach, early beach closures, DUI checkpoints, and arrests for drug possession and violence. Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Tuesday that 45 state law enforcement officers are also being deployed to the city to bolster the police.

But business owners in the city’s world-famous South Beach neighborhood are now concerned that they’ll lose money during one of the busiest times of the year, and civil rights advocates say the restrictions are an overreaction to large Black crowds.

Restrictions aren’t new

Many of the city’s restrictions aren’t new, but in past years, they were instituted as emergency measures during the unofficial holiday — not measures put in place ahead of time.

“The status quo and what we’ve seen in the last few years is just not acceptable, not tolerable,” Miami Beach Mayor Steven Meiner said.

Meiner said crowds have become unmanageable despite a robust police presence. He said the city, which is situated on a barrier island across the bay from Miami, can only hold so many people, and that capacity has often exceeded what’s safe for both visitors and residents during the break.

DeSantis said at a Miami Beach news conference that Florida is going to crack down on anyone who violates the law during spring break.

“Florida is a very welcoming state. We welcome people to come and have a good time. What we don’t welcome is criminal activity. What we don’t welcome is mayhem and people who want to wreak havoc on our communities,” he said.

Most spring break activity centers around a 10-block stretch of Ocean Drive known for its art deco hotels, restaurants and nightclubs.

David Wallack, owner of Mango’s Tropical Cafe, said Miami Beach has always thrived on celebration, and choking visitor access will turn the vibrant, eclectic city into a retirement community.

“I believe we need to create something big, another big event in March because March has fallen off the edge of the cliff,” Wallack said.

Wallack and others have proposed a large music festival during the third week of spring break — when aimless and unruly crowds tend to reach their climax — with the hope that attendees will disperse the loitering mobs.

Meiner said the city has spent millions of dollars on concerts and other events in the past with little effect in mitigating the violence. He said businesses suffer when violent mobs gathering along Ocean Drive force them to close, adding that the people who are primarily causing the problems aren’t spending money in the city anyway.

“They’re not staying in the hotels,” Meiner said. “They’re not visiting our businesses.”

Some civil rights advocates, however, believe the restrictions are racially motivated.

South Beach became popular among Black tourists about two decades ago as promoters organized Urban Beach Week during the Memorial Day weekend. Many locals have complained about violence and other crime associated with the event, which led to an increased police presence. But the event’s continued popularity correlates to a bump in Black tourism throughout the year.

Stephen Hunter Johnson, an attorney and member of Miami-Dade’s Black Affairs Advisory Board, said city officials are only cracking down so hard because many of the visitors are Black.

“Everybody loves this idea that they are free from their government intruding on them,” Johnson said. “But amazingly, if the government intrudes on Black people, everyone’s fine with it.”

Rejecting the notion

Miami Beach’s mayor rejects the notion that the city’s actions have anything to do with race.

“I have a moral obligation to keep people safe, and right now, it is not safe,” Meiner said.

In the Florida Panhandle, the longtime spring break destination of Panama City Beach has experienced a similar escalation in violent crime, but Police Chief Eusebio Talamantez attributes that to people taking advantage of the environment, not actual college students on spring break.

“When you think of spring break, you might think of vacation, a collegiate break, maybe some fistfights and some keg stands,” Talamantez said. “It has evolved into shootings, mass riots, rape and homicide.”

Panama City Beach’s violence came to a head in 2015 when a house party shooting left seven people wounded. The city subsequently banned alcohol on the beach and cracked down on unpermitted events, among other things. Local businesses sued the city later that year, claiming the new rules unfairly targeted events popular with Black visitors, but the lawsuit was dropped several months later.

Talamantez said the measures were somewhat successful, but a massive hurricane in late 2018 and COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 disrupted the city’s ability to manage crowds once pandemic restrictions were lifted, leading to a resurgence in the violence.

A renewed crackdown in 2023, however, led to a 44% reduction in crime, and the city is imposing similar rules this year. Talamantez said he doubts anything Miami Beach is doing will be more strict than the enforcement measures in Panama City Beach.

“We’re just trying to create an environment that says loud and clear in big bold letters that we are a municipality of law and order,” Talamantez said. “And law and order does not go away just because you’re on spring break.”

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Miami Beach is breaking up with spring break — or at least trying to