Update: On Wednesday, commissioners discussed arresting people for marijuana possession, banning scooters and blasting classical music as ways to deter spring break crowds. Read more.
Miami Beach is in danger of drowning, and it’s not because of sea level rise.
South Beach’s surging popularity as a spring break playground has outgrown city officials’ expectations, and vacationing students brought with them a slew of troubles that the City Commission wants to deal with — quickly.
That could mean future restrictions on scooter rentals — people using scooters on sidewalks and weaving in and out of traffic made a bad traffic situation worse — and a different approach to litter cleanup than moving a mass of beachgoers off the sand and onto Ocean Drive.
The crowd-control issues came into full focus on Saturday, when the combination of spring break’s busiest week and St. Patrick’s Day brought crowds so large to South Beach that authorities deemed it unsafe to allow any more vehicles across the MacArthur Causeway. For about an hour, Miami Beach police shut down eastbound lanes, advising residents to use the Venetian Causeway to get home.
It was a rare move stemming from the police department’s problems managing an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 people crammed into a small entertainment district on the eastern shore of a barrier island that is barely a mile wide. The overcrowding was made worse when the city ushered people off the sand so cleanup crews could pick up litter before it washed out to sea. Thousands of ousted beachgoers crowded into Lummus Park and Ocean Drive.
Now, the police and city administrators are left to figure out how to deal with the Beach’s surging success as a spring break hot spot. South Beach’s brand is clearly reaching college students — last week, about 400 schools across the country were off — and commissioners worry the success is wrecking residents’ quality of life.
No significant incidents were reported. No one was seriously hurt. But the sheer numbers were enough to spark annoyance and unrest by locals — even including some club owners on Ocean Drive who shut down early.
Mango’s Tropical Cafe and the Clevelander both closed or cut back operations early Saturday after people rushed down Ocean Drive in a panic over loud noises that turned out to be nothing more than maybe a bottle being thrown. Fearing gunshots had been fired, visitors rushed down the street and sidewalk, overturning some sidewalk cafe tables and getting in the way of wait staff.
Mango’s owner David Wallack said the crush of people on Ocean Drive disrupted service to his sidewalk cafe tables so much that people left without paying their checks, and he was forced to close down the sidewalk tables and bring chairs inside.
“Last night, we closed our sidewalk cafe and did not re-open it until our staff felt it was safe to do so. We may or may not close the cafe again tonight, and next week as well,” Wallack wrote in a Sunday morning email to commissioners. “The situation in the streets will dictate that answer. We apply one rule … safety first.”
On Monday, an executive at the Clevelander told the Miami Herald he wants to work with the city on developing a better plan for managing the avalanche of visitors that now occurs on more dates each year.
“We’ve got to stop this spring break overload,” said Mike Palma, executive vice president of hospitality for the company that owns the Clevelander. “It’s just too much on the city.”
Miami Beach administrators already adopted a plan last year to crack down on alcohol consumption, loud music and littering on the sand during spring break. The closure of Ocean Drive to vehicles is part of that plan, which is meant to be implemented when crowds grow so much that the street needs to be reserved for pedestrians.
Such closures have become more common during busy weekends and especially during spring break. But even the extra space for people to walk wasn’t enough Saturday.
“I think we need to outsource to someone capable of managing such a high-impact event,” said Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez. She’s requested a discussion on the issue at Wednesday’s City Commission meeting.
Commissioner John Elizabeth Alemán said the news of the two clubs closing was enough for her. She thinks the city’s plan needs to change, including how heaps of litter get picked up at the end of the day. City crews usher beachgoers off the sand in the early evening so that workers can manually pick litter at the water’s edge while county-owned mechanical sifters collect trash from the sand.
But this funnels a large mass of people who are spread out across a wide beach into already-crowded Lummus Park and Ocean Drive, packing more bodies into an increasingly tight space.
“Clearing the beach doesn’t work,” Alemán said.
City Manager Jimmy Morales already asked his administration to adjust this approach in a memo that was also sent to commissioners Sunday. The city will no longer move people off the beach early and instead pick up litter after dark.
“This certainly contributed to last night’s issues,” Morales wrote.
The city will also put more police officers on patrol and remove all cars still parked on Ocean Drive after the street is closed and designated for pedestrians only. Morales added that if the closure of sidewalk cafes helps — so far, it’s been voluntary — he’ll consider adding that to the city’s overall plan for big events.
“We welcome college students that come here to have safe fun and enjoy our many natural resources and hot spots,” Morales wrote. “But we want them to do that in a climate that protects our residents, businesses and visitors alike.”