Miami Beach

Miami Beach passes new rules to make spring break ‘a lot less fun.’ Will they work?

When Miami Beach officials held an emergency meeting last month and declared that they wanted to make spring break “a lot less fun,” they weren’t kidding.

On Wednesday, the City Commission passed a slew of new restrictions aimed at taming the party atmosphere in South Beach’s popular entertainment district during spring break and other busy periods. The goal is to avoid a repeat of this year’s wild spring break, which made international headlines when videos of young people brawling on the beach and on city streets were posted on social media. Several police officers were injured over spring break and residents complained about what they described as an out-of-control party atmosphere.

“We have to send some kind of message that this city can’t absorb and doesn’t want to be part of these shenanigans,” said Mayor Dan Gelber.

The changes include a ban on issuing business licenses to promoters planning events at bars and clubs during holiday weekends and other busy periods and increased penalties for bars and clubs that allow people under the age of 21 to enter. Elected officials also gave the city manager new emergency powers for high-impact events like spring break.

Two commissioners raised concerns about some of the new restrictions, however, arguing that they were “knee jerk” reactions that could end up negatively impacting responsible businesses without solving the root problems. The measures passed a first vote on Wednesday and will have to be approved by the commission a second time before they are implemented.

Some of the new measures target event promoters who advertise parties at bars and clubs. City officials largely blamed promoters for the crowds and party atmosphere during this year’s spring break.

“One of the big problems we’ve had are these promoted parties,” Gelber said. “They’re heavily promoted, they’re overbooked and they create the chaos that has really deteriorated the city in the entertainment district.”

Although business licenses are usually valid for one year, city commissioners voted to suspend licenses issued to promoters during high-impact events and certain holiday weekends, including Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day. Commissioners also voted to prohibit the city from issuing business licenses to promoters for single events at bars and clubs during high-impact events and holiday weekends.

Promoters contacted by the Miami Herald for comment did not respond. Event websites are filled with advertisements for spring break-themed party boats, party buses, parties at South Beach clubs and drink deals.

“ITS SPRING BREAK IN MIAMI!!!” proclaims one advertisement posted to the website eventbrite offering an “open bar VIP club package” leaving from South Beach. “OK, so school is out and you have two weeks to go balls to the wall and have the most amazing time in Miami.”

Commissioners Michael Góngora and Ricky Arriola argued that the restrictions were too broad and could prohibit the types of events the city wants to attract.

“This is the worst piece of legislation I’ve seen in my time here,” Arriola said. Other commissioners said they wanted to see the restrictions narrowed before approving them at a second vote on April 24.

The city is also cracking down on bars and clubs that allow people under the age of 21 to enter. The City Commission voted to increase fines from a warning for a first offense and up to $3,000 for repeated violations to $5,000 for a first offense and up to $30,000 and the revocation of the establishment’s business license for a fourth offense within six months. In addition, if Miami Beach police confirm that a violation has occurred, the business will immediately be closed for the night.

The city manager’s range of new emergency measures during high-impact events includes prohibiting visitors from using city surface parking lots — instead restricting them to residents — and suspending business licenses for event promoters. The commission also passed an ordinance clarifying that the city manager has the authority to suspend or close sidewalk cafes “in those circumstances where the city manager determines it reasonably necessary for the protection of the public health, safety, or welfare.”

police_spring_break_mh_MAC- (8)
Police were out in full force in Miami Beach during spring break this year. Maria Alejandra Cardona The Miami Herald

At the urging of a resident committee convened to address safety issues on Ocean Drive, the commission also passed a resolution calling for more aggressive enforcement of open container, marijuana, underage drinking and noise laws all year long.

Some city commissioners said they hope these measures will lead to tamer holiday weekends and spring breaks in the future.

This year, city officials called an emergency meeting during the height of spring break to address traffic and public safety issues. The police then sent a squad of officers wearing protective gear to patrol the beach in front of Ocean Drive. Local civil liberties groups raised concerns about the city’s approach, however, which included a prisoner transport van parked on the sand, a police surveillance blimp floating above sunbathers and enough police cars with flashing lights on the beach to make it look like a crime scene.

The increased policing also proved costly. The police department had budgeted $1.1 million for spring break policing costs, but estimates that the total costs were closer to $2 million, Chief Daniel Oates said in an email.

Overall, Miami Beach spends far more on policing and other services in the city’s entertainment district than it gets from property and resort tax revenues in that area. The city spent close to $52 million on services in the entertainment district over 12 months, but the area generated just $23 million in tax revenue, according to a 2018 city analysis. (The Ocean Drive Association disputes these numbers.)

Miami Beach also launched a marketing campaign ahead of spring break encouraging college students to behave with slogans like “Come on vacation, don’t leave on probation.” The police department sent letters to fraternities and sororities across the country.

Despite the concerns about college students wreaking havoc, however, only 46 of the 632 people arrested in Miami Beach over the month of March were identified as students (although some students may not have been identified by police). Nearly two-thirds of the people arrested were Florida residents and roughly forty percent were either Miami or Miami Beach residents, according to police statistics.

On Wednesday, City Commissioners also targeted the street vendors who sell coconuts, water and other items along the beachwalk and in other public areas. It is already illegal to sell anything on public land in Miami Beach, including in parks and on the beach, but transgressions are currently civil violations punished by fines. Commissioners voted to make the offense a criminal misdemeanor enforced by the police department, which Oates said would give police a new tool to go after bad actors masquerading as street vendors.

“We don’t want a circus out there,” said Commissioner Mark Samuelian, who sponsored the item.