Miami Beach

Miami Beach imposes new rules for spring break but agrees to apply them narrowly

Miami Beach Police confiscate alcohol among spring breakers

The Miami Beach PD posted a video on Twitter on Thursday, March 21, 2019, showing Miami Beach Police officers apparently confiscating alcohol from spring breakers.
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The Miami Beach PD posted a video on Twitter on Thursday, March 21, 2019, showing Miami Beach Police officers apparently confiscating alcohol from spring breakers.

Miami Beach wants to avoid a repeat of this year’s wild spring break, which made international headlines for videos of young people fighting on the beach and on city streets and ended with several police officers injured.

But the challenge for lawmakers has been finding a way to tame the party atmosphere without harming local businesses or inviting complaints from civil liberties groups.

The City Commission passed a range of new restrictions on Wednesday including rules to keep promoters from advertising events at South Beach bars and clubs during peak tourism periods, which they hope will prevent unauthorized events from bringing crowds to the entertainment district. The commission also increased penalties for bars and clubs that allow people under the age of 21 to enter and gave the city manager new emergency powers that he can use when thousands of people pour into South Beach.

When the proposed measures were initially discussed last month, however, some residents and elected officials raised concerns that they were overly broad “knee jerk” reactions. Critics argued that the measures could negatively impact responsible businesses without solving the root problems.

Some of the proposed rules were narrowed before Wednesday’s final vote to limit them to the South Beach entertainment district or to specify that they didn’t apply to certain business activities. The rules restricting promoters from advertising events during busy periods, for example, would have initially applied to the whole city, but were limited to the South Beach entertainment district. The commission also clarified that clubs and bars advertising events at their own establishments aren’t considered promoters, nor are event organizers who obtain special event permits.

“We’ve been really struggling with this and I know we’ve taken different approaches,” said Mayor Dan Gelber, who sponsored the restrictions. “I think it’s incumbent on us to take action.”

Partygoers brawl on South Beach during what residents have described as a particularly wild spring break.

During spring break this year, residents complained about what they described as an out-of-control party atmosphere and crippling traffic. Several incidents — including a fight that resulted in a young woman being knocked unconscious near Ocean Drive and a tourist flying out of the car window and getting run over on her way to the airport — prompted city officials to hold an emergency meeting in mid-March. The police department deployed a squad of officers wearing protective gear to patrol the beach in front of Ocean Drive, which sparked complaints from local civil liberties groups.

One of the main changes between the April meeting and Wednesday’s final vote was redefining when and where the city manager can use his emergency powers, which can be implemented without commission approval. The manager’s powers were limited to a newly defined “high impact zone” that includes the beaches and the South Beach entertainment district, rather than public property throughout the city.

Instead of being triggered by eight different criteria, the emergency powers are now triggered only when an unauthorized event expected to draw more than 10,000 people is held within the “high impact zone” or a permitted event within that area is expected to draw more than 25,000 people. The city manager will only be able to implement the emergency measures for 72 hours without getting commission approval.

The emergency powers include putting license plate readers on the causeways, prohibiting non-residents from using some roads, limiting crowds on some sections of the beach, and limiting live or amplified music. The commission added two new emergency powers on Wednesday: the ability to suspend a business license issued to event promoters and the authority to suspend or close sidewalk cafes under certain circumstances.

Some residents are skeptical that the new measures will solve the city’s tourism woes.

The nonprofit advocacy group Miami Beach United said it wants to see the city consistently enforce the laws that are already on the books rather than create new ones.

“We have plenty, why not use them and enforce them?” asked Hortense De Castro, a member of the organization’s board of directors.

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Miami Beach increased the police presence on the sand during spring break this year. MARIA ALEJANDRA CARDONA

Miami Beach United also suggested that the city organize activities for high impact periods in order to give visitors something to do other than drink and party. This approach has proven successful over Memorial Day weekend, the group said.

“We are confident that with a judicious eye to applying existing regulations and with bold thinking about future events, this repeat crisis can be mitigated going forward, and its memory confined to the dustbin of history,” Miami Beach United said in an email.

South Beach hotel owner Mitch Novick also raised concerns about the city’s approach.

“The bag of ordinances you’ll be discussing shortly will do nothing to improve public safety and quality of life in our community,” he told the commission before the vote.

On Wednesday the City Commission 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.

The ordinance was narrowed before the final vote to exempt instructors providing sports lessons or personal training in a city park.

Commissioners Michael Góngora and Ricky Arriola voted against criminalizing street vendors out of concern that the rules were too broad and could ensnare children operating a lemonade stand, for example, or Girl Scouts selling cookies.

“I hope if this passes it’s used judiciously,” Góngora said.