On the heels of a wild spring break, Miami Beach is once again preparing to receive thousands of visitors for a weekend of parties, concerts and special events.
Memorial Day weekend, which typically draws young, mainly African-American visitors for the loosely affiliated hip-hop concerts and parties known as Urban Beach Week, has historically been a flash point in a city that struggles to balance residents’ quality of life concerns with the island’s popularity as a tourist destination.
In years past, deadly shootings have occurred over the holiday weekend, and civil liberties groups have criticized the city for a heightened police presence and increased crowd-control measures.
This year, Memorial Day weekend will provide a test case for new restrictions the city passed after spring break in an effort to tame the party atmosphere in South Beach’s entertainment district. They include rules to keep promoters from holding events at South Beach bars and clubs during peak tourism periods — which city officials hope will prevent unauthorized events from attracting large crowds — and increased penalties for bars and clubs that allow people under the age of 21 to enter.
So far, at least one club has canceled an event planned by an outside promoter, according to Mayor Dan Gelber. The event, a party called “Henny and Waffles,” was going to be held at Cameo Nightclub on Washington Avenue over Memorial Day weekend, but has since been called off, according to the news site RE: Miami Beach. Neither Cameo nor the event promoters responded to a request for comment. The Henny and Waffles website says the event has been postponed.
Code enforcement officers and police are scouring the Internet in search of advertisements for other unauthorized events, Gelber said, and warning venues that it would be a “big mistake” to host them.
“We’re going to be very vigorous,” Gelber said. “I really expect our city to take every possible action against these promoted parties. They’re really part of the problem and they make no sense in an overcrowded weekend.”
City officials largely blamed promoters for the crowds and party atmosphere during this year’s 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.
The mayor argued that promoters circumvent the city’s special event permitting process, which requires event planners to come up with plans to address issues like crowd control, traffic and public safety. But parties promoted at private clubs and bars, which are often advertised on social media, can bring large crowds to South Beach without giving the city a chance to prepare, causing traffic and safety issues. Some promoters invite misbehavior, including underage drinking, through their advertisements, Gelber has argued.
During spring break, code enforcement officers closed eight businesses for safety reasons or for failure to have a business license. In at least one case, outside promoters played a role in the closure. Promoters oversold an event at Cameo Nightclub, which led to overcrowding and patrons blocking the sidewalk, according to city records. The club has appealed the violation.
After the new promoter restrictions passed an initial vote in April, Gelber and City Manager Jimmy Morales sent a letter to bars and clubs in the entertainment district warning them that violating the rules would result in fines and business closures. The restrictions do not apply to clubs and bars advertising events at their own establishments or to event organizers who obtain a special event permit.
Hernan Cardeno, the city’s code compliance director, said his staff has contacted bars and clubs ahead of Memorial Day weekend to remind them about the new rules. “Our goal is that the clubs curb the promoter event before it takes place which will be a lot easier than having to enact some of the measures of enforcement,” Cardeno said in an email.
South Beach clubs contacted by the Miami Herald did not respond to requests for comment. The Ocean Drive Business Association, whose members saw a drop in sales over spring break this year, said it supported the new measures. Executive director Ceci Velasco said the bars and clubs that belong to the association typically don’t host events organized by outside promoters.
“In the case of new high impact event measures, we hope these will be effective in providing safety for our guests, residents and employees,” she said in a text message.
Some residents said they were also optimistic that the new rules would lead to a calmer Memorial Day weekend.
“We are hopeful these restrictions will be effective,” said Jo Manning, an Ocean Drive resident and member of a panel convened by the mayor to discuss issues on Ocean Drive. “Zero tolerance towards bad behavior is what we are aiming for!”
Other residents have criticized the measures, however, arguing that they won’t solve the city’s tourism woes and could harm responsible businesses. Instead, they’ve urged the city to consistently enforce the laws that are already on the books.
“Overall, it seems that the commission has no clear vision of how to proceed,” said Amaury Cruz, a South Beach resident. “It seems it is trying to give the impression it is doing something to try to hide its impotence. It is not really solving the problems, which, unfortunately, may be intractable for as long as we continue to be a tourist destination.”
Henry Stolar, an Ocean Drive resident, said that the new legislation appears promising, but that he also wants to see more enforcement of the existing rules. “We have had more than ample quality-of-life legislation in recent years,” he said in an email. “Without effective enforcement, it creates nothing but a false ‘feel-good’ sense and a false claim that ‘something is being done.’ ”
The new restrictions aren’t the only strategy Miami Beach is deploying over Memorial Day weekend, however. The city also plans to host events — including a military-themed Air and Sea Show, a concert featuring Flo Rida and a festival showcasing local artists — that provide an alternative to drinking and club-hopping.
Last year, Miami Beach tested this approach, which was developed with the help of a panel of African-American community leaders and tourism industry representatives. The city sponsored a free concert and a range of other cultural events, including a gospel performance and a photography exhibit, and hosted the Air and Sea Show for the second year in a row. Miami Beach also authorized special event permits for hotels that wanted to host smaller cultural events such as jazz concerts and poetry readings. The city typically doesn’t issue special event permits for hotels on Memorial Day weekend because the crowd is already so large.
Memorial Day weekend went off without any major incidents in 2018, although rainy weather forced the city to cancel some events and led to smaller crowds than in years past. Last year’s holiday weekend was a departure from 2017, when a deadly shooting sparked by a parking dispute disrupted an otherwise peaceful event. Six years earlier, police in pursuit of a drunk driver opened fire on Collins Avenue over Memorial Day weekend, spraying 116 bullets that killed the driver and injured four bystanders.
In addition to the new rules and the city-sponsored events, Miami Beach also plans to deploy a heavy police presence this year. More than 400 Miami Beach police officers will be on duty over the weekend, along with officers from the Miami-Dade Police Department and other local law enforcement agencies. License plate readers will be deployed on the MacArthur and Julia Tuttle causeways and barricades will be set up around sidewalk cafes on Ocean Drive to keep the crowds from disturbing restaurant patrons.
Ruban Roberts, president of the NAACP’s Miami-Dade branch, said that he doesn’t have a problem with some police presence over Memorial Day weekend, but doesn’t agree with deploying police in riot gear — which the city did over spring break — or putting police cars with flashing lights on every corner.
Overall, Roberts said, he thinks that Miami Beach has made progress toward making African-American visitors feel more welcome. The arts festival the city is hosting this year, for example, features South Florida artists whose work addresses issues related to inclusion, race and relationships. But, Roberts added, more improvements are needed.
“I’m glad to see that they’re working with some culturally sensitive vendors and I’m very hopeful that they’ll be able to expand the programming,” he said. “While they are doing some things that I’m pleased with, I still think that there’s a lot more to be done to make the traditional visitors feel welcome.”