After spending much of the past year cooped up at home, 29-year-old Ohio nurse Akilah Cooper traded in her winter coat for a red bikini Thursday as she soaked up the sun on South Beach.
Fleeing from the frigid Buckeye State, which has a statewide mask mandate and up until recently an 11 p.m. curfew, Cooper said she was tired of COVID-19 shutdowns and happy to just walk on iconic Ocean Drive — along with scores of other tourists.
"I feel like I needed a break," Cooper said. "I've been mentally stressed out just being in the house not being able to do anything."
One year after the novel coronavirus cut spring break short, the party is back on in Miami Beach, and this time COVID isn't keeping the young tourists away. If anything, it's making Miami more of a destination for people looking to relax or let loose after being bottled up for months.
Even with some colleges canceling their mid-semester breaks, students from more than 200 schools are expected to visit South Beach during spring break, which runs from late February to mid-April. Police anticipate the largest crowds this month. The number of visitors is still expected to be down in comparison to previous years, but police are already seeing throngs of tourists fleeing to Florida from states gripped with cold weather or under strict COVID-19 measures.
The increase in traffic is generally welcomed by the businesses and workers slammed by pandemic shutdowns.
"Everything moves around tourists here in South Beach so we need the tourists," said Helen Roberts, a manager at Il Giardino on Ocean Drive. "Everybody was without work for four months."
But the return of spring break has already brought back tensions in the city, where the month of March has become known for drunken fistfights, traffic congestion and police confrontations. And this year, the pandemic has layered a new, potentially insidious complication atop the city's annual efforts to police spring breakers.
"This spring break feels like a different order of chaos," said Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber. "It feels different. Part of it, clearly, is we're the only place open."
Florida an 'Oasis of Freedom'
Unlike last March, when Gelber declared spring break "over" due to COVID and Miami-Dade County shut down its bars and beaches, Miami Beach City Hall this year has had less power to dissuade the mostly maskless crowds mingling nightly on Ocean Drive and sipping oversized cocktails at sidewalk cafes.
A midnight curfew and 8 p.m. retail liquor cutoff has doused some of South Beach's late night party scene. Two tattoo shops were shut down for 24 hours this week for violations of the city's public mask requirement and curfew, a city spokeswoman said.
But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has put out the welcome mat for visitors and businesses by blocking local governments from enforcing some public health orders, such as closing bars or restricting restaurant capacity. Miami Beach and other municipalities can still enforce mask rules on businesses but are prohibited from targeting individuals with penalties.
"We can't even fine somebody for not wearing a mask," Gelber said.
Last weekend, during the conservative CPAC conference in Orlando, DeSantis described the state — which recently hosted the Super Bowl in Tampa — as an "oasis of freedom." So far, there's been little evidence that Tampa's Super Bowl parties were super spreaders.
But health experts say it's still a dangerous time to mingle in crowds, particularly with new strains of the coronavirus emerging.
Dr. J. Glenn Morris Jr., the director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida, told the Miami Herald that "with crowding, particularly within bars and without masks, there is a high risk that visitors will acquire the infection and take it back home." Morris noted that Florida "has among the highest rate of variant strains."
Dr. Aileen Marty, an infectious disease professor at Florida International University who has advised county officials on the pandemic, wrote in an email Thursday that she is "very concerned that people coming from out-of-town can lead to a spike in Miami-Dade cases."
Miami Beach's police and politicians also worry that the coronavirus pandemic could have consequences beyond public health, making pent-up tourists and locals more likely to go overboard. Already, spring break has brought several police chases, including one in which a teenager chased by police drove a car through Lummus Park and pedestrian-only Ocean Drive. Two weeks ago, a woman crashed a car into a shop on Washington Avenue.
The big fights and shootings of recent years haven't been seen so far. But the city is so concerned about anyone potentially riling up spring breakers that code enforcement removed a banner outside the popular Clevelander South Beach bar that said "Misbehavior Encouraged." The acting city attorney called the banner "a call to action to incite potentially unlawful conduct."
Mitch Novick, a South Beach hotel owner and political activist, said spring breakers have been partying on city streets at all hours of the day or night. Around 6:30 a.m. Friday, as he was headed to the beach for a sunrise run, a group of men outside his door were dancing to hip-hop blaring from their Slingshot rental cars. He said police detectives visited him Wednesday to ask about a candlelight memorial several men left in the alley near his hotel, which he said police believed to be related to a gang killing.
"It's all day and night, you have these situations," he said.
Initially, Miami Beach commissioners talked about curbing bad behavior by creating counter-programming — think family-friendly outdoor events and ticketed concerts on the beach. But they decided otherwise due to the risk of COVID transmission.
Instead, they've put in place a familiar-looking $1.6 million police enforcement plan and marketing campaign to try to dissuade people from causing trouble in South Beach.
With the help of outside agencies, Miami Beach police are blanketing the city, with a focus on the entertainment district. Cops cruise the shore on ATVs. License-plate readers scan for suspicious cars. South of Fifth, the residential neighborhood south of the entertainment district, has police and private security stationed at roadblocks. Checkpoints along public beach entrances are screening for alcohol, coolers, backpacks, stereos and even inflatable toys.
"Vacation responsibly," spring breakers are told through travel site and social media ads created by a marketing team. "Or be arrested," adds a city spring break website. The rules are plastered everywhere, at hotels and bus shelters, on trolleys and lampposts. Road signs warn "loud music [is] arrestable."
Police Chief Richard Clements wrote in a January memo that "this season, with the additional reinforcements in place and new health and safety laws to enforce, could be especially difficult to all those visiting and the public at large."
As of Friday, police say they have made 355 arrests citywide and confiscated more than a dozen guns.
"It's frustrating that the only solution seems to be a surge of police," Gelber said. "But if that works, we'll continue to do it."
It's all a balancing act for a city that depends on tourist dollars to pay the bills.
People between the ages of 18 and 25 in the Miami metro area over spring break in 2019, the last full spring break held before COVID hit, spent about $805 million, according to data from the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. Hotels in March of 2019 reported being nearly 90% full.
Last year, Miami Beach's city government put a lid on the partying in mid-March, when the public became aware of the local spread of COVID-19. This year, tourism boosters don't have an estimate for how many spring breakers will come to town, but hotel occupancy rates for February through March are hovering around 70%.
"I think, honestly, our economy can't afford to be shut down a whole other year," said Cooper, the nurse from Ohio, who spoke to the Herald while on her way to the beach. "A lot of restaurants and businesses have safety precautions in place, so that's the only thing we can do at this point."
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