Will South Beach have spring break? Mayor wants to avoid COVID ‘super-spreader’

Martin Vassolo
·5 min read

Less than a month after recommending that the city of Miami Beach spend $1.5 million to organize a month-long spring break festival, interim City Manager Raul Aguila said now is not an “appropriate time” to hold the event amid surging COVID-19 cases and varied university schedules that will result in a longer spring break.

The March festival, expected to feature city-sponsored dance parties and concerts in South Beach, would seek to give party-fueled students an organized way to channel their energy while minimizing public disturbances and police encounters. The onset of the pandemic in South Florida stymied the city’s first attempt to organize a spring break festival last March.

Aguila, who recommended the proposal to commissioners in December, reversed himself in a memo attached to Wednesday’s commission agenda. Instead of hosting the event, the city should “concentrate on additional enforcement efforts this year,” he said. Commissioners, who directed the administration last February to propose a spring break plan, will vote Wednesday on whether to postpone the event until 2022.

The city has not signed a contract with the event organizer, but if the commission approves the concept, the event will go forward.

“COVID numbers are increasing so I don’t think it’s the appropriate time to roll out a pilot program for spring break programming that includes DJ on the beach events, dance parties and live concerts,” Aguila said in a statement. “Let’s face it, enforcing mask wearing and social distancing under these circumstances is going to be challenging.”

The festival, to be organized by Tom Bercu Productions, would take place on the beach and in Lummus Park between Seventh and 11th streets with events scheduled every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It was meant to cater to residents and visitors alike. Members of the Finance and Economic Resiliency Committee asked that the city reduce the price tag to about $1 million, and commissioners will make a final decision Wednesday.

The event organizer presented the plan to the Ocean Drive Association, a coalition of South Beach businesses, and “received positive feedback,” the city said.

Because there is no contract, the city would not owe any money if the commission decides to scrap the event, Aguila said. The city has not found a source of money to fund the event, nor any sponsors to support it.

“I think programming is an interesting idea — just not for this year,” he said.

Mayor, police chief agree

Mayor Dan Gelber and Police Chief Rick Clements agree with Aguila’s request to cancel this year’s event.

“I’m very worried that, frankly, between the vaccine and fatigue, that we’ve really let down our guard,” Gelber told the Miami Herald. “And I think it’s very concerning. I don’t think that we should be promoting gatherings. The last thing we want is to promote a super-spreader event.”

Whether the city cancels its events or not, spring breakers will still come to South Beach as they did last year. Hotel occupancy in Miami-Dade decreased 76% between January and March, but some young revelers still made the trip.

Last March, a spring breaker from Ohio visiting the Miami area infamously told Reuters, “If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying.”

Gelber had this message for students who want to visit South Beach for spring break: “If you’re looking to go crazy, go somewhere else. This is not going to be that type of experience.”

Police say the bulk of “high-impact” colleges and universities, 137 in total, will be on spring break from March 7-21. While that number is lower than in prior years — the University of Florida and others have canceled spring break altogether — some schools have rescheduled their spring breaks to April. During spring break, officers typically work extended “Alpha/Bravo” shifts of between 12 and 14 hours per day with limited days off.

It’s not business as usual

In a memo to the City Commission, Clements said hosting the event would send “mixed messaging” to the public that the city is functioning like normal despite the pandemic.

“As a city, we have taken and enforced extreme measures including fines, social distancing regulations and a very strict curfew, intended to curb and prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Clements wrote. “The message that we are activating or programming while still in the midst of a pandemic sends a message to the contrary.”

Spring break has posed a challenge to police and city leaders in years past. Even with a truncated spring break last year, police were involved in a number of rough arrests in South Beach. The Miami-Dade chapter of the NAACP condemned the police actions as “racist” after viral videos showed Black tourists arrested for mostly minor offenses.

Clements said assigning his more than 400 officers to extended shifts for several weeks on end is not sustainable. Enforcing COVID-19 restrictions, like the use of face masks, will make policing more difficult, he said.

Aguila said the city will determine how much money police and code-enforcement officers need to “maintain an orderly and lawful” spring break.

“Policing, as you are well aware, is not known for being attractive, and there is an ugly side to our enforcement efforts,” Clements said. “If spring break periods are known for being uncomfortable ones, 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.”