Cancel spring break? Miami Beach struggles to control rowdy crowds

Officials in Miami Beach, Florida, are scrambling to come up with meaningful solutions after another violent spring break highlighted the city's struggle to control the influx of visitors and the lawlessness some of them bring.

Months of planning and a police presence the mayor described as "enormous" were no match for the throngs of college students and other young adults who made the annual pilgrimage to the beachfront city.

Two people were fatally shot in recent days, incidents that prompted Miami Beach to declare a state of emergency and enforce a curfew for the third year in a row.

While spring break is an economic boon to the city's businesses, Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said he has had enough and thinks it’s time for the city to take decisive action before more lives are lost.

“We’re not going to arrest our way out of it. We’re going to have to just stop spring break from happening here. That’s the best thing we can do,” he said.

However, “that’s just a very hard thing to do,” Gelber added.

Police are 'outnumbered'

Every March, tens of thousands of people flock to Miami Beach to take in Florida’s sunshine and party.

The city offers them a lineup of programs that includes concerts and athletic tournaments — alternatives to the traditional drinking and street cruising along iconic Ocean Drive. It also brings in police from other jurisdictions to keep visitors safe.

“No one takes a day off during spring break. They’re all here. We have officers from the county, from other cities, officers on horseback, officers on ATVs, sometimes school district police are here. We have goodwill ambassadors walking around in shirts to try to help people follow the rules and make good choices,” Gelber said.

During peak days, as many as 470 officers are out on the streets, and yet there were more than 320 arrests before the state of emergency was declared Sunday, officials said.

Police are “outnumbered by a lawless crowd that just can’t be controlled,” said Alex J. Fernandez, one of Miami Beach's six elected commissioners.

Gelber pointed to several factors, including the size and the ages of crowds, as well as the presence of firearms.

As of Monday, 71 guns had been taken off the streets, he said.

Four of them were seized after Friday's shooting left one person dead and another in critical condition, police said. Two other firearms were confiscated after a man was killed early Sunday. Arrests were made in both incidents.

In March 2021, spring break crowds were blamed for brawls that had to be broken up by police and prompted the first state of emergency.

Around the same weekend last March, Miami Beach implemented its second state of emergency after five bystanders were hospitalized in two random shootings.

An economic boon

Despite the mayhem in recent years, some local businesses continue to welcome the crowds. While this year’s figures aren’t yet available, spring break traditionally pumps a lot of money into the Miami Beach economy every year.

Ahead of an emergency meeting Monday in which commissioners considered another curfew for this weekend, the owners of the nightclub M2 slammed the proposal. In an Instagram post, they invited their more than 5,000 followers to the meeting, urging them “to tell the Mayor to keep South Beach open” and calling the curfew “BS.”

During the meeting, other business owners opposed to the curfew talked over officials.

“You have no communication between the private and public sector! Police did a good job. The businesses did a good job. They’re all innocent,” a man yelled at the City Commission and the mayor.

Still, Fernandez said, he has spoken with businesses who are already on board with closing their doors during next year's spring break festivities, whether it’s enforced or voluntarily.

“Early Sunday night, I got a call from a business owner saying that around 7:30 p.m. there was a stampede by his restaurant. Patrons were hiding under tables, and his employees didn’t feel safe, and it forced him to close his business,” he said.

“He said he was voluntarily willing to close his business early next year again during this same weekend, because they realize that the safety of their employees comes before profits,” Fernandez added.

Sam Hall, a real estate agent and the founder of, said that he doesn’t want spring break festivities to end altogether but that he supports additional safety measures.

He suggested running police checkpoints on bridges going into South Beach to “make it safer for residents and tourists coming to town.”

“It would be a deterrent for criminals to come in knowing that they’re going to be stopped on their way in. It would also control the crowd size, which I think is another issue,” he said.

‘This is about life and safety’

The proposal for a new curfew failed in a 4-3 vote at the emergency commission meeting Monday.

Some commissioners raised concerns about the economic hit a curfew would have on businesses during one of the busiest times of the spring season. They also worried that it would most likely have an impact on the Ultra Music Festival, an electronic dance music event starting this week that brings thousands to the area.

A compromise amendment was approved in a 6-1 vote, giving the city manager state-of-emergency powers, but only to restrict alcohol sales at local liquor stores starting at 6 p.m. this weekend.

At least one business owner threatened to sue in light of the alcohol sales restriction.

“This is not the way to resolve it. If you’re going to shut me down, be fair. Shut down Ocean Drive entirely, the bars, and be fair,” Jorge Zubigaray, the owner of Gulf Liquors on Alton Road, told NBC Miami. He said the restriction would cost him $20,000 for the weekend.

“We’re doing an emergency injunction with the courts” he said. “With ... Ultra and spring break, it will affect my business.”

Fernandez, one of three members who supported the curfew, said limiting alcohol sales doesn’t go far enough.

“This is like acknowledging we have a problem, but we don’t want to take bold action because we don’t want to piss off important businesses in our city,” he said.

Fernandez said he is already brainstorming measures he hopes the city will implement to curb the spring break chaos.

He plans to present a proposal at next Monday's commission meeting that includes establishing a pre-emptive curfew, closing businesses early and rolling back alcohol sales.

“Closing businesses earlier by a few hours is not as bad to our economy and to their profits as it is people not feeling safe because they’re seeing stories about people getting killed on the streets, and they’re seeing images on social media of someone being shot on the ground. That has a lasting horrible impact on the image of a city that is otherwise safe,” Fernandez said.

“This isn’t about dollars and cents. This is about life and safety. What’s worse for our economy is the image of blood being washed off our sidewalk,” he added.

Miami Beach Police Chief Richard M. Clements said at Monday’s meeting that there are several logistical and legal hurdles in establishing checkpoints and metal detectors.

“We can’t continue, year after year, reacting after someone gets killed, then we impose a curfew and an emergency order. That’s what happened to 2021. That’s what happened to 2022. And that’s what happened this year,” Fernandez said.

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