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Restaurants are reopening. Sidewalks are coming back to life. America is shaking off a long COVID winter. But in Miami Beach, you might not even know a pandemic had happened. Verónica Zaragovia is a reporter with WLRN, the public radio station for Miami and South Florida, and she’s observed over the past few weeks a lot people crowding on to Miami Beach’s main drag, Ocean Drive. “It’s been really crowded. Just a lot of people that perhaps would raise your eyebrows because of the potential for the coronavirus to spread,” Zaragovia said.
Normally locals would welcome—or at least tolerate—the tourists who boost the region’s economy, but this year, things are different. “I’ve spoken to locals who felt that this is just too much,” Zaragovia said. “There have been businesses that have shut down because they didn’t feel that their patrons or the staff would be safe.”
Local officials are blaming the state for turning Miami Beach into a guinea pig for Florida’s reopening—an experiment that has exposed the difficulty of managing a world that isn’t quite done with the pandemic but desperately wants to be. On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Zaragovia about those tensions. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Grabar: A little over a week ago, the tension in Miami Beach—with locals increasingly uncomfortable with crowds of spring breakers—started coming to a head. Those crowds on Ocean Drive were getting intense, with reports of gunfire and stampedes.
Verónica Zaragovia: That was, for city officials, a point where they decided they couldn’t wait for something worse to happen. So the city manager declared that there would be a temporary curfew for that particular weekend, from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., and then they voted the following day to allow it to be extended each weekend up through mid-April.
That first Saturday night the curfew went into effect, partiers refused to disperse at 8 p.m. Then, the police showed up in force.
The police say that they were having trouble getting people to leave the area and that they were feeling that their own safety was in jeopardy, so then they fired these pepper spray balls, and then that’s what led to the scenes that people have seen on social media.
Those videos on social media show police arriving with military-style equipment, firing pepper balls into the crowd. What is also evident in those videos is that most of the partiers on Ocean Drive that night were Black. For the most part, they were just dancing in the street, like any other spring break. The chair of Miami-Dade’s Black Affairs Advisory Board, Stephen Hunter Johnson, said the police’s aggressive response “felt like a total overreaction.”
You say this taps into a long-standing issue in Miami Beach, where local gripes about tourist behavior can thinly hide views about class or race, right?
The thing is that both the mayor and some commissioners in the Miami Beach government have said that there is a need to change the kinds of businesses that exist on Ocean Drive. The mayor, Dan Gelber, has said that he wants the entertainment district to change to an area to appreciate the Art Deco architecture. Nobody has ever said that Black tourists are not welcome here, but it just depends how you interpret what’s being said. They point out this doesn’t happen at Joe’s Stone Crab, which is a very upscale restaurant. Commissioners have said that they want the restaurants on Ocean Drive to be more upscale or the prices to go up, and that that would deter younger people from coming. And some people see that as that would deter Black visitors from coming. And others say it’s not about the race of the people coming; it’s about the conduct of people who are coming here, and they want that to change.
Another reason tensions in Miami Beach are running so high is that, against local officials’ own wishes, it’s become ground zero for Florida’s reopening. The past year has been a game of tug-of-war between local officials in Florida and Gov. Ron DeSantis.
I think local officials have felt pretty helpless. There was, earlier in the pandemic, a meeting among mayors and cities with Gov. DeSantis. And they had asked for a unified message, at least to say, “Masks are important,” but he just never delivered that. That’s why different counties have taken whatever approach they could, but they don’t have much in the way of enforcement for people to be safe.
You’ve mentioned that to some extent the local officials have their hands tied by the governor saying everything is open for business, prohibiting them from enforcing capacity restrictions, for example. Do you think the more draconian measure of a curfew is a reaction to that?
Some people are criticizing that they knew these crowds were coming because spring break is always busy. And so they’re calling on the city to maybe offer events, so people feel like they have things to do, and it maybe won’t be a second situation like last weekend.
Tourists and businesses tell me they were caught off guard. I spoke to a tourist who said, “Well, on that night, I just had a sandwich from CVS because I had nowhere to go.” Or people are scared to leave the area because then the traffic is so bad to come back in that you might not be able to get back till the curfew is over at 6 a.m.
And businesses have been really, really devastated. A lot of business here works by just tourists walking by and they see something they like and they sit there. And they just aren’t making the money that they were able to before the curfew. And also the social media images that were spread around have caused a lot of people to question their decision to come here on a vacation. A bike rental shop manager was worried because he was getting a lot of cancellations.
How much of this situation do you think is tied to the fact that there’s this weird political divide between Miami-Dade leadership and Florida leadership. DeSantis keeps saying, “Florida is open for business, spring break is on, come on down.” And it sounds like at the county level at least, people are a little more reticent.
Both at the county level, since we have a new mayor of Miami-Dade County, Daniella Levine Cava, and then the mayor of Miami Beach, Dan Gelber, they’ve been very vocally critical of Gov. DeSantis because he took away the possibility recently of any fines to be collected from people or businesses who didn’t comply with COVID-19 safety rules. And so they really haven’t had many options. They feel like this open-for-business message brought so many people here. So there is that tension.
I had spoken to a couple who live nearby from the scene on Ocean Drive, and they said, “Well, DeSantis should come down here on a Friday night and see for himself what this looks like and see if he would like to be part of this. And maybe he should help, rather than urging people to come down here.”
It sounds like in some ways this kind of radical open-for-business policy that has drawn so many people to Miami Beach has almost backfired, in the sense that now not only is there a curfew to control the crowds, but businesses were saying that they didn’t feel like they could operate, and the traffic’s been really bad. What’s the vibe now?
I’m so glad you asked that because on Sunday, right after the curfew was set, I came out to Ocean Drive and spoke to a lot of tourists who were here during the whole thing as it evolved on Friday and Saturday. And I specifically make a point of speaking mostly to Black tourists who tell me that while they were not happy with how their night had to end really early, they still love Miami and Miami Beach, and they’re going to come back. And honestly, if you go out now, it’s back to everybody enjoying the weather. People are having a really good time. And that’s good news for the tourism and hospitality industry because that’s the lifeline of not just the city, but much of the county and the state.
In some ways, Miami Beach is a pawn in a much larger game: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has become a GOP celebrity on the strength of Florida’s open schools, open businesses, and COVID caseloads that fall squarely in the middle among U.S. states. Overruling Miami Beach on capacity restrictions might not be good policy, but it is definitely good politics for DeSantis.
However, those politics are putting Florida’s essential workers in danger. While sunbathing and swimming are about as safe a pandemic activity as you could do, the same cannot be said for eating inside the area’s many bars and restaurants.
Florida has the most cases of the B.1.1.7 variant that was first seen in the U.K. And it’s an opportunity for a new variant to form is what an infectious diseases expert told me. And the 14-day positivity rate has been going up in Miami-Dade County. The pandemic is far from over. One tourist from New York City pointed out that he was shocked to see so few people wearing masks. I have to say that I’ve become so used to it, but it’s true that of everybody that I interviewed, not one person was wearing a mask.
Gov. DeSantis has also bragged about Florida’s vaccination rollout. But those twentysomethings who come to Miami Beach are not likely to be vaccinated. And because of the state’s age restrictions, neither are the essential workers who bring out the margaritas, right?
One concern that doctors and health care advocates have told me is that only this week did Florida bring down the minimum age for vaccinations to 50. And so that still excludes so many of the of the hospitality workers—people who work in the hotels and the restaurants and supermarkets and the people out on the beach putting out the lounge chairs. So there is a lot of concern there that just not enough people have been vaccinated, and only on this coming Monday, the mayor of Miami-Dade County, Florida, is dropping the minimum age to 40, ahead of the state. There’s this push to get a lot of younger people vaccinated and to do it fast. The governor has hinted that he is going to open it up pretty soon, but he won’t say when. And he never did include essential front-line workers in the vaccination rollout. People say that’s just really not fair. A lot of the health care experts feel like it’s been very uneven. And in a state that that wants everything open, then it has to support the health of the people who kind of maintain all of these sectors.
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