S1: 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.
S2: It is the start of another spring break weekend in South Florida and Miami Beach, which has grabbed headlines for out of control crowds for weeks, is bracing for another influx of tourists and possibly trouble.
S3: What I’ve been observing the last few weeks is a lot of people crowding on Ocean Drive, which is the main strip full of art deco hotels parallel to the beach.
S1: Veronica Sakova is a reporter with WLS, are in the public radio station from Miami and South Florida.
S3: It’s been really crowded by for much of this time. It’s been peaceful, just a lot of people that perhaps would raise your eyebrows because of the potential for the coronavirus to spread.
S1: In fact, Veronica lives within walking distance of Ocean Drive. She says locals in Miami are mostly used to the partying.
S3: Everybody who lives in Miami Beach has to have a tolerance for tourism because that is the lifeline of this city and it’s a city that welcomes.
S1: But this year, Veronica says, something changed.
S3: I’ve spoken to locals who felt that this is just it was too much. There have been businesses that shut down that they didn’t feel that their patrons or the staff would be safe,
S1: even businesses used to serving rowdy partiers were saying what was going on in South Beach was just too much for them.
S3: One of them, the Clevelander, is a party venue that’s extremely popular on Ocean Drive and they closed down on Friday. And that that just kind of made people feel like maybe this is getting out of hand that really rattled locals or people from South Florida.
S1: Today on the show, local officials are blaming the state for turning Miami Beach into a guinea pig for Florida’s reopening. That experiment has exposed the difficulty of managing a world that isn’t quite done with the pandemic but desperately wants to be. I’m Henry Garba Infirmary. Harris, you’re listening to what next? Stick with us. A little over a week ago, the tension in Miami Beach with locals increasingly uncomfortable with crowds of spring breakers started to come to a head. Those crowds on Ocean Drive were getting intense with reports of gunfire and stampedes.
S3: That was for city officials, like a point where they decided we can’t wait for something worse to happen. We need to we need to stop this now. So then they the city manager declared that there would be a temporary curfew for that particular weekend from Saturday up until the following Monday from 8:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. and then they voted the following day to allow it to be extended each week up through mid April.
S1: The first Saturday night the curfew went into effect, partiers refused to disperse at 8:00 p.m. and then the police showed up in force.
S3: The police say that they were having troubles 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 bottles. And then that’s what led to the scenes that people have seen on social media. And they also had like a SWAT team.
S1: 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 Black Affairs Advisory Board, Steven Johnson, said the police’s aggressive response, quote, felt like a total overreaction. Veronica says this hits a long standing issue in Miami Beach, where local gripes about tourist behavior can thinly hide views about class or race.
S3: The thing is that both the mayor and some commissioners in Miami Beach government have said that there is a need to change the kinds of businesses that exist on Ocean Drive or in that what they call the entertainment district. So the mayor, Dan Gelber, has said that he needs he wants the entertainment district to change to a like an area to appreciate the art deco architecture. And so 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 to, you know, this doesn’t happen at Joe’s stone crabs, which is a very like an upscale restaurant. And then so they are pointing to what goes on in Ocean Drive. And we do have those problems on Ocean Drive. So it’s time for the businesses to raise their prices. And so commissioners have said that in meetings that they want, like the restaurants 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 that the conduct of people who are coming here and they want that to change.
S1: Right. You’re saying so when when the mayor said we’d rather have architecture buffs than people coming here to dance all night, that that remark. Was interpreted by some as having racial undertones.
S3: Yes, that’s right, people aren’t some see that as having racial undertones, because if you look at the I mean, the city the city might celebrate, for instance, Art Basel and which it certainly celebrates it because it brings a lot of money to the city every year. It seems like that’s the kind of clientele that they’d rather have.
S1: 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. Rhonda Santos.
S3: I think local officials have felt pretty helpless at some point. There was an earlier in the pandemic, a meeting among mayors and of the cities and with Governor Santos. And they had asked for a unified message, at least to say, you know, masks are important, but he just never delivered that. And so I think 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.
S1: 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 curfew is sort of a reaction to that, like they were unable to keep a lid on things by other means? And so they ended up with this sort of draconian response, which is to get everybody off the street after 8:00 p.m.
S3: 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 just maybe won’t be a second situation like like what evolved to last weekend. Tourists and businesses tell me they were caught off guard. And so I spoke to, for instance, 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 to that. Curfew is over at 6:00 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 just kind of like the images, the social media images that were spread around has caused a lot of people to question their decision to come here on a vacation. So a bike rental shop manager was worried that he was getting a lot of cancellations. And so it was like a now a new effect of this curfew.
S1: 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 where Governor Rhonda Santos keeps saying Florida is open for business? Spring break is on. Come on down. And it sounds like at the county level at least, and probably at the city level, two people are a little more reticent.
S3: Absolutely. Both at the county level, since we have a new a new mayor of Miami Dade County and Daniela Levine COVA and then the mayor of Miami Beach, Dan Gelber, they’ve been very vocally critical of Governor ran to Santos 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 like the physical distancing or the wearing of masks. 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 that local and then state government tension where, you know, even I had spoken to a couple who live nearby from the scene on Ocean Drive and they they said, well, Santa 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 and maybe he should, you know, help rather than urging people to come down here. So there is that tension. And multiple times local officials have been asking for more support from the state government.
S1: We’ll be right back. 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 not only is there now a curfew to control the crowds, but businesses were saying that, you know, they didn’t feel like they could operate and the traffic’s been really bad. And what’s the vibe now? I mean, when you’re out in Miami Beach now, what do you see?
S3: I’m actually 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 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, people flew in to celebrate birthdays and ended up having to kind of celebrate with their few friends in a hotel room. But they say they love Miami and Miami Beach and they’re going to come back. And honestly, if you go out now, it’s like back to, you know, everybody enjoying the beautiful weather that we have. This is a really, really very beautiful and very friendly, relaxed, laid back place. People are having a really good time. And I think that it’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.
S1: So in some ways, Miami Beach is a pawn in a much larger game. Florida Governor Rhonda Santos 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 and capacity restrictions might not be good policy, but it is definitely good politics for the Santos. However, those politics are putting Florida’s essential workers at risk while sunbathing and swimming are about as safe pandemic activity as you could do, the same cannot be said for eating inside the area’s many bars and restaurants.
S3: Florida has the most cases of the bee one one seven variant that was first seen in the U.K. So either they take variants with them or they bring them here. And it’s an opportunity for a new variant to form is what an infectious diseases expert told me. And, you know, yeah, that 14 day positivity rate has been going up in Miami-Dade County. And so the pandemic, you know, is far from over. And one tourist actually from New York City pointed out that he was shocked to see so few people wearing masks and even servers just kind of keeping their mask under their nose. And I have to say that even I’ve become so used to. But it’s it’s true that masks. I mean, everybody that I interviewed and not one person was wearing a mask. There has been, I should point out, a curfew in Miami-Dade County for many months. For much of the pandemic. The former mayor of the county had put a 12 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. curfew. So that has actually was interesting because before when I was talking to turn it to the spring breakers, they’d say, yeah, we’re going to go party in Fort Lauderdale because in the next county over Broward, there is no curfew. But then now with this new curfew from Thursday to Monday morning in Miami Beach, if they have booked a hotel here, then they can’t they don’t feel comfortable doing it because they’re not sure if they can come back to their hotel room before the curfew is over. So Fort Lauderdale is doing pretty well.
S1: It’s funny that you’ve got the national picture where people flee cities, where clubs are still closed, where people wear masks everywhere. They go down to Miami Beach. You’ve still got that that that sort of playing out, that sort of people voting with their feet, playing out locally as well, where people are moving from the higher regulation county to the lower regulation county to go dancing. So it just goes to show that you can’t do public health restrictions like playing whack a mole.
S3: Yes, that’s exactly I think like Florida has been extremely reactionary and not and hasn’t planned. I mean, there’s never really quite a unified response in Florida. And so, yeah, it makes it from from vaccinations to just policy. Everyone’s just like every every things changed so much from one city or county to the next. And so it makes it very confusing even for reporters.
S1: This is where Veronica sees a contradiction in the state’s response. Governor Santos has bragged about Florida’s vaccination rollout, but those 20 somethings who come to Miami Beach are not likely to be vaccinated because of the state’s age restrictions. Neither are the essential workers who bring out the Margarita’s.
S3: One concern that doctors and health care advocates have told me is that only only this this week did Florida bring down the minimum age for vaccinations to 50. And so that excludes so many of the of the hospitality workers, of people who work in the hotels and the restaurants and supermarkets and the people out on the beach putting out the lounge chairs. These are all people that need to be vaccinated. So there is a lot of concern there that that is just not enough. People have been vaccinated and only on this coming Monday, the mayor of Miami Dade County, Florida, is set up in such a way that we have mayors of the counties and of the cities, and she’s dropping the minimum age to 40 ahead of the state. And so there’s just kind of this push to get a lot of younger people vaccinated and to do it fast. And 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. And that just, you know, people say that’s just really not fair. I think a lot of the health care experts just 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.
S1: Veronica, thank you so much for coming on the show.
S3: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
S1: Veronica Sakova is a reporter for WLS R.N. in Miami, and that’s the show. What Next is produced by Kamal Dilshad, Daniel Hewitt, Linda Schwartz, Davis Land and Mary Wilson. We are led by Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Henry Garba Infirmary Harris. I’ll be back in this feed tomorrow. Thanks for listening. Is it is it bad that this whole conversation just made me want to go?
S3: No, really. I mean, I don’t know what I would have done in this pandemic without Miami Beach because you like this beach is one of the safest places you can be. So like the beach itself, it’s like it’s such a relief from all of this. But just don’t go to any of our restaurants.