In 2021, the nation watched as hordes of people rampaged through Miami Beach getting into street fights, stampeding along Ocean Drive and indiscriminately wrecking property. The Miami Beach Police Department confiscated nearly 100 firearms and arrested over 1,000 people by the midpoint of spring break season. Eventually, an 8 p.m. curfew had to be put in place.
In response to this, voters approved a non-binding referendum in November 2021 that called for rolling back the last call for alcohol from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m. This referendum overcame organized opposition from the hospitality industry, which desired to preserve the status quo. Yet, even after voters declared what they wanted, the Miami Beach City Commission has responded quite tepidly to the referendum. As they debate possible restrictions, desires to create sweeping carve-outs have emerged.
Dan Gelber was re-elected to his third and final two-year term as mayor of Miami Beach at the same time the 2 a.m. referendum was approved. Public safety has been one of his priorities ever since he served in the Florida Legislature where he was House Democratic Leader. He has been the foremost advocate of a hard 2 a.m. ban on alcohol sales in all areas of Miami Beach.
In an interview with the Florida Political Review, Gelber reiterated his support for the 2 a.m. rule. He pointed out the security risk that results from people drinking and partying day and night, saying “when you have an all-night party zone, it’s a huge strain on [the MBPD] because they have to police everywhere” at the same time.
During the unrest in 2021, the MBPD certainly had their hands full. As unmasked crowds ensured that Covid-19 variant Alpha spread like wildfire, the police had to use pepper balls to get people to cooperate with crowd-control efforts. Meanwhile, in a split-screen moment, Gelber was on national television urging people not to come to Miami Beach — something extremely difficult for anyone so dedicated to their city.
Gelber also acknowledges the damage that past events have done to Miami Beach’s reputation. He knows when the entire world sees what happens in Miami Beach, “You attract people that want to push the limits. … It just creates a dynamic that we cannot tolerate.”
In a poll of undergraduate students — a demographic that frequents Miami Beach during spring break — opinions on the 2 a.m. ban were mixed. In fact, at a standard 95% confidence level, assuming a perfect random sample, the only thing we can know for certain is how uncertain these students are about the ban.
To see what effects initiatives like the 2 a.m. rule can have, one has to look no further than the city of Fort Lauderdale. In the 1980s, Ft. Lauderdale — about 30 miles north of Miami Beach — tightened its rules after similar mayhem ensued. Among other initiatives, motel prices were raised, capacity limits were enforced and street parties were quickly broken up.
Eventually, Ft. Lauderdale was able to remake itself into a calmer, more family-friendly destination. Luxury brands even opened up on the waterfront — something unthinkable in decades past. Now, even during spring break, Ft. Lauderdale remains calm.
Miami Beach is a different case. It already has many high-end establishments and an administrative structure different from Ft. Lauderdale, providing alternative solutions to solve the same issues. Still, Ft. Lauderdale is proof that cities can be reborn, going from party central to a more enjoyable way of life for everyone.
Achieving this requires Miami Beach to radically redesign its entertainment district into something more calm and sustainable for everyone. As Gelber said, “Most destinations should be closed at 2 a.m.” The “all-night hard-drink business model” just does not work for Miami Beach.
The Miami Beach City Commission voted on several proposals related to the entertainment scene when they met on Feb. 9. Unfortunately, many of these proposals were severely watered down from what the voters wanted.
The Commission approved several of these proposals on a preliminary basis; final votes are to come later. These proposals included banning alcohol sales or consumption after 2 a.m. (with a massive exemption for the entertainment district that effectively defeats the very purpose of the proposal) and special rules for the spring break season and banning alcohol sales after 2 a.m. in residential neighborhoods.
The best proposal approved by the commission was a firm ban on issuing new 5 a.m. licenses, but even this is too late for the businesses that already have 5 a.m. licenses. Then, on March 2, Judge Beatrice Butchko struck down this ordinance, right as spring break began.
A casual look at her Twitter account will reveal that Butchko does not understand the separation of powers, which insulates the judiciary from partisan politics. Instead, she acts as a pawn of the ultra-conservative Federalist Society. She has ties to multiple powerful Republicans, from Gov. Ron DeSantis to former Health and Human Services Sec. Alex Acosta. Butchko has even donated $550 to different Republican candidates over time.
Miami Beach is appealing Butchko’s ruling and, based on her apparent lack of knowledge about public processes, the city may well win.
The hospitality and tourism industries were behind that lawsuit, claiming revenue will fall. This fixation on what is hopefully a shrinking party scene overlooks Miami Beach’s diverse offerings.
Gelber pointed out that Miami Beach is home to the world-renowned Art Basel art show every December. This attracts art fans, celebrities and the curious who travel to see unique pieces from paintings to a $120,000 banana. The show is shared with an exclusive club of cities: Paris, Hong Kong and Basel. This is just one reason why the mayor says “we’re a great place to come visit.”
There is also a new convention center to attract businesses to the area and “some of the best hotels you’re going to find anywhere.” One also cannot forget the huge mass of critical cultural institutions, fine dining and beautiful beaches, he says.
Even though everyone hears about the chaos in the entertainment district, Miami Beach has quite a diverse array of appeals. Arts and culture will be central to a reinvented Miami Beach. Guided by Gelber, it is sure to continue to make an impact on the world stage.
To those who hope for a repeat of years past, however, Gelber, a former star federal prosecutor, has something to say to you: “If you are looking to create disorder, that would be a big mistake. We are pretty serious about maintaining order.”
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Featured image: Ocean Drive in Miami Beach glows under the neon lights of Art Deco buildings. Unmodified image by minds-eye used under a Creative Commons license (https://bit.ly/3JH19rg).