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The most popular stretches of public beach on South Beach will be closed to the public after 5 p.m. beginning Saturday evening under a new emergency measure to tackle the potential spread of the coronavirus.
After Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber declared that spring break in Miami Beach was “over” during a Thursday news conference, City Manager Jimmy Morales enacted emergency measures Saturday to limit the gathering of spring breakers in South Beach by reopening Ocean Drive to cars, closing the public beaches from Seventh to 10th streets every day at 5 p.m. and banning the congregation of people in Lummus Park at that time.
In an email to the mayor and the City Commission at 2:30 p.m., Morales said that his order would address an unprecedented confluence of public safety issues: public health concerns posed by the spread of the coronavirus to Miami-Dade County and the large influx of spring breakers that “don’t seem to care about viruses.”
The city will close the beach with the help of police and civilian ambassadors. Police will stop “any congregation of persons” in Lummus Park at the same time. The order will also prohibit parking along Collins Avenue in the entertainment district.
Morales’ limited emergency powers, approved by the elected commissioners, will last until March 19. The City Commission voted Friday to extend the powers to 7 days from the usual 72 hours.
“The idea is to force folks to make decisions to either go into the stores, restaurants or bars, or go back to their hotels to hang out,” Morales wrote to commissioners. “The goal is to avoid the huge crowds that clearly pose both a health hazard and a public disorder risk.”
“Let’s hope this approach makes a difference,” he added.
Mayor Gelber, who visited Morales on Ocean Drive Saturday evening about 4:30 p.m., said the city was in a difficult position and acting without a “playbook.”
“We’re addressing two very daunting challenges: our public safety and a healthcare one that are intersecting right now,” he said.
Miami Beach Commissioner Mark Samuelian said battling coronavirus is hard enough. But when you add large, energetic crowds and alcohol — not the disinfecting kind — into the mix, strong measures are needed to protect public safety, he said.
“It is certainly unprecedented,” he said. “We’re trying to keep people as healthy as possible, and specifically we are being advised by medical professionals that these type of large crowds are not in people’s well being.”
He said the measures would also protect the health of the spring breakers, who may not fear the disease but who may pass it on to others.
“This is a public safety issue and we have got to address this,” he said. “I support these measures and I believe it is the right thing for the community and frankly for the safety of these spring breakers.”
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The closure of the beaches is the second emergency measure Morales has put into effect since declaring a state of emergency Thursday. On Friday, restaurants and clubs in the city began restricting their occupancy to under 250 guests under directives from Morales. Some of the city’s most popular joints, including Joe’s Stone Crab and The Clevelander South Beach Hotel & Bar, are affected by the order.
Since spring break began at the start of March, crowds of young revelers have saturated South Beach, partying in large groups on the beach and openly enjoying party favors, like alcohol and marijuana.
The police response to spring break parties, including rough arrests decried as “racist” by the local chapter of the NAACP, have frequently been filmed by bystanders and uploaded to social media.
Gelber said he’s confident police will enforce the new emergency orders without escalating situations, but he said it would be misguided to judge the officers without understanding the challenges they face responding to chaotic scenes.
“I have a lot of faith,” he said. “I don’t think our police want to escalate. This is a very challenging terrain right now.”
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