Despite the perfect weather last weekend, another kind of perfect storm landed on South Beach.
Spring breakers and a Saturday St. Patrick's Day made the city's neon-lit hotspot so crowded that police had to close the MacArthur Causeway to eastbound traffic for over an hour.
Mayor of Miami Beach Dan Gelber called the decision "unprecedented." He spoke with WLRN on the capacity issue and how last weekend will inform future crowd control efforts on the beach.
WLRN: What led to the closing?
DAN GELBER: We had a severe capacity issue on our island. Hundreds of schools had exactly the same spring break holiday, and the result was that we had too many people coming here to celebrate.
Our security assets, our fire and police were well past their limits. There were just too many people on our streets.
How do you define “severe capacity?”
D.G.: There were simply too many cars on the road and too many people on the street. We believed we really couldn’t control it. Rather than just let it careen out of control, we tried to stop the number of people coming in and added police and other personnel to help move the crowd around to hopefully make it a little more manageable. It was a very difficult time for us.
Not to mention St. Patrick’s Day.
D.G.: It really was a confluence of a few different things. It was St. Paddy’s Day; hundreds of colleges had exactly the same spring break; the weather was spectacular. Everybody just seemed to want to have the same idea at the same time.
It’s important to note we don’t do anything to attract people here. They’re coming here because we’re Miami Beach. That’s great on other days. But when everybody shows up at the same time - and they’re young students looking to get loose - it’s not an ideal situation for us.
Who made the call?
D.G.: Our police chief Dan Oates in consultation with city manager Jimmy Morales. They talked with me as well. These are straightforward public safety decisions. Our police couldn’t control the numbers so we felt like we had to stop the growth and the swelling of the crowds.
When has this happened before?
D.G.: This is unprecedented. On Memorial Day weekend, we’ll sometimes have those capacity issues. Most of the people who’ve been doing this for a handful years haven’t seen anything like this – in terms of the number of people that were flocking here and those coming off the beach.
We’re going to have to do a better job of predicting this. It’s hard to predict it because the kids coming here may not be staying at hotels. Or they may be staying at Airbnbs that are not supposed to be housing people. So we can’t figure out how many people are actually on the island. And short of closing down a causeway, which admittedly is a very extreme measure, we can’t stop people from coming here.
What are your plans for Ultra Music Festival this weekend in addition to Spring Break?
D.G.: Going forward in at least the next week, we’re gonna try to manage the crowd. Empty the beach at a time when it doesn’t create a crowd on our streets. We’re gonna put more police at intersections. We may moderate the hours for the cafes on Ocean Drive. We’re gonna try to do things to manage and perhaps reduce the number. We’re gonna have to see if that works this week.
What about residents on the mainland going to the beach?
D.G.: Our priority is the safety of everyone – residents and visitors. And we don’t like to create dislocation and discomfort for our residents. Our hope is that managing the size of the crowd won’t impair on our residents’ ability to move around our city. This last weekend, there has been severe dislocation. It was not acceptable at all.
WLRN: How are you trying to toe the line between public safety and commerce?
D.G.: You don’t weigh public safety against whether there are piña coladas for people. Either you’re safe or you’re not safe.
For me, it’s not a question of moderating one for the other. You don’t shortchange public safety. We didn’t feel like we had full control of our streets Saturday night. That’s not a feeling we want to repeat.
We’re going to do whatever we need to do to. Even if it’s a short-term thing of limiting when the cafes are open, we’ll do it. Some of the cafes limit it themselves. Some actually closed their doors because there were too many people. So we’re not alone in this.
— Jamie Guirola (@jamieNBC6) March 18, 2018