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As Emergency Orders Are Set To End In Miami, Locals Push To Keep Streets Closed

Lee Kessler, owner of Barracudas, stands in the middle of Fuller Street holding a beer as patrons sit at tables behind him.
Daniel Rivero
Lee Kessler, owner of Barracudas, stands in the middle of Fuller Street, the street he helped close to car traffic. Now many are rallying to make the pandemic-related closure permanent.

Some streets were closed to allow more outdoor seating for bars and restaurants during COVID-19. As emergency orders are set to end, many want the closures to remain permanent.

Experiments with closing some streets to traffic and making them pedestrian-only started out as a pragmatic emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the thinking went, some areas were better left to be more open in order to let restaurants and bars have additional outdoor seating to accommodate social distancing.

But as an order from Gov. Ron DeSantis to revoke all local emergency orders is set to go into effect July 1, there are growing calls to make some of those emergency closures permanent. Street closures in Miami, Miami Beach and Doral will be impacted.

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One of the main points of activism and community enthusiasm behind this is the effort to keep Fuller Street in Miami's Coconut Grove neighborhood permanently closed to street traffic.

“The fact that this is like a thriving street, it kind of is a sign of hope that local still matters, friends still matter, supporting each other still matters,” said Coconut Grove local Diandra Lamas.

She sat on a recent afternoon drinking some beers and eating a chicken BLT sandwich at Barracuda, the neighborhood bar that has taken over the block.

“It’s not a party vibe, it’s just like a ‘you’re home, you’re chill, you can have a great time’ kind of vibe,” Lamas said.

Pink picnic tables sit where cars used to park, canopied by straw umbrellas. Friends laugh and pour pitchers. Children write with chalk in the middle of the street and sweaty locals hang out after yoga class.

Cristie Enriquez has been coming here regularly since the street was closed last year. She described strolling over to the closed street after her daughter’s first birthday party a few weeks ago.

“It’s just nice to have a cold beer in Miami on a hot day outside,” said Enriquez. “We need more places like this. There are better things to do here than to park! I can’t get that point [across] more — we do not need to park here. There are several other parking spaces.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Fuller Street in Coconut Grove was a one-way through street. The tree-lined block was a narrow strip for cars, paired with a few parking spots on either side. And at the end of the block, drivers could only make a right turn on to Main Highway.

Lee Kessler, the owner of Barracuda, said he regularly watched cars get their rear-view mirror taken off by passing vehicles trying to cut through the narrow block. Pedestrians would have to dodge cars trying to speed through the one-block stretch. The natural limitations of the street became kind of a joke for regulars.

“There was a point about nine years ago when I brought my regulars high-dive score cards, and so people would go to parallel park and I’d have regulars holding up a one and a two and they’d get pissed off that like, ‘What I got a one for parallel parking?’ And it’s like, ‘Yeah, you’re holding up traffic, no one can get by you,’” he said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Kessler was forced to close the inside of his bar. Staff opened a window to sell drinks from and regulars kept showing up to support the business. That’s when things got tricky but also when a potential solution presented itself.

“It became a problem where people are sitting on the curb and someone would call the police, which [were] not fond of the situation. They said there’s a gathering and they’re threatening to arrest me and — it was just a bad scene in that respect,” said Kessler. “And I’m just saying like, this is the time. We’ve always wanted this street to be closed, here’s a good chance to do it.”

After working with the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County, that closure became a reality. Now, Kessler describes it as the bar from the Star Wars movies (the Mos Eisley Cantina, if you're unfamiliar), where all sorts of society mix together. Bar regulars still show up and party hard late into the night but in the daytime it’s essentially become a public space for people to gather.

“It’s the dog walkers, first dates, someone proposing. You get a little bit of everything. Families, just — you name it,” he said. “In the morning before we open you have tables — it looks like some of the islands over the weekend with all the boats pulled up. It’s like all these strollers pulled up to the table and it’s a little Starbucks fest of all the moms hanging out.”

The Miami-Dade Department of Transportation says it is working with the city of Miami to figure out the logistics for keeping this kind of street closure permanent, once the emergency orders are rescinded. Those who made the applications to close the streets will have to resubmit the applications under a non-pandemic related permit category. County and municipal officials have been working together to try to make it happen.

“An unforeseen silver lining of the pandemic was the need for more outdoor dining leading to creative new uses of our urban space, from Miami Beach to Coconut Grove to Doral. I’m thrilled by the creativity and innovation we’ve seen in opening our streets to more pedestrians and non-motorized transportation, and opening up new growth opportunities for businesses," said Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava. “We’re fully committed to working collaboratively with all our partners at the cities, and doing everything we can to creatively extend the street closures that are providing important new benefits to our residents and businesses.”

The effort for keeping Fuller Street closed to traffic indefinitely has its own petition, which has more than 2,000 signatures, and its own unofficial motto.

“‘Live A Fuller Life’” said Lamas. “It just makes sense! Like, on so many levels.”

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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