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Miami Beach spring break crowds reportedly become unruly amid pandemic

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MIAMI BEACH, Florida - At least a dozen people were arrested Saturday (March 20) after Miami Beach Police fired pepper balls into crowds of unruly spring break partiers, CNN reports. 

Police were enforcing an 8 p.m. curfew that had recently been enacted by Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, who declared a state of emergency and described the crowds who'd made their way into the city as "more than we can handle." 

"Too many are coming, really, without the intention of following the rules, and the result has been a level of chaos and disorder that is just something more than we can endure," Gelber told CNN's Ana Cabrera.

That Saturday night, hundreds of mostly maskless people were spotted hanging out in the streets well after the 8 p.m. curfew. Police blared sirens as they sprayed the crowd with pepper balls, which are described as chemical irritants similar to paintballs, into the crowd. This resulted in a stampede as those in the crowd began to flee.   

"Officers began dispersing crowds at 8 p.m. and ultimately achieved a satisfactory level of compliance," police spokesperson Ernesto Rodriguez told CNN.

More than 50 people have since been arrested and at least eight firearms confiscated, according to a tweet from the Miami Beach Police Department on Sunday.

The Miami Beach City Commission declared on Sunday that the 8 p.m. curfew would be in effect Thursday through Sunday until at least March 30.

The commission said city manager Raul Aguila will have the option to extend it for two more weeklong increments through April 13.

"The goal here is to really contain the overwhelming crowd of visitors, and the potential for violence disruption and damage to and damage to property, whether intentional or not," Aguila explained.

"Unfortunately, this is the last thing that I had wanted to do. But this is a spring break like no other," he said. "Not all people that visit Miami Beach are bad, come to Miami Beach with the intent of breaking the law, and disrupting our quality of life. But this is a different situation, and it calls for drastic measures."

The crackdown comes as Florida has opened its doors to tourists following a year of virus-related lockdowns and nationwide pandemic restrictions. Gov. Ron DeSantis insinuated that the state is an "oasis of freedom" amid the pandemic, and it seems that as a result, visitors are flocking to the state's restriction-free beaches and nightlife.

Gelber told CNN the biggest issues with the crowds have been at night.

"It feels like a rock concert, wall-to-wall people over blocks and blocks," Gelber said.

Friday night, someone shot a weapon into the air, and there was a riot, he added.

"Other things have happened that are similarly challenging, and so it feels like a tinder, it feels like just any match could set it off," the mayor said.

The situation has worsened with each day, Gelber explained, and the pandemic "makes things even more challenging."

Miami Beach nightlife is also a matter of concern to local officials and residents who've noticed the particular aggressiveness of this spring's revelers during the pandemic.

The Clevelander South Beach, one of Miami Beach's most iconic hotels, announced Friday it would temporarily put the brakes on its food and beverage operations due to safety concerns for employees and patrons.

"Recently, we have grown increasingly concerned with the safety of our dedicated employees and valued customers and the ability of the City to maintain a safe environment in the surrounding area," the hotel said in a message on its website and on social media.

"Therefore, we have made the difficult decision to temporarily close the food and beverage operations" until at least March 24, hotel management said in its message.

The Clevelander said management "will re-evaluate the situation over the coming days and decide whether to re-open or remain temporarily closed." Employees will "be paid their full salary" while the dining and bar areas are closed, the hotel said.

CNN reports that Miami Beach police ramped up staffing February 3 "to cover Super Bowl weekend, President's Day weekend, and then we rolled straight into Spring Break staffing," Rodriguez, the police spokesperson, said in a summary.

According to CNN, more than 1,000 people have been arrested in Miami Beach since February 3 as spring break travelers have come to the city.

Aguila, the city manager, said at an emergency commission meeting on Sunday that of those incidents, more than 350 have been felony arrests.

Aguila and Gelber added that the spring break crowd is not typical and they don't believe it's mostly students traveling down.

"These are individuals coming into the city ... to engage in lawlessness and an anything-goes party attitude," Aguila said.

While the city had been dealing with large crowds, Aguila explained, things changed Friday when thousands gathered on Ocean Drive. He said there were no special events planned, and none of the people were patronizing restaurants or establishments.

"It looked like a rock concert -- you couldn't see pavement, you couldn't see grass -- all you could see was wall-to-wall people," he said.

Gelber explained that the city is an appealing destination for travelers because of its good weather and open businesses, but it is still dealing with a pandemic. There are still 1,000 infections reported daily and 50 to 100 people checking into hospitals each day in Dade County, Gelber said.

Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Clements said at Sunday's meeting he believes the pandemic was a contributing factor, as people who have been cooped up had fewer spring break options and traveled to Miami Beach.

He told reporter that 86 firearms had been seized since February 3.

"It's been alarming," Clements said.

On several nights, large crowds became stampedes around the entertainment district, Clements said.

In one instance, a number of cars parked and occupants had a street party. When police tried to get them to move, the partiers threw rocks and bottles at the officers.

In another incident, someone fired a gun into the air, sending 200 to 300 people running, he said.

Another stampede began after a fight broke out, turning the sidewalk area of one establishment "upside down," with glasses and chairs used as weapons, Clements said.

"I'm really concerned," the police chief said. "How long can you go before something bad happens?"

According to CNN, police said that last weekend, about 100 people were arrested and two officers were injured following unruly crowds. 

Miami-Dade police have been assisting MBPD since Tuesday because of the crowds, Rodriguez said.

Florida Highway Patrol officers were also assisting with traffic control on the MacArthur and Julia Tuttle Causeways, bridges that connect the island city to the mainland, MBPD said in a tweet Friday.

Other agencies assisting with safety efforts include Coral Gables Police Department and the Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department, according to Rodriguez.

"If you're coming here because you've been pent up and you want to let loose, you think anything goes, please don't come here," Gelber told CNN. "We have extra police everywhere, we're going to arrest people, and we have been. We're going to keep order."

"If you're coming here to go crazy, go somewhere else. We don't want you," Gelber said.

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