MIAMI BEACH — They were invited. So they came.
After a year of mostly staying inside, a mix of college students on spring break and tourists, by the tens of thousands, descended on Miami Beach, a vacation hot spot that — along with the rest of Florida — has lifted most Covid-19 restrictions, opening its restaurants and clubs and bars.
The huge crowds that gathered in the city’s famous 10-block beachside entertainment district starting in late February became unruly at times, with fights breaking out and gunshots fired into the air, causing stampedes.
In the weeks since, more than 1,000 people have been arrested, a third or more on drug and alcohol consumption charges. The police have seized more than 100 guns. And there has been some violence; in perhaps the most serious case, two male visitors are accused of drugging and raping a woman who later died.
But the raucous partying was also, by and large, nonviolent, city officials say. And for that reason, many Black leaders in town have questioned what happened next.
Waves of college students and other, somewhat older vacationers flocked to Florida anyway, lured by cheap flights and hotels and the promise of loose Covid-19 regulations — creating some of the largest crowds in recent memory.
“This is not a typical spring break — you have people suffering from pandemic fatigue who really want to come and let off some steam with an anything-goes attitude,” said Raul Aguila, Miami Beach’s interim city manager, adding that some of the behavior had descended into lawlessness. “It’s the perfect storm of events that has led to this becoming a public safety issue.”
Phillip Carter, 30, flew from Baltimore to spend a few days on the beach but was quickly turned off my the large crowds.
“I know to not come on spring break,” he said. “It’s just a lot. It’s cool, but it’s just too many people. As many times as I’ve come to Miami, I’ve never seen it like this. It’s like a war zone. That’s what it feels like: a war zone.”
Before Miami Beach shut down its spring break festivities last year, it counted 332 arrests between Feb. 3 and March 7. During the same time period this year, the number has more than doubled to 731 arrests. As of March 21, there have been 1,050 arrests — many involving people over 25 years old — on charges including public consumption of drugs or alcohol, reckless driving and resisting arrest.
of drugging and raping her and stealing her credit cards. The woman, a 24-year-old from Pennsylvania, was later found dead in her Miami Beach hotel room.
Faced with what the mayor called an “overwhelming” number of visitors packed into the tiny beachfront strip, Miami Beach set a curfew on Saturday afternoon that took effect at 8 p.m., along with a nightly shutdown of access to the island on which Miami Beach sits (both restrictions were extended into April).
Richard Clements, the police chief in Miami Beach, defended the way the city had used officers in riot gear to clear the streets, saying the pepper balls had been used only when the crowd surged toward officers.