Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst

Not much good can be said about this year's spring break debacle in Miami Beach. But one bright note is that the conditions that produced it will probably never repeat themselves again.

"The Beach" always attracts students in heavy numbers on certain weekends during college spring break, but this year's crowds were so large, so persistent throughout the week and so ready to cut loose that it made for an extraordinary confluence of trouble.

"Clearly [spring break] was on steroids," said Miami Beach mayor Dan Gelber, who pointed to three unusual factors. "We had a volume issue, a conduct issue and the virus issue."

The volume of spring breakers was driven in part by uncommonly cheap air fares and uncommonly available hotel rooms.  The properties that might be filled with convention business in March didn't have that leg to stand on. Many also had fewer high-budget leisure guests because of the uncertainty of the pandemic.

Students and young partiers filled the gap. "With $40 roundtrip flights from the Northeast, cheap hotel rooms and nowhere else to go, [that] meant there were an enormous number of people coming," Gelber said.

Dan Gelber
Dan Gelber

Poor conduct was amplified by the number of people, Gelber said. "There's no question we got a self-selected group of people who were itching to get out and sort of go nuts. Not everyone, obviously, but enough of that was there."

With inhibitions down and masks off came greater risk for Covid spread, a third issue.

Gelber also cited the openness of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to increased tourism during spring break. "The governor was sort of letting everybody know, 'We're an island of freedom. Come on down,' Gelber said. "All of a sudden you hear [that] these spectacular beachfront areas were open, everyone hopped on their plane, got their $40 hotel room and came on down."

• Related: Mayor says Miami Beach needs a makeover after spring break

So, the 2021 breakdown stemmed in part from what Gelber called a pandemic-related "funnel effect" to steer the restless toward Miami Beach.

But Gelber said he plans to use the ensuing fiasco to remake the city's entertainment district. Starting with Ocean Drive.

Well before spring break, Gelber had been pushing a package of reforms for Ocean Drive, which 30 years ago was the showcase for a South Beach revival but gradually became an art deco version of honky-tonk.

The 10 blocks from Fifth to 15th Street still had great architecture and beach views but also became choked with restaurants serving oversize drinks, sometimes at murky prices, while hawkers aggressively courted prospective diners strolling by.

Gelber put together a 12-point code of conduct for the entertainment district between Ocean Drive and Washington Avenue. It includes a ban on oversize drinks, more transparent pricing, elimination of exemptions to the city's noise ordinance, enhanced policing and better preparation for "high-impact events."

To provide more outdoor space for diners during the pandemic, restaurants on Ocean Drive have been allowed to expand sidewalk cafe space into the street. Gelber would now like to fully pedestrianize Ocean Drive. "We have about $20 million or $30 million to spend on it to put the entire drive at grade level to allow the restaurants to expand out into it," he said.

A renaissance of Ocean Drive would set a tone for the rest of the entertainment district, which Gelber would like to transform into a more mixed-use area with new shops, boutique offices and more art galleries.

City commissioners (who comprise Miami Beach's city council) recently voted 4-to-3 to support a pilot plan that would roll back last call in the entertainment district from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m., so some progress appears to be under way. They are currently considering the mayor's other proposals, so it's still too early to tell what changes may be coming.

"I think we do want a more sophisticated experience, and Ocean Drive is very uneven right now," Gelber said.

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