Spring has sprung, the birds are singing, the pandemic is raging and the so-called “Covidiots” are flocking to the beaches of Florida once more, continuing a tradition that drew much scorn in the earliest weeks of the coronavirus outbreak last year.
State and city officials in Miami Beach, Fla., initially courted the crowds, but they panicked on Saturday after hundreds of mostly unmasked spring breakers swarmed over the famous Ocean Drive strip. The city declared a state of emergency, set an 8 p.m. curfew and dispatched police to break up the party shortly after the declaration.
Officers fired pepper balls into the crowd and arrested over 50 people, triggering fierce criticism about their tactics and creating yet another headache for city officials.
“At night there is no question that it became a little out of control or a lot out of control,” Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber told local station WPLG.
Gelber was responsible for setting the curfew. He also ordered that Ocean Drive be closed to all foot and vehicle traffic after curfew for four nights a week until at least April 12.
“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 over the weekend.
Spring breakers came out in force again on Sunday, sparking mockery and anger as images poured out on social media.
“Today’s center of the #COVIDIOTS universe is Miami Beach, Florida,” one popular tweet read.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has repeatedly boasted about the state’s lack of lockdowns or mask mandates, and has been encouraging tourism despite the pandemic.
“If you look at South Florida right now, this place is booming,” DeSantis said last month. “Los Angeles isn’t booming. New York City isn’t booming.”
Miami also recently spent $5 million on a major national advertising campaign to push tourism in the area.
Miami Beach officials suspect the crowds are so large because of pandemic fatigue.
“I believe it’s a lot of pent-up demand from the pandemic and people wanting to get out,” David Richardson, a member of the Miami Beach City Commission, told the New York Times on Sunday. “And our state has been publicly advertised as being open, so that’s contributing to the issue.”
Police say they’ve seen gunfire, stampedes and rock-throwing during the days-long festivities.
City Manager Raul Aguila said many people from other states were coming in “to engage in lawlessness and an ‘anything goes’ party attitude.” He said most weren’t patronizing the businesses that badly need tourism dollars. Instead, visitors were gathering by the thousands to party in the street.
Miami Beach Police said more than 1,000 people have been arrested this spring break season, with about 80 guns seized.
Concerns about racism have also swirled around the police response to the crowds.
Stephen Hunter Johnson, chairman of Miami-Dade’s Black Affairs Advisory Board, compared the Miami Beach crackdown to the lighter treatment that spring breakers are seeing on South Padre Island, another popular party spot in Texas.
“It’s the same group of kids that are in South Padre Island right now, except those kids happen to be white,” he told the Times.
“We have to realize that we are definitely fighting an undertone of racism,” DeAnne Connolly Graham, a member of Miami Beach’s Black Affairs Advisory Committee, told the Miami Herald. She spoke in particular about local white residents who complained about “animals” and “thugs” invading their town on social media.
Gelber defended the use of force during a public meeting on Sunday.
“When hundreds of people are running through the streets panicked, you realize that’s not something that a police force can control,” he said.
The Miami Beach scenes resembled the early days of the pandemic, when college-age revellers defied coronavirus rules to party in Florida last spring. “Covidiots” became a popular insult for such behaviour, particularly after one news report from the scene went viral.
“If I get corona, I get corona,” one party-goer said at the time. “I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.”
— with files from The Associated Press