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Miami Beach officers shoot pepper balls into spring break crowds to enforce emergency curfew

CNN logo CNN 3/22/2021 By Melissa Alonso and Theresa Waldrop, CNN
a group of people walking in front of a building © Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Miami Beach Police fired pepper balls into crowds of partiers and arrested at least a dozen people late Saturday as the city took extraordinary measures to crack down on spring breakers who officials have said are out of control.

The aggressive enforcement actions came just hours after Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber declared a state of emergency and set an 8 p.m. curfew, saying the crowds that have descended on the city recently are "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.

Saturday night, hundreds of mostly maskless people remained in the streets well after the 8 p.m. curfew. With sirens blaring, police opened fire with pepper balls -- a chemical irritant similar to paint balls -- into the crowd, causing a stampede of people fleeing, video from CNN affiliate WPLG shows.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: A large crowd of people gathers on a walkway near the beach in Miami Beach on Saturday. © Cristobal Herrera-Ulashkevich/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock A large crowd of people gathers on a walkway near the beach in Miami Beach on Saturday.

Police in Miami Beach said early Sunday they arrested at least a dozen people following the start of the curfew.

"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 been arrested and eight firearms confiscated since Friday, according to a tweet from the Miami Beach Police Department on Sunday.

a group of people riding on the back of a car: Miami Beach Police Department officers enforce an 8 p.m. curfew on Saturday night. © Cristobal Herrera-Ulashkevich/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock Miami Beach Police Department officers enforce an 8 p.m. curfew on Saturday night.

The 8 p.m. curfew and road closures in the city's entertainment district will be in effect until Tuesday, Gelber said at a news conference Saturday. The causeways to Miami Beach from the mainland will be closed to non-local traffic starting at 9 p.m. for the next few nights, Gelber said.

Curfew extended

Sunday, the Miami Beach City Commission declared 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 said.

"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 attempted crackdown comes as Florida has thrown open its doors to tourists after a year of coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions around the country. Gov. Ron DeSantis has bragged that the state is an "oasis of freedom" during the pandemic -- and the stir-crazy are flocking to the state's restriction-free beaches and nightlife.

a sign on a beach: A sign on the beach earlier this month warns spring breakers to vacation safely. © Pedro Portal/AP A sign on the beach earlier this month warns spring breakers to vacation safely.

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 said.

"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 said, and the pandemic "makes things even more challenging."

Hotel concerned about safety

Miami Beach nightlife has never been for the faint of heart, but local officials and residents have noticed the particular aggressiveness of this spring's revelers during the ongoing pandemic.

The Clevelander South Beach, one of Miami Beach's most iconic hotels, announced Friday it would temporarily halt its food and beverage operations because of safety concerns for its 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.

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.

1,000 arrests as infections continue

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 Sunday. Of those arrests, more than 350 have been felony arrests, he said.

Aguila and Gelber said 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 said, things changed Friday when thousands gathered on Ocean Drive. There were no special events planned, and none of the people were patronizing restaurants or establishments, he said.

"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 said 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.

Rocks and bottles thrown

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 said 86 firearms had been seized since February 3.

"It's been alarming," Clements said.

On several nights, large crowds had turned into stampedes around the entertainment district, Clements said.

In one instance, a number of cars stopped, and the occupants had a street party and threw rocks and bottles at police who tried to get them to move, he said.

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

Another stampede started from a fight, 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?"

'If you think anything goes, please don't come'

Last weekend, about 100 people were arrested and two officers were injured following unruly crowds, police said. In addition, Rodriguez told CNN on Saturday, at least two dozen arrests were made Thursday, and on "Friday, at least a dozen."

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.

Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the reason why the Clevelander South Beach is temporarily halting its food and beverage operations. The Clevelander is halting operations due to safety concerns for its employees and patrons.

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