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The Tumult Of A Pandemic Spring Break: How Florida's 'Open' Message Lured Tourists

 A night out on Ocean Drive on Miami Beach during spring break before the 8 p.m. curfew was put in place.
A night out on Ocean Drive on Miami Beach during spring break before the 8 p.m. curfew was put in place.

Thousands of people have descended on South Florida beaches for the same reasons as any other spring break — the weather, water, and two-for-one drinks specials. But there's one major difference — the ongoing pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not over, even after a long and painful year. Spring break always attracts attention but this year, there’s another reason spring breakers are coming to Florida.

Gov. Ron DeSantis basically invited them:

"Let me just tell ya'. There’s no lockdowns in Florida, OK? It’s not gonna happen," he told a cheering crowd earlier this month.

One South Beach visitor, Christina Thomas, summed up spring breakers' options this way:

"California is closed."

Even with that open-door policy, Miami Beach is more closed than it used to be, too.

There’s an 8 p.m. curfew through the weekend in a particular stretch of Miami Beach and also a limit on eastbound traffic on the Julia Tuttle, Venetian and MacArthur Causeways starting at 10 p.m.

City officials made that decision after days of people gathering along Ocean Drive, listening to music and dancing harmlessly ended, and tragic incidents began: A 27-year-old was shot and killed in South Beach. A woman was found dead in a hotel room, after she was allegedly drugged and raped. Last Friday night, the Miami Beach police chief said gunshots were fired and crowds ran through the streets.

Over this past weekend, the city declared a state of emergency.

By then, the bar at the Clevelander on Ocean Drive had already closed, a notable decision, because the iconic establishment is built on the party scene. Management said things just got too hectic and they were worried about their staff.

"We really should stop calling it spring break as this is not about college kids on their vacation," Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said on Monday.

He partially blames that “open for business” message from the governor.

"Over the last weeks and longer, our city has been one of the only true destination cities open for business anywhere," Gelber said.

From One Beach To Another

About a half-hour straight up Interstate 95, Broward County had thought about a curfew for spring break but commissioners ultimately decided not to do it.

The spring breakers on Miami Beach noticed — like 21-year-old Brooklyn Pepper who came down from Ball State University in Indiana.

"I’m not gonna lie. We’re going to Fort Lauderdale tonight," she said. "We were here last night and they started riding around on four-wheelers kicking us out."

Fort Lauderdale has taken a completely different tone than Miami Beach, with the city posting this welcoming video of Mayor Dean Trantalis on Twitter:

Broward officials are relying on people to think about "your social responsibility" — in other words they're asking nicely – to wear masks, wash your hands a lot and stay six feet apart.

Asking nicely is just about all local governments can do.

Earlier this month, DeSantis effectively got rid of an enforcement mechanism local governments were using to try to keep rule breakers in check — fines. People and businesses who've violated COVID-19 regulations in the last year all had their fines canceled.

Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties sent out a joint statement. It said canceling fines makes people think they don’t need to care about COVID precautions and saving lives.

The Lingering Danger

Dr. Aileen Marty, an infectious diseases expert at Florida International University, said one of the problems with spring break is people let their guard down at night.

"Every single time that there's transmission, there's the risk of the formation of a new variant or recombination of two existing variants, which could potentially be worse," Marty said.

Pepper, the student from Indiana, said she already had COVID-19 around Christmastime.

 Early on a Friday morning, some spring breakers got to the beach early and rollerbladed by before the afternoon visitors.
Caitie Switalski Muñoz / WLRN
Early on a Friday morning, some spring breakers got to the beach early and rollerbladed by before the afternoon visitors.

"It’s like the flu on crack," Pepper said. "It really hurts."

It also hurts hospitals. And hospitality workers.

Florida has lots of variant cases — the most in the country. And the people who work in hotels and restaurants, ride-share and bus drivers are the ones interacting with crowds of people here for spring break. They are not eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine based on their profession. They're only eligible if they’re old enough or have a medical condition — those ages are dropping to include all adults in Florida by April 5 but not in time for the already large influx of tourists.

And with so many people here for spring break, a lot of those workers say they’re scared.

Cindy Prins, a University of Florida epidemiologist, said it’s not that spring break is dangerous in itself — people who've already traveled here have safer ways they can spend their vacation.

"Enjoy going into the beach, enjoy those activities, but not doing it to the point where, you know, you're throwing caution to the wind and partying with everyone," Prins said.

With the rollout of vaccines still in the early stages she emphasized, "we're definitely nowhere near community immunity at this point."

Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Caitie Switalski Muñoz
Verónica Zaragovia