Memorial Day weekend opened Friday night with large crowds on Miami Beach and a revived nightlife scene as the resort city readies for the kind of large turnout that brought disruption and charges of over-policing two months ago.
After a spring break framed by chaotic crowds, emergency crackdowns and accusations of racism through aggressive policing, Memorial Day offers Miami Beach its first look at a big weekend in an increasingly post-COVID tourism landscape. While Miami stood out in March as a vacation destination largely open for dining and drinking, the holiday weekend arrives as much of the United States moves past mask mandates and capacity restrictions at restaurants and bars.
“Every weekend since mid-February has been Mardis Gras,” said Robert Finvarb, whose Finvarb Group owns three South Beach hotels. “We’re driving rates like we haven’t seen in a long time.”
While the city commission adopted an earlier last-call for Ocean Drive bars, Miami Beach opted not to impose the 8 p.m. curfew that governed that area during the peak of spring break in March — rules that had police ordering the mostly Black crowd to clear out from an area that’s one of the largest tourist attractions in Miami-Dade County.
Dan Gelber, the city’s mayor, said Memorial Day has the potential for another raucous weekend.
“While we remain concerned about the virus, we are most concerned about potential disorder given the unprecedented volume of people coming our way,” he said Friday.
On Friday night, Ocean Drive was busy as people strolled the iconic boulevard by the beach and dined at sidewalk cafes. There were reminders of Miami Beach’s official big attraction for the weekend: Hyundai Air & Sea Show, scheduled to begin Saturday after a year’s hiatus during the pandemic. American flags dotted Lummus Park, and a fighter jet was parked on the sand while a U.S. Army band played to diners on Española Way.
Gov. Ron DeSantis attended a “Salute to America’s Heroes” event at Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau Friday night, and posed with city police officers as Miami Beach ramped up its law enforcement efforts with units from across Miami-Dade.
After a Miami Beach trip for spring break, New Yorker Jnaya Williams was back again Friday. She said the Ocean Drive crowds seemed smaller than in March, but the vibe remained appealing.
“I like the people,” she said. “They’re really friendly.”
A call for more events for tourists
Nightclubs were gearing up for big spenders and large crowds. At Story, a club on the 100 block of Collins Avenue, a table on the dance floor for 10 was selling for $14,000 for a Friday night concert by Future and Jeezy (note: purchasers “must arrive by midnight,” according to the event’s website).
Mussaddiq Muhammad, of Headliner Market Group, the concert’s organizer, said sales have been strong at Story but that he wanted Miami Beach to have far more events for the weekend’s visitors. He and others have pressed Miami Beach to plan concerts that cater to the 20- and 30-something Black tourist that spring break and Memorial Day tend to attract.
“They’re a bunch of children with nowhere to go,” Muhammad said. “You’re not going to stop people from coming to Miami Beach. … Someone turns 21 every day. Why not embrace it?”
Luther Campbell, the activist and youth coach best known nationally as a retired member of the 2 Live Crew rap group, said he backed Gelber’s success at rolling back the Ocean Drive entertainment district’s cut-off for alcohol sales to 2 a.m. But he wants Miami Beach to create events for the Memorial Day and spring break crowds instead of trying to scare them off with enforcement measures.
“You’re creating a police state,” Campbell said. “If you don’t have anything organized, you’ll have unorganized chaos.”
Memorial Day crowds could give a hint at the kind of tourism season that awaits Miami-Dade as hotels ready for their first summer since 2019 without local COVID restrictions.
While business is up from this time last year, hotels will need a significant spike in the summer to make for a slow start in 2021. Through March, hotel taxes were down 36% in South Beach compared to the same time period in 2019, according to ZIP Code data from the county’s Tax Collectors office. That’s still better than downtown Miami’s showing, with hotel taxes down 50% from two years ago.
COVID-19 remained a worry for Freddie Dewitt, 27, as he thought about his Miami trip for a friend’s graduation. He’s vaccinated but still had hesitation about a journey across the country. But after COVID tests for him and his friends, Dewitt decided he was ready for some Miami weather, a change from his Grand Rapids, Michigan, home.
“We don’t get enough sun,” he said.