A curfew imposed after fights, gunfire, property destruction and dangerous stampedes in Miami Beach could extend to the end of spring break.
Miami Beach commissioners voted unanimously on Sunday to give the city manager power to extend the curfew in the South Beach entertainment district until at least April 12.
That would effectively shut down a spring break hot spot in one of the few states fully open during the pandemic.
Law enforcement from at least four agencies sought to contain the raucous crowds, but confrontations continued for days before Miami Beach officials enacted the curfew, which forces Ocean Drive restaurants to stop outdoor seating entirely.
City manager Raul Aguila said many people from other states were coming in “to engage in lawlessness and an ‘anything goes’ party attitude".
Mr Aguila said most were not patronising the businesses that badly need tourism dollars and were instead merely congregating by the thousands in the street.
Miami Beach Police said more than 1,000 people have been arrested this spring break, with about 80 guns seized.
Police Chief Richard Clements said the trouble intensified on Monday, when an unusually large crowd blocked Ocean Drive “and basically had an impromptu street party".
By Thursday, fights were breaking out, setting off dangerous stampedes of people fleeing for safety.
The partying was out of control by Friday night, Mr Clements said.
One restaurant was “turned upside-down” in a melee, its “chairs were used as weapons", and broken glass covered the floor.
The Clevelander South Beach bar next door had to suspend all service.
Gunshots were fired and a young woman was taken to hospital with a badly cut leg, police said.
“How many more things are we going to allow to occur before we step in?” Mr Clements asked during Sunday’s meeting.
He defended the city’s curfew, which also closes three causeways leading to South Beach to try to keep all but residents and employees from driving on to the island from 8pm to 6am, Thursday to Sunday.
“I think this was the right decision,” Mr Clements said.
The crowd was defiant but mostly non-violent on Saturday night, refusing to submit to the curfew that had been enacted only four hours earlier, when officers in bulletproof vests released pepper spray balls to break up the party.
A crowd showed up again on Sunday night, defying the curfew.
The situation ignited racial tension. Some white residents referred to the crowd of predominantly black tourists as “thugs” on social media.
"We have to realise 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.
But Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber rejected the claim that anyone was targeted for their race.
“When hundreds of people are running through the streets panicked, you realise that’s not something that a police force can control,” Mr Gelber said during the commission meeting Sunday.
Very few people in the crowds were were wearing masks, which is required by a Miami Beach bylaw imposed in the hopes of containing the spread of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 33,000 people in Florida so far.
Republican Governor Ron DeSantis insisted that Florida have no statewide mask rules, limits on capacity or other public health restrictions.
Mr DeSantis credits the lack of measures for keeping the tourism economy going.
“If you look at South Florida right now, this place is booming,” he said last month. “Los Angeles isn’t booming. New York City isn’t booming.”
Miami’s tourism arm has spent $5 million on its biggest national advertising campaign in 20 years, seeking a rebound after billions of dollars were lost in the pandemic, cancelling last year’s spring break and forcing beach closures across the state.
Miami Beach, meanwhile, banned alcohol from the beach, along with all alcohol sales after 10pm, even sending text messages to tourists warning, “Vacation responsibly or be arrested".
Several commissioners said South Beach needed a new marketing campaign to change its party-city image.
They spoke of the handful of arrests in Fort Lauderdale, which raised its hotel rates and promoted a “family friendly” spring break.
None of it sits well with people who were hoping to finally let loose in the pandemic.
“I just feel like it’s really not fair,” tourist Heather Price told NBC 6.
“People paid a lot of money to come all the way out here, just to not be able to do the activities they wanted to.”