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

MIAMI BEACH, FLORIDA - MARCH 18: People enjoy themselves as they walk along Ocean Drive on March 18, 2021 in Miami Beach, Florida. College students have arrived in the South Florida area for the annual spring break ritual. City officials are concerned with large spring break crowds as the coronavirus pandemic continues. They are advising people to wear masks if they cannot social distance. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

(CNN) — Miami Beach Police fired pepper balls into crowds of partiers and arrested at least a dozen people late Saturday night 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.

On 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.

Police in Miami Beach said early Sunday that 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.

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.

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.

Gelber told CNN that 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.

On 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 that it will temporarily halt its food and beverage operations due to 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 on 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.

Since February 3, officers have made more than 900 arrests in the city, “more than 300 of which were for felony offenses,” the summary said. “At least 50% off those arrested reside outside of Florida.”

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 Department of Corrections, 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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