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Spring break invasion of South Florida spurred by cheap fares and lax Covid-19 restrictions

Health experts warn of trouble as people party while even more infectious variants multiply in Florida.
Image: Miami Beach Declares Curfew As Spring Break Crowds Grow
People walk along Ocean Drive in Miami Beach on Sunday.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Cheap flights, cheap hotels and the chance to party in a place with lots of sunshine and virtually no Covid-19 restrictions have created a “perfect storm” amid the pandemic in South Florida, Miami's mayor warned Monday.

And local officials are bracing for more spring break mayhem like the kind that occurred over the weekend in Miami Beach when the crowds grew too big and too wild and police cracked down hard, he said.

“There's no doubt that Miami, and the Miami area, and the state are probably one of the most open states in the entire country,” Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, a Republican, said on MSNBC.

“That's created sort of a perfect storm where you have people that can come to Miami. It's very inexpensive. I've been told some of the flights are $50 and even the hotels are very inexpensive. So, it's been a very difficult mix of inexpensive flights, inexpensive hotels and being known as probably the most open place in the country.”

Police officers detain a man Saturday as they enforce an 8 p.m. curfew that authorities imposed on spring break festivities in Miami Beach, Fla.Marco Bello / Reuters

Suarez spoke out a day after city leaders on the other side of Biscayne Bay in Miami Beach voted to extend an 8 p.m. curfew in the South Beach entertainment district to the end of this month and possibly into the middle of April.

“We're obviously preparing ourselves for the possibility that there may be spillover from some of these actions that are taken in Miami Beach with the early curfews and the early shutting down of the causeways of people entering Miami Beach, so we're prepared for that,” he said.

Suarez's concerns about a deluge of spring break visitors from afar who are unwilling to wear masks or practice social distancing — and are not required by local authorities to do so — have been echoed for weeks by public health experts.

“Any event that involves increased travel and people relaxing preventative measures is a concern,” Amber D’Souza, a professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told NBC News earlier. "This is exactly what we saw after Thanksgiving and after Christmas. ... It's an ongoing cycle and an ongoing concern."

Crowded South Florida has been the epicenter of the pandemic in a state where more than 2 million people have been infected and 33,369 have died of Covid-19, according to the most recent NBC News tally.

People leave the area Sunday as an 8 p.m. curfew goes into effect in Miami Beach, Fla.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Since February, when the invasion began, the police in Miami Beach have made more than 1,000 arrests — half of them out-of-state residents.

Local police have been stretched to the limit, so Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber has asked for reinforcements from neighboring Dade County communities, as well as the Florida Highway Patrol.

And the crowds that have descended on Miami Beach are different this year, the mayor said.

“I don’t see this is a sort of spring break thing, because I don’t think these are college kids,” he said Sunday. “I think it changes the nature of what we’re in front of here. I think there are very few places that have been open as our state has been open.”

In Florida, as is the case in most of the country, the daily numbers of Covid-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations have been declining as more and more people have been getting vaccinated, according to NBC News figures.

But the state leads the nation in variants that are even more contagious, and the Covid-19 test positivity rate has been climbing of late, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who appears to be positioning himself as former President Donald Trump’s heir to the White House, has been harshly criticized for his pandemic performance and has been accused by Democratic rivals and others of using the vaccine distribution to score political points with key constituencies like senior citizens.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at a news conference at a Navarro Discount Pharmacy in Hialeah on Feb. 23.Wilfredo Lee / AP

DeSantis has defended his decision to not impose mask mandates and to lift restrictions on the economy and has tapped for advice some of the same scientists whom Trump relied on, such as Dr. Scott Atlas and Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, both of Stanford University, The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported.

Among other things, their hands-off approach to the pandemic, opposition to lockdowns and skepticism about the effectiveness of masks have been denounced by most public health experts.

While the initial rollout of the vaccines was marked by chaos and poor planning, as of Monday about a quarter of the state’s population had got at least one shot and 13 percent was fully vaccinated, according to New York Times statistics. That puts Florida (the nation’s third most populous state) on par with California (the nation’s most populous state) and somewhat behind more than half the other states, although not by much.