Five days after reopening, South Beach park closes as crowds defy face mask order

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After busy crowds — many not wearing face masks — packed the popular South Pointe Park over the weekend, the city of Miami Beach shut down the park on Monday, just five days after it reopened under loosened coronavirus restrictions.

County parks reopened throughout Miami-Dade on Wednesday, more than six weeks after Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez closed them to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has infected more people in the county than anywhere else in Florida. Miami Beach joined the county, opening city parks, golf courses and marinas.

Gimenez reopened green spaces under strict rules, including the use of masks except when visitors are strenuously exercising. There is a carve out for those with respiratory issues and children under 2. The county’s order is meant to serve as a “minimum standard” for cities and municipalities within Miami-Dade to follow, but local governments “may impose more stringent standards,” the order reads.

In the five days that parks have been reopened in Miami Beach, park rangers have issued 8,880 verbal warnings to parkgoers not wearing facial coverings, according to Miami Beach Police. After issuing just 1,551 face-mask warnings citywide during the first two days parks were reopened, park rangers issued 2,829 alone on Saturday and another 2,432 on Sunday.

In that five-day span, park rangers issued 511 social distancing warnings and asked 1,556 guests to leave parks after they closed at 7 p.m., an hour earlier than the 8 p.m. closing time at county parks.

Over the weekend, City Manager Jimmy Morales notified the administration and its elected commissioners that the city’s park rangers continued to report “serious compliance issues with respect to masks at certain facilities and rudeness towards staff, especially at South Pointe Park.”

He made the decision Monday to close down South Pointe Park, located at 1 Washington Ave. in South Beach, after closing the parking lot there the day before to limit large gatherings.

The reopening of green spaces in Miami Beach signaled the start of a gradual return to normalcy after governments announced state of emergency orders in March and closed down beaches and nonessential businesses. In Miami Beach, the city shut down places of worship as part of its more stringent coronavirus orders.

Reopening open spaces has been “successful” everywhere else in the city, but South Pointe Park “is the most egregious exception,” Morales said in a statement.

“We have had city staff in the park to encourage people to comply, but they were met with hostility and non-compliance,” he said. “We closed the parking lot on Sunday, but that made little difference. As such, the South Pointe Park will be closed until further notice. There is no way to effectively enforce social distancing when hundreds of individuals refuse to do so. The best way to protect our residents and first responders is to keep it closed until further notice.”

‘UNDERSTANDABLE FRUSTRATION’

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said because his administration will not ask police to enforce social distancing laws, closing the park is the “only option the manager has” to prevent unlawful gatherings at the park.

Gelber said he has noticed “understandable frustration” among residents, but those concerns cannot “take us off this course” of easing the city out of the pandemic.

“The social distancing is serious, and it’s too early to disregard it,” Gelber said. “There is a lot of frustration but that can’t be the organizing principle of what we do.”

On private social media pages dedicated to discussing Miami Beach issues, users have expressed mixed reactions to the closure. Some were upset that the city would take away their access to a public park. Others said following simple rules shouldn’t be so hard.

“South Pointe Park is Closed! #covidiots ruined it for everybody,” wrote Matthew Blake Moran on the group Miami Beach Community. “And this is why we can’t have nice things during a pandemic.. People want to open the beaches? Yeah right!”

Maria LaPietro Guerrero said on the Miami Beach Uncensored group that she was frustrated that after six weeks at home, the city is imposing more laws to restrict her movement.

“What will be next? When will this end?” she wrote. “First, we were staying home to flatten the curve. We did that. Now, 6 weeks later, we have more ‘laws’ and no end in sight.”

Shailyn Soto Cunillera, a legal assistant who lives in North Beach, said she understands “everyone’s point of view.” The city should develop a more refined plan detailing when is the right time to reopen more sectors of social life and the economy, she said. But the images out of busy parks and marinas across Miami-Dade scared her.

“We want everything to open, of course, but it doesn’t feel safe so the least you can do is wear your masks,” Soto Cunillera said. “Cops shouldn’t be babysitting you.”

Commissioner Ricky Arriola said Morales — who is not an elected official — did not consult with the commissioners before making his decision, which Arriola called an “abuse of power.” He criticized the city’s figures as “unreliable.”

Morales, who proclaimed a state of emergency on March 12, wields unilateral decision-making powers during times of emergency, but Arriola and the City Commission have repeatedly voted to extend Morales’ emergency powers. On Friday, the commission unanimously extended his powers through May 14.

Prior to the park’s closure, Arriola said residents had been organizing a protest of the city’s emergency orders.

“I am aware of protests being formed,” Arriola said. “What you’re seeing is an abuse of power, and this is why you can’t consolidate power.”

Arriola has been in open conflict with Gelber and the city administration, the lone member of the seven-person commission to have done so.

He wants a quicker reopening of the city’s open spaces, including the beach, and its economy. The city has formed a health advisory board to supervise a more gradual reopening, which will rely on steady declines of new COVID-19 cases and increased testing and contact tracing in the city.

Arriola said the mask policy is “arbitrary,” and that residents should be able to enjoy the parks their tax dollars fund.

“Clearly Jimmy answers to one man. Whatever happens, Jimmy and Dan own it. Good or bad,” Arriola said. “The collapse of the economy and the frustration of our residents is on them.”

by Martin Vassolo miamiherald.com