Miami Beach mayor to would-be spring breakers: "We are enforcing zero tolerance"

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber joins CBSN's "Red & Blue" anchor Elaine Quijano to discuss what his city is doing to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks as travelers flock to Florida during spring break.

Video Transcript

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Every time that there is a surge in travel, we have a surge in cases in this country. We know that many of our variants have emerged from international places. And we know that the travel corridor is a place where people are mixing a lot. We are really trying to restrain travel at this current period of time. And we're hopeful that our next set of guidance will have more science around what vaccinated people can do, perhaps travel being among them.

ELAINE QUIJANO: That was CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky explaining why people who are fully vaccinated are still being urged to avoid nonessential travel. Right now is around the time students would typically be on spring break, but some colleges and universities are either scaling back those days off or canceling them altogether. Officials say they're trying to curb the kind of partying that could lead to a spike in infections when people come back to campus.

Florida is one of the top destinations for spring break. The state has had more than 1.9 million total cases since the start of the pandemic. On Saturday, there were 4,904 new reported cases. The state's seven-day case positivity rate on Saturday was 5.7%. Now for context, New York's was 3.15% and California's was 2.1%.

Let's go ahead and bring in Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber. Mayor Gelber joins us now. Mayor, welcome. Thanks very much for being with us.

DAN GELBER: Happy to be here, Elaine.

ELAINE QUIJANO: So what has spring break looked like for your city so far?

DAN GELBER: Well, it's-- what it, unfortunately, has typically been in the last three years, which is a sort of a move of a lot of people coming here acting as if there's really nothing else going on but the desire to have a good time. I think what we see happening now is there are not a lot of other destinations that are open or they're cold. And the plane fares are very, very cheap.

There are discount rooms. There are Airbnbs that are available. So we're getting a whole lot of people coming here. And unfortunately, I've been on-- I've been in our entertainment district on South Beach pretty regularly, and it doesn't look like enough of them seem to even know that there is a pandemic.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Well, so Florida does not have a statewide mask mandate, but you have put some restrictions in place like banning open alcohol containers and a midnight curfew. How has that been going? Do those measures seem to be having an effect?

DAN GELBER: Well, first of all, my city was the first city in the country after the CDC said you should have masks to create a mask mandate. We did it minutes after the CDC made their announcement. We just are no longer allowed to really enforce that, because the governor issued an executive order saying that we couldn't enforce it with a fine, which we had done over 1,000 fines.

We're trying our best to sort of promote a culture of compliance. We have-- we're giving out thousands of masks for free. Our code officers, goodwill ambassadors are out there doing it. And those are the carrots. But of course, there are sticks like the curfew.

We are enforcing zero tolerance on really virtually every ordinance we have from open containers to loud music. We aren't accepting anything right now in a way that might be viewed as an anything goes kind of atmosphere. We want people to know that if they're coming here, we have outdoor dining, we have wide, long, beautiful beaches, but if you want to do more than that, we're going to be very strict.

ELAINE QUIJANO: So how concerned are you about a COVID case spike after this spring break period ends?

DAN GELBER: Well, I'm very concerned, and for obvious reasons. First of all, our county is in the middle of a pandemic. Every day, dozens of people potentially die in our county. Sometimes it's less, sometimes it's more. But that's every single day.

We have-- the variant is here, the British variant is here. And with all of these folks coming from all over the-- all over, really, the-- the country and world, it's pretty clear that they're not just bringing a desire to have a good attitude, they may well be bringing the virus or variants of the virus. So that's not particularly good.

And although we have some natural advantages of everybody being outdoors, I think at night the bars are still too crowded, and we find some parties that are illegal. Some-- some places are staying open when they're not supposed to. We've closed down places. We've-- we've arrested people for it.

It's-- and it's tough, because these are industries that have been really hurt by the economic impact of the pandemic. But we feel like we've got to really do what we can with whatever means we have to ensure a culture of compliance. And it's not-- and I don't know that we're being particularly successful, to be very honest with you.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Well, Governor DeSantis had been criticized earlier on in the pandemic for being one of the first to lift state-wide restrictions. A new op-ed in "The Wall Street Journal" calls for, quote unquote, "vindication for the governor," because Florida's COVID death rate is in the middle of the pack, and only slightly higher than in California, which has a much younger population. Do you think, Mr. Mayor, the governor deserves some credit for things there not being worse? And what message do you want him to be sending now?

DAN GELBER: Well, first of all, I reject totally this idea that we should be doing a victory lap when we've had 30,000-plus people die in our state and more than 5,500 die in just my-- my county alone. This year-- and we'll hit the one-year anniversary in two days-- will be-- more people will have died from COVID in Dade County than any other cause, I think, in the history of Dade County in a year period. So there's-- no one should be happy.

I would just say this, you can't compare yourself to other states. You have to compare yourself to what you do. And I track this pretty carefully. Every time we've opened up, and every time we've opened up without allowing us to impose a mask mandate, there's been a spike in hospitalizations and deaths. So whatever you want to say, there's no question that irresponsible activity creates hospitalizations and death.

I don't understand why the governor will not lend to this effort a voice saying to wear a mask. He has literally just said he's hosted people who don't think we should wear masks. And I don't understand that. I work with so many other mayors, many of whom are Republican, and we all are really sort of dumbfounded that there's not sort of a chorus of all of us, including the governor, saying the same thing.

We really need him to lead us on this in telling people not to do things that are not safe. But instead, I think he's just sort of talked about how he wants everything opened up, and he's not going to close anything. And we want things opened up too. We just want to do it in a safe or a safer way, at least.

ELAINE QUIJANO: And Mr. Mayor, before we let you go, just your message to people who may be getting restless and may see that Florida is open, in their minds is a place that they see, and especially your town, as an attractive option for them this time of year.

DAN GELBER: Look, if you're coming here because you think this is an anything goes place, please don't come here. And if you do, there's a really good chance you're going to be arrested. We are arresting many more people than we ought to be because, frankly, it's never good to be arresting this many people, but we have no other options given the convergence of a pandemic, as well as sort of a desire of people to come here and do things they ought not be doing. So we are very serious about enforcement. And please don't test us. You will not like the result.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber. Mr. Mayor, thank you very much for joining us.

DAN GELBER: Thanks. Thanks, Elaine.