MIAMI—Shortly after midnight on Sunday, a line of at least 50 men and women snaked from the entrance of Tootsie’s Cabaret to the sidewalk lining the perimeter of the massive strip club in Miami Gardens, a small city in South Florida that has clocked nearly 5,000 coronavirus cases since the coronavirus pandemic began. Two Miami Gardens police cars directed traffic to a satellite parking lot because Tootsie’s main lot was completely full.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Tootsie’s owners had won a court injunction at least temporarily nullifying Miami-Dade County’s 12 a.m. curfew. The party was just getting started.
Johnny Fernandez, a 33-year-old Miami Gardens resident waiting in the line and sporting a wide grin, explained young Miamians like him were nocturnal creatures. He wasn’t surprised to see so many people waiting to get inside Tootsies after being forced for months to stay indoors during the wee hours on weekends.
“You can see the angst in their faces,” Fernandez told The Daily Beast. “Miami people want to go out. Thank God for Tootsie’s.”
On Friday, Miami-Dade Judge Beatrice Butchko sided with the strip joint in its legal challenge of a curfew imposed by county Mayor Carlos Gimenez in August, one of a slew of measures meant to curtail the spread of COVID-19 in one of Florida’s pandemic epicenters. In her order, Butchko concluded that Miami-Dade could not force Tootsie’s to close at midnight because of a September executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis that barred cities and counties from enacting stricter business restrictions than the state, according to the Miami Herald.
Since midsummer, when Florida was racking up more than 10,000 new cases a day and record-breaking deaths, the Sunshine State’s coronavirus daily outbreak numbers have curbed considerably. Then, on Saturday, Florida reported 4,044 new cases, the highest single-day increase in coronavirus infections since Aug. 22, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Still, over the past 14 days, Florida’s health department has mostly reported a daily positivity rate of 5 percent or lower—the World Health Organization standard for safe reopening.
However, a Sun-Sentinel investigation last week found that the state agency was employing “a misleading measure of positive cases” that DeSantis and his administration had used to justify the reopening of schools and businesses. Other health organizations, like Johns Hopkins University, publish data that shows Florida’s daily positivity rate has actually been higher than 5 percent for 14 consecutive days. And now the city’s party nexus is taking full advantage of new leniency to dive into late-night partying, feeding exactly the kinds of conditions—drunk people in confined spaces—epidemiologists have long warned about.
In a press statement released Saturday afternoon, Gimenez said the county was appealing Butchko’s order but that, as of now, “the curfew is unenforceable.” Spokespersons for Gimenez and DeSantis did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
In a statement, a Tootsie’s spokesperson said the strip club sought the injunction to operate at its normal hours so that its employees and entertainers can make a living. “Tootsie’s continues to take seriously COVID-related safety measures, and urges others to do so,” the statement said. “These measures include temperature check screening of guests, employees, and entertainers; requiring them to wear masks; social distancing; and limiting occupancy to 50 percent.”
But the judge’s ruling has implications beyond Tootsie’s. Around 1 a.m. Sunday, bars and lounges in Wynwood, Miami’s most popular destination, were running full-tilt, with long lines outside traditional hotspots like El Patio and Wood Tavern.
LIV Miami, the popular nightclub in the Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel name-dropped in Drake and Lil Wayne rap songs, announced on its Instagram page early Saturday afternoon that it would soon reopen and operate under normal business hours until 5 am. Shortly before 2 am on Sunday, more than 40 people, many sans facemasks, danced to a DJ playing music near the hotel’s lobby bar. A Fontainebleau Miami Beach spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Back in Miami Gardens, Fernandez wasn’t heeding Gimenez’s memo about covering your face despite the lifting of the curfew. He didn’t wear a mask, but no one, including the bouncers, appeared to tell him he had to put one on. “I don’t like the whole mask thing,” Fernandez said, though he added: “But when I walk in, I will put on a mask. I understand businesses have a right to enforce it just like they enforce ‘no shoes, no shirt means no service.’”
Before arriving at the strip club, he had been at downtown Miami bar Mama Tried having drinks with friends. “I live a couple blocks away from here and I wasn’t ready to go home,” Fernandez said. “So I decided to come hang out at Tootsie’s.”
He wasn’t the only late night reveler itching to resume partying on a pre-pandemic clock. Rene Millan, his girlfriend, Rosalin Gutierrez, and four friends decided to keep going after hitting golf balls at Top Golf, also in Miami Gardens. “What are we gonna do? Go home and sleep?” Millan said sarcastically. “Here, we can stay until whenever and enjoy a nice, entertaining atmosphere.”
Gutierrez and Millan said they are fully aware the pandemic was not over, but that they felt safe going inside Tootsie’s. They had already gone to the strip club when it reopened last month and was operating from 6 a.m. to midnight—under the curfew. “We don’t want to get infected,” Gutierrez said. “But they are very strict with the precautions. They enforce the mask rule and keep tables of other people six feet apart.”
The couple said they don’t buy lap dances and pay for their drinks with a credit card.
Another patron, Maurice Jones, said he and his girlfriend took the risk so they could celebrate his 25th birthday. “It’s a nice vibe,” he said. As far as Tootsie’s fighting in court to resume its normal operating hours, Jones said that’s what capitalism is all about: “Money rules.”
Fernandez said he wasn’t worried about catching the coronavirus while turning up inside Tootsies. He also said he believed that restarting Miami’s nightlife scene was not going to accelerate a surge in new cases. “Not at all,” he said, veering off the deep end, “The numbers have been fudged since the beginning. We have been bamboozled.”
The 33-year-old went on to claim the death toll linked to the disease is inflated, echoing right-wing conspiracies from Donald Trump on down.
“There is a big difference between dying from Covid and dying from something else while you had Covid,” Fernandez said, adding, falsely, “I’m not worried about catching it because if you are under 70, teh chances of you dying are 0.5 percent.”
Meanwhile, a burly bouncer walked the perimeter of the line, shouting at people to put some distance between themselves and other individuals in front of and behind them. The bouncer, who did not want to give his name because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media, said the 75,000 square-foot- strip-club was only allowing 50 percent of its maximum capacity—an indicator Tootsie’s was still abiding by other county restrictions.
He warned patrons that it would be a while before they could get inside. “We are at capacity,” he said. “There is a one hour to two hour wait.”
No one left the line.
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