Social distancing be damned: Miami sandbar jampacked despite coronavirus orders

UPDATE: After this story published Saturday night, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez announced the closure of all marinas and boat ramps countywide. He added that the Miami-Dade Police Department would be “ramping up enforcement” of his no-rafting order to “keep large group parties from taking place.”

Gimenez referred to social media posts from the Haulover Sandbar on Saturday and said it was “worrisome” to see a flier for a party at the sandbar scheduled for Sunday.

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“We are in a state of emergency, and I cannot stress enough the need for personal responsibility,” Gimenez said. “Those of you not following these guidelines are putting others at risk, perhaps your own family and friends. And, you could be contributing to a much longer scenario and further shutdowns in our community.”

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On Saturday morning, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez signed an emergency order prohibiting the practice of “rafting,” which involves boats being tied together so people can move from one to another and hang out in groups.

This practice, the mayor’s order says, “provides a means for social gathering that could potentially spread COVID-19/novel Coronavirus.” It was effective 9 a.m. Saturday. This past Wednesday, Gimenez also enacted a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people at county-operated beaches, parks and other facilities.

But that didn’t stop the party Saturday at the Haulover Sandbar, a popular gathering spot for boaters north of Miami Beach on the bay side. Numerous videos posted to social media showed the area jampacked, with boats tied together and hordes of people standing in close proximity on the sand.

“Y’all stop listening to whatever people tell y’all, talking about what you can and can’t do at the sandbar, [saying] it’s closed,” one person says in a video posted from the sandbar on Instagram. “Man, there’s over a [expletive] thousand boats out here on Saturday.”

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It wasn’t immediately clear whether the gathering violated the law. Gimenez’s anti-rafting order exempts boats on the Florida Intracoastal Waterway, which includes waters in between Miami Beach and Miami.

Haulover Park, which is adjacent to the sandbar to the east, is county run, but jurisdiction over the shallow waters next to it involves multiple agencies. A representative for Gimenez passed along an inquiry to the Miami Dade Police Department. A department spokesman, Hector Llevat, cited the mayor’s order but initially didn’t address the exemption.

“As per the Mayor’s Emergency Order 08-20, the practice of rafting is prohibited as defined and outlined in the order,” Llevat said in an email. “Failure to comply with Emergency Orders is a criminal offense and violators could be subject to arrest.”

Llevat followed up Sunday to say that the Haulover Sandbar is actually located just east of the marked Intracoastal Waterway, and that county police have jurisdiction over the sandbar’s waters.

“The ongoing issues with rafting are occurring alongside the ICW and not within the channel itself,” he said.

Normally, the county allows rafting for up to five boats tied together at once, but the Intracoastal Waterway is exempt from that language, too.

A representative for the U.S. Coast Guard suggested local law enforcement is in charge.

“We are aware that the boating community continues to be active and we continue to support our city, county and state partners to keep people safe on the water and maintain our mission,” said Coast Guard spokesman Brandon Murray. “For more information on response to boater activity in relation to the current quarantine, you may want to reach out to local law enforcement.”

Bal Harbour Village, which is just south of the sandbar, doesn’t have jurisdiction over the Haulover Sandbar, Mayor Gabriel Groisman said.

A representative for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

County Commissioner Sally Heyman, whose District 4 includes Haulover Park, told the Miami Herald she was frustrated that agencies seemed to be passing the buck and letting the sandbar stay open. Multiple small municipalities in the area have their own marine patrols, she said, adding that the county police, state-level Fish and Wildlife agency and federal Coast Guard should all be empowered to take action.

“If they want to quibble over whose jurisdiction [it is] — it’s a state of emergency,” Heyman said. “Get them all [involved]. It needs to be shut down.”

Heyman added that at least 1,000 boats are anticipated to show up at the sandbar Sunday for a “rave party” that, so far, hasn’t been called off.

“When you go back home off your boats, off the sandbar, what is it going to do [if you’re] a carrier [of COVID-19] to someone else?” she said.

Captions on some social media posts from the sandbar Saturday acknowledged the novel coronavirus, which has now caused more than 700 confirmed infections across Florida, including 169 cases in Miami-Dade County and 12 deaths statewide.

“#WhatCorona,” reads a hashtag on one Instagram post.

One post is captioned: “Doesn’t get more isolated than the middle of the ocean.” The post shows a group of 13 people standing with their arms around each other.

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Another post appears to reference Gimenez’s ban on gatherings of more than 10 people.

“9 people or less per boat. We’re good!” the caption says.

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