What is the level of Miami Seashore crackdown on hookah lounges?

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A man exhales hookah smoke at the outdoor patio of the Edison Hotel on Ocean Drive on Dec.  1.

A man exhales hookah smoke at the outdoor patio of the Edison Hotel on Ocean Drive on Dec. 1.

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Hookahs haven’t necessarily been linked to rowdy, out-of-control crowds in Miami Beach. But the water pipes, used to smoke flavored tobacco, are not the image the city wants to project as it tries to clean up its reputation as party central and attract a more sophisticated tourist base.

The city’s latest move to revamp itself bans smoking hookah on public property as part of its new system to regulate sidewalk cafes. That means hookah lounges can no longer allow smoking outside in exchange for being allowed to offer sidewalk seating in hot spots like Lincoln Road. Businesses owners told the Herald that might force them out of business. They say patrons come to South Florida to enjoy their hookahs outdoors, not to be forced indoors.

Not only do we doubt banning sidewalk hookah smoking will do much for Miami Beach’s goals, the new rules might have created a two-tier system. Hookahs are banned outside on Lincoln Road, but allowed on outdoor private patios set back from the sidewalk at establishments along the more-raucous Ocean Drive, as the Herald reported.

The ban is just one of many initiatives taken under Mayor Dan Gelber to turn Miami Beach around after a disastrous, crime-ridden Spring Break in 2021. Gelber’s vision is noble: Make Miami Beach a cultural destination where people live, work and play. The Herald Editorial Board has supported many of his proposals, including a 2 am stop to alcohol sales in South Beach and the crackdown on sleazy and unsavory business practices deployed by some sidewalk cafes, such as hawking and the sale of drinks over 22 ounces. Alcohol has been the fuel behind some of the issues haunting the city.

If Miami Beach wants to end its “anything goes” vibe, it will have to make tough choices. But the city also has opened itself up to accusations of elitism and racism.

An ordinance passed in the wake of Spring Break 2021 has been criticized as targeting Black visitors. The law made it illegal to “approach or remain within 20 feet” of a Miami Beach police officer with the “intent to impede, provoke or harass” an officer engaged in lawful duties, after receiving a warning. A Herald review of 13 ordinance arrests over the weekend of Rolling Loud, a popular hip-hop festival last year, showed most of them were of Black people filming officers. A federal lawsuit was recently filed by a Black woman from New York pepper-sprayed while recording police.

The crackdown on hookahs could be dismissed as growing pains. Gelber told the Herald, “The city has a right to control public spaces” and he’s trying to change the experience visitors get by creating a “calmer ambiance.”

He’s not entirely wrong. We could easily live without the pushy hostesses and the tacky fake-food displays along Ocean Drive and Lincoln Road, but banning those practices alone likely won’t put restaurants and bars out of business.

There’s no question the city should have a say on what goes on public sidewalks. But are hookahs such a big source of rowdiness, as city officials make them out to be, or do they just not look sophisticated enough for Miami Beach 2.0? Hookah lounges aren’t necessarily the first stop for the upscale Art Basel-type visitors the city hopes to attract year-round.

Gelber said he hopes the hookah businesses affected by the ban can “reformulate their products.”

The owner of Lincoln Road’s D’Vine Hookah Lounge told a city committee recently that her business model revolves around hookahs, not the food and drinks she also serves.

“If this continues, my business is going out of business,” Claudia Herman told the Miami Beach Public Safety and Neighborhood Quality of Life committee.

Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez wants to create an exemption for “legacy” businesses that have been operating for more than 10 years and have never had issues or code violations so they can continue to offer hookahs in their sidewalk area.

“My colleagues have no issue putting people out of work, or ruining their livelihood,” she told the Editorial Board via text message.

Her proposal got push-back from some of those colleagues at a recent meeting. They were concerned about inviting litigation from establishments that couldn’t get an exemption. Rosen Gonzalez believes that wouldn’t be the case because the city already applies some level of subjectivity in how it enters contracts with sidewalk cafes.

Miami Beach should strive for a compromise. The city’s future doesn’t rest on whether hookahs are allowed in public — there are bigger fish to fry to stop the debauchery.

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