MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) - Last call is coming earlier than usual at some outdoor bars and restaurants on Miami Beach as the tourist city tries to clean up its image by banning alcohol sales at sidewalk cafes after 2 a.m.
The move, which takes effect on Saturday, is targeted at Ocean Drive in the popular South Beach district. For years, sunburned vacationers there have slurped gargantuan $30 margaritas, with upside down Corona bottles sticking out of them, until 5 a.m.
City officials and residents complain that resulting disorderly behavior and crime are driving regulars away.
Kansas Parker, 22, from Bridgeport, Connecticut, was dismayed to learn of the new regulation but said she understood the intent.
"Yesterday I walked down this street at 6 a.m.," she said, "and it was disgusting, trash everywhere."
Mayor Philip Levine, who spearheaded the rule, says the street has marred the city's picture postcard image of pastel-colored Art Deco hotels under swaying palm trees lining the seafront.
He likened Ocean Drive to Bourbon Street, New Orleans' alcohol-drenched tourist area.
"It's become a cancer, a cancer that spreads throughout our entire city," Levine said at a recent Miami Beach commission meeting.
Not everyone agrees.
Teddi Tyree, who was visiting for Memorial Day weekend from Atlanta with three cousins, breathed a sigh of relief to learn the ban would not kick in until after her vacation.
Tyree, 25, said it made no sense for the city to curtail the night life that draws tourists there.
"This is Miami," she said while sipping an oversized margarita through a bright pink straw. "People want to be outside."
Ocean Drive, once a sleepy, down-market street where retirees lounged in the sun next to penniless Cuban refugees, catapulted back into fashion in the mid-1990s. But popularity has proved problematic.
A recent study by the Miami Beach police department of the Ocean Drive area found that a disproportionate amount of crime happened between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m.
Although the police did not have data on drunken and disorderly behavior, 24 percent of all serious crimes, including 29 percent of aggravated batteries and 31 percent of robberies, took place in that four-hour, pre-dawn window.
"No residents are going there," Levine said. "It's a dangerous place."
The area has required "a crazy allocation of our police resources" to make it safe, he added.
In April, a police officer was dragged half a block on Ocean Drive after a traffic stop turned into a hit-and-run. In March, a 20-year-old woman was arrested there after firing a shot into the air during a fight.
Even police have been seduced by its lure. A uniformed Miami Beach officer was fired in March when he threw up outside Mango’s Tropical Cafe after knocking back a half-dozen vodka cocktails and grappling with a woman.
Another officer was sentenced to 18 months in prison last year for drinking on duty at a bachelorette party at the Clevelander Hotel, an outdoor watering hole. He subsequently ran over a couple lying on the beach while giving the bride-to-be a ride on a police all-terrain vehicle.
Keeping liquor sales indoors will make a difference, according to the mayor and police.
But some residents say the city’s new rule does not address the root of the problems. They say local government is taking the easy way out rather than spending more money on policing or safety measures.
"It goes deeper," said Alejandro Tejada, 21. "You have homeless people sleeping right across the street."
Mike Palma, an executive with the ownership group of the Clevelander, complained that some South Beach visitors bring their own booze. "All weekend long on Ocean I’ve got people drinking out of (disposable) cups, and there’s zero enforcement," he said.
Police reinforcements were out last weekend for Urban Beach Weekend, one of the island city's biggest annual parties.
Crowds of people sporting neon bathing suits packed Ocean Drive for the hip-hop celebration even as the sky darkened in the evening. Revelers carried oversized drinks in plastic cups, gold bejeweled goblets or hollowed-out pineapples, and the air was filled with marijuana smoke.
Many said the new limits on alcohol, along with an increased police presence, would make Miami Beach a less desirable destination.
"It sucks," says Steve Johnson, 36, who was visiting from Raleigh, North Carolina. "I'd consider going somewhere else next year."
Editing by Jill Serjeant and Lisa Von Ahn