'World's Largest Strip Club' Lawsuit Throws Miami's COVID Curfews Into Chaos
Thanks to a local strip club that challenged a county curfew, Miami-Dade officials temporarily stopped enforcing the restriction on Sunday and Monday, allowing area bars to stay open until the wee hours.
But while the legal challenge drew crowds to nightlife spots and gave hope to bars eager to do business, it also sparked fears that coronavirus cases would spike in the nation's second-most-active pandemic hot spot. That controversy was short-lived: an appeals court judge paused the partying again Monday — at least for now.
In August, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez imposed a midnight general curfew to try to stem the spread of COVID-19.
But in September, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order that prohibited local governments from reducing the capacity of restaurants below 100% occupancy, unless they could quantify the economic impact the limitation would have on the restaurants and explain why it was necessary for public health. DeSantis also ordered that occupancy levels for restaurants could not go below 50% of their indoor capacity.
The governor's Sept. 25 order stated that "No COVID-19 emergency ordinance may prevent an individual from working or from operating a business." Miami-Dade's mayor then issued an executive order on Sept. 26 authorizing retail and commercial establishments to reopen, but specified that restaurants with more than eight seats had to close their dining rooms when the curfew begins, which gentlemen's club Tootsie's argued was unfair.
Tootsie's, billed as the world's largest strip club, has a full-service kitchen that is usually open from noon until 6 a.m. It continued to operate in defiance of the county curfew until Oct. 7, when the general manager, Hal Bell III, was issued a civil citation and fined $510. Police warned that staff would be arrested if Tootsie's did not close at 11 p.m., the new curfew cutoff, which had changed after a series of orders.
Miami Gardens Square One Inc., which does business as Tootsie's, along with Bell individually, filed suit, arguing that the county's emergency order "is irrational and arbitrary" since "there is no factual or logical basis to believe that COVID is more likely to spread during late night hours as opposed to daytime hours."
The complaint noted that movie theaters, churches and malls were not facing the same restrictions.
"There is no factual or logical basis to believe that COVID is more likely to spread at restaurants as opposed to other businesses where people gather in large numbers in close proximity," the club said in its filing.
Tootsie's argued that state law superseded the county's, so the curfew shouldn't stand. The complaint also alleges that the early shutdown was a violation of the club's constitutional rights, including protected free speech, because "exotic dance performances communicate a specific message of eroticism which includes both an intellectual component and an emotive component emphasizing sensuality, passion and excitement."
Employees, performers and patrons were also suffering an infringement of their freedom of association, "as they cannot travel to or assemble at Plaintiffs’ business to enjoy the social camaraderie for which Tootsie’s is famous," the complaint says.
A circuit court judge was persuaded by the strip club's argument and handed down a temporary injunction against the curfew, and bars throughout Miami-Dade opened Sunday and Monday nights. A Daily Beast reporter described an "unhinged scene" outside Tootsie's, with a line of 50 people snaking out the door, plus long lines and crowds at other bars and clubs throughout the county.
But Monday afternoon, an appeals court judge issued a temporary stay of the injunction, so establishments must follow the curfew again (which is now set at midnight) until a final ruling is reached.
“The decision is a big disappointment, especially to Tootsie’s employees and contractors, who will lose income as a result. We respect the Appeal’s Court temporary stay of the injunction against Miami-Dade County’s curfew," a Tootsie's spokesperson told The New Times newspaper.
"We are confident we will prevail based on last week’s Circuit Court ruling that the curfew clearly conflicts with the Governor’s emergency orders," the spokesperson said. "Tootsie’s continues to take seriously COVID-related safety measures and urges others to do so.”
Other bars and restaurant owners also described scrambling to adjust their reopening plans.
Florida's COVID-19 dashboard showed an uptick in new cases, to 3,611, on Monday. A COVID dashboard maintained by Johns Hopkins University on Tuesday night showed that Miami-Dade had the second-most-reported number of cases in the country at 178,726, behind Los Angeles County.
CORRECTION, OCT. 21, 9:20 P.M. ET: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the mayor's Sept. 26 executive order as having ended the curfew for establishments besides restaurants. The error has been fixed.