PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. -- The sun was sublime, the flour-soft sand could scarcely have been more tempting and the DJ music thumped loudly enough to jiggle the beer cups resting on nearby tables. All that was missing were the throngs of booze-soaked, sunburned spring breakers who usually swarm this beach town during March.
The scarcity of the party-hard population was no accident. Last year, after a particularly rowdy spring break that saw an alleged sexual assault on a crowded beach in broad daylight (it was recorded and went viral) and gunfire at a house party that injured seven partygoers, local officials clamped down. They passed more than 20 ordinances to curb the debauchery, drinking and violence that they had concluded was marring the town's image.
In response, students sprinted to Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, quickly spreading the news -- using the hashtag RIPPCB (Rest in Peace Panama City Beach) -- that the party here was over.
Amplified through the social media megaphone, the drop was far steeper than even the businesses who opposed the measures had anticipated. This week, peak time for spring break, scores of bars, restaurants, clubs, hotels, fast-food franchises and taxi companies that typically see their March profits bulge sat forlorn, with some reporting a 90 percent drop in customers.
"There were a lot more unintended consequences than anyone imagined," said Jack Bishop, the owner of the popular waterfront restaurant and bar Harpoon Harry's. "We never dreamed it would be this bad so quickly. This tells you the power of the 24-hour news cycle and social media. I'm down 72 percent for the month." In instituting a crackdown, Panama City Beach, perched on the Gulf Coast a two-hour drive from Alabama, joined a roster of other more urban Florida beach towns that have for decades whipsawed from inviting, to rebuffing, to ultimately tolerating spring breakers. Fort Lauderdale, Daytona Beach, Miami Beach -- they have all been there, taking in the money, but hating the mess and negative attention that comes with students who trash rooms, fall off balconies, assault each other and drink themselves to death.
(Within the first hour of a reporter's recent visit to a local hotel, paramedics treated a drunken student and, in an elevator, a student from West Virginia showed off his right fist bloodied by a fight.)
This week, Miami Beach dealt with its own rash of bad news: Rowdy spring break brawls on Ocean Drive led to the fatal shooting of a 20-year-old Florida man. The city has now rolled out its own restrictions and stepped up law enforcement. And despite Panama City Beach's stricter laws, one college student fell to his death from a parking garage balcony this week after drinking all day, and another died from an alcohol and drug overdose.
In this small, conservative town with a Southern sensibility, the past year's debate over spring break has been a painful one that has split the community. Owners and employees of many small businesses have accused politicians of overreach, warning the economy would be badly hurt. But many of the area's older residents and elected officials argue that spring break here had badly deteriorated, becoming far too raunchy, boozy, dangerous and dirty, and risked turning off families.
To fight the problem, officials stepped up law enforcement, and the city and county passed more than 20 far-reaching ordinances. The new laws, which are mostly in effect only in March, required bars to close at 2 a.m., banned loitering and scooter rentals in the evening and, most important, made it illegal to drink alcohol on the beach.
"It got out of hand, and I believe it stopped some good people from coming here," said Mike Thomas, a Bay County commissioner who is running for Panama City Beach mayor. "I think it reached the point where we were killing ourselves. Our image was being hurt so badly." Thomas said they had asked bars and clubs to tone down some events that in years past featured heavy drinking and the kind of entertainment he said attracted "an element that causes problems." Businesses, he said, did not cooperate.
But business owners said the vast majority of spring breakers were good people who wanted nothing more than a good time with friends, and that the new laws have gone too far.
At Harpoon Harry's, Bishop said he did not even bother to open his outdoor bar most nights in March and hired far fewer employees. The only reminder of the hundreds who once flocked here was the row of empty portable toilets.
The same story unfolded in business after business. A few had to lay off extra workers.
At the Holiday Inn Resort, usually one of the most rollicking spring break hotels, a sprinkling of students lingered in the pool, arms raised high to protect their beers. Just beyond the fence, the town's world-famous sand beckoned.
Choosing beers over the beach, few students ventured out beyond the hotel, though they said they were still having a good time. Students had seen or heard of others being hauled to jail for drinking, a risk most said they were unwilling to take.
"It's very depressing," said Nick Jamiszewski, 21, a student at Michigan State University. "I've seen six people get handcuffed and taken away." At Club La Vela, one of the largest and most popular clubs in town, a small group of students bounced to DJ music in front of the stage, their fists pumping, as they got sprayed with glow paint. Regulars said the club was usually so packed that students could scarcely walk around. On a recent night, a skateboarder could have made the rounds.
"We're disappointed," Sierra James, 21, a student at Jefferson Community and Technical College in Louisville, Kentucky, said as she stood waiting for friends inside Club La Vela. "We knew coming down; everyone was telling us PCB is not going to be fun anymore, go to Fort Lauderdale. The people aren't here because you can't drink on the beach."
At Spinnaker Beach Club next door, near where the alleged sexual assault took place last year (two people have been charged), customers could easily be counted one by one. Even at the Beach Bash last week at Sharkey's, a major March event, the place was only half filled.
Colleen Swab, the owner of California Cycles, said her scooter rental business was down 80 percent this month, hurt by restrictions on the number of scooters she could rent and the prohibition on evening rentals.
"I ran off 15 customers yesterday," she said. Then she pointed to a Twitter photo taken the evening before. It showed the main road, usually bumper to bumper, completely empty.
"It's just sad," she said. "I never thought it would be like this. It's a ghost town."