Tuesday, January 31, 2023

City of Wilmington seriously eyeing loosened restrictions for outdoor drinking

A bill that would allow customers to consume booze freely within certain areas is progressing in the N.C. General Assembly, and Wilmington is already researching other cities’ alcohol ordinances. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)

WILMINGTON –– The City of Wilmington is considering loosening outdoor drinking restrictions, as a proposed law that would allow customers to carry alcoholic beverages freely within certain areas progresses through the N.C. General Assembly.

House Bill 781 –– also known as the “Bring Business Back to Downtown” bill –– would give cities discretion to define “social districts” where patrons could openly carry and consume booze purchased from ABC permit holders. The legislation passed the House May 6 with just seven “nay” votes from Republican representatives and has now advanced to the Senate floor.

All New Hanover County representatives –– Republicans Charlie Miller and Ted Davis and Democrat Deb Butler –– voted in favor of the proposed law.

City emails dated May 12 show staff is researching other cities’ downtown alcohol ordinances, such as Savannah.

“As we emerge from COVID and start to look at cleaning up and improving our sidewalk cafe permit language I believe there is some interest in loosening some of the restrictions in the current code,” community services director Amy Beatty wrote in an email to parks and recreation staff.

City spokesperson Jennifer Dandron confirmed staff is studying regulations of cities comparable to Wilmington, as part of its “due diligence in anticipation of the pending legislation.” It’s customary for the city to keep tabs on the legislative process, she explained, and keep in contact with elected officials on the issues at play.

“Savannah is often used as a benchmark city for Wilmington, so understanding their policy and how it is administered will help staff be prepared if the legislation does pass,” Dandron wrote in an email to Port City Daily. “We’re still in the early stages of research.”

The state bill is designed to boost business for those who fought through the pandemic to stay afloat and accommodate special events, such as the Azalea Festival.

Owner of downtown bar the Opera Room, Sandy Perotto, said she’d be “all for it.”

“I don’t understand why there would be a problem with it,” Perotto said. “If you’re still controlling how much people are obviously drinking, you’re still not serving people who have had too much; they can just go about their day, continue shopping downtown.”

The idea of social districts is similar to last summer’s Downtown Alive program headed by the Downtown Business Alliance. Restaurants received the go-ahead from the city to serve diners on closed-off roadways and roped-off parklets; it’s a concept cities across the nation implemented when indoor dining was limited because of Covid. 

The bill provides a second option for cities that do not wish to create an all-encompassing social district. Instead bars and restaurants could expand their premises, similar to Downtown Alive.

At one point the Downtown Business Alliance reported it was detailing a plan in hopes the city would take over Downtown Alive and utilize parklets full time for dining. Yet, the popular program is not expected to return anytime soon as social-distancing restrictions lift.

Restaurants greatly profited from Downtown Alive, with some reporting numbers that matched summer 2019, before the pandemic. Still, the temporary set-up did little for bars, which were mandated by tighter restrictions from the governor’s executive orders during the pandemic.

Bars were one of the business types ordered to shutter for the longest period of time and with stricter capacity limits than restaurants. Months passed after restaurants were granted allowance to reopen at 50% in May. Finally in October, the governor gave bars some hope after announcing they could reopen at 30%, but owners quickly realized this new rule only applied to outdoor spaces –– or up to 100 people inside — whichever was less. It was a gut punch to most.

Another executive order issued in December permitted the sale of to-go drinks but did little for dying businesses, as it wasn’t always cost-effective.

Lula’s pub owner Bryan Jacobs describes the pandemic as being “shut down for six months and barely open for another six months.” Still, he doesn’t know if he would support a social district in Wilmington right now, as it raises some questions about enforcement.

“Now that new ideas crop up, it takes my head a while to get around it because I’m just still in survival mode,” Jacobs said. “You automatically think all bars would want to do it, but when I really think about it, I mean, I don’t know.”

Jacobs worries about the hassle it would be to prevent customers from carrying drinks in the bar from other places. Plus, he isn’t fond of the idea of pouring drinks in plastic cups, but otherwise knows he’s likely to lose glassware. “I like serving a proper drink,” he said. “Plastic’s not my thing.”

If passed as written, the new law would require any open drinks carried throughout the social district to be in non-glass, designated cups, with a logo specific to that social district and a “Drink Responsibly – Be 21” warning. Plus it would need to identify which merchant sold the drink, and the cup could hold no more than 16 ounces.

The city would need to post conspicuous signs indicating the start and end of the social district. At this point it’s not clear what the district would entail –– or if it would be created at all. If Downtown Alive serves as any standard, it could include Front, Chestnut, Grace, Princess and Dock streets.

Palate Bottle Shop & Reserve is located outside of that range but is still downtown, on Fourth Street in the historic district. Owner Jeremy Malanka describes it as a “slower area” with more families, where people should be able to casually sip on a beer while walking their dog or pushing a stroller.

Palate was one of the few businesses that benefitted from selling to-go beverages once Gov. Roy Cooper gave it the OK. The bar sold carry-out sealed beers to bicyclists –– appropriately dubbed “bike beers” –– which it found there was, in fact, a market for.

Still, he doesn’t know either if he’d support the legislation just yet. Like Jacobs, it raises questions.

“I’d love to grab a beer from Flytrap and walk to Palate, if I was a customer,” he said. “But as a bar owner, it makes me a little nervous.”

He wonders: If a customer drinks a few beers while walking toward a bar, then orders a bottle of wine once there and becomes severely inebriated, is the small business liable?

The city stated it would not comment further on House Bill 781 until the legislative process completes and council directs staff to act.

Dandron added the City of Wilmington is “appreciative of legislation that empowers local governments to act in the best interest of their communities.”

Send tips and comments to alexandria@localdailymedia.com

Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at alexandria@localdailymedia.com or on Twitter @alexsands_

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