Walking down the sidewalk drinking from a bottle of Jack Daniels or swigging a beer on city right of way would be legal on a permanent basis under a proposal city leaders are considering.
People in Gainesville would be legally able to drink the alcoholic beverage of their choice from the container of their choice on city property or right of way without getting ticketed for an open-container violation under a proposal the Gainesville Commission is voting on Monday.
The commission, during its evening session, which begins at 5:30 p.m., is scheduled to vote on the first of two readings an open-container ordinance that essentially makes what was a temporary ordinance into a permanent one.
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The current law that was passed as an emergency measure during the pandemic last September allows outdoor public drinking, and allows businesses to serve alcohol in public and outdoor spaces.
The goal was to support restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic, not only boosting their sales but keeping customers outside instead of clustering them indoors where they were more likely to spread or contract the virus.
Commissioners say the temporary law hasn’t resulted in any problems so there is no reason not to keep it on the books.
While some Florida beaches allow drinking, permitting beer, wine or cocktails to be consumed outdoors on public property is rare in municipalities anywhere in the nation. State law continues to forbid drinking alcohol inside a vehicle on the road.
In January, the commission asked staff to look into allowing open containers in some areas of the city and not others, but some commissioners felt this would be discriminatory to some neighborhoods.
Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe said Friday via text that if this ordinance change passes Monday, there would be one more reading before it is enacted. Public comment will be taken at the meeting, he said.
“I support the change because (banning public drinking) serves no real purpose and has the potential to be used against poor and minority neighbors,” Poe said.
At its May 20 meeting, the commission directed the city attorney’s office to develop language to modify the open container law with language making it permanent.
“We’ve had open container for a year now and there haven’t been any issues,” said Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos on Friday. “And we shouldn’t have laws on the books that are there just to mess with people. We have laws currently for drunk and disorderly, for disorderly conduct, so if you do something that is a negative impact to society, then we can take action.”
He said the change in the law is also supported by businesses, which are not only allowing customers to drink outside of their establishments but serving to-go drinks.
Hayes-Santos said police have long used open-container laws to prosecute people with less means.
“The original intent of these (open-container) laws was for ways for police to arrest people,” he said. “They were put in place as a way to arrest homeless people. That is one of the main reasons they are put into effect. And there are disproportionate impacts to lower-income individuals in our community.”
The Gainesville Police Department was not issuing many citations for open-container violations when drinking in public was illegal, said Graham Glover, spokesperson for the department, on Friday. He said before the pandemic, the city was issuing roughly 50 to 60 citations a year. “We are not issuing this citation a lot,” he said.
Glover said the charge for violating open-container laws was changed from a criminal citation to a civil citation in 2018.
The proposal to legalize public drinking has had its detractors.
Last winter, former City Commissioner Gigi Simmons told the commission that people who live near Fletcher’s Cocktail Lounge on Northwest Fifth Avenue were fed up with the block parties outside off the business, and that the outdoor drinking was fueling them on.
Neighbors of Fletcher’s Lounge in the Pleasant Street district north of downtown had complained about large crowds gathered outside the bar late into the night. However, Fletchers is now closed.
Carl Watts, the owner of the Underground Kitchen on Northwest Fifth Avenue, said Friday that he has mixed feelings about a permanent law legalizing public drinking. He said when Fletcher’s was open, the law legalizing public drinking increased the size and rowdiness of the block parties.
But the block parties have completely stopped since Fletcher’s recent closed, so drinking on that street is no longer an issue, Watts said. And as a business owner, he was contemplating serving alcohol, and the law would allow him to sell to-go cups.
He said if Fletcher’s reopened, he would definitely be opposed to legalized public drinking.
Joey Reaves, who works at Agency Bail Bonds on Northwest Fifth Avenue, said he envisions problems with the open-container law the commission is considering.
“I think if people were responsible when drinking, then it wouldn’t be an issue,” he said. “But that’s just not reality. And that goes for this street or tailgating.”