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Monday, March 04, 2024

Gainesville City Commission considers repeal of open container alcohol ordinance

The ordinance will revert to pre-pandemic wording, which penalizes public drinking

The Gainesville City Commission voted 4-3 to consider reverting the city’s open container ordinance back to how the city regulated alcohol prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. This bans open-canned alcohol outside businesses, as well as parks and streets.

Originally, the commission was planning on voting to ban the consumption of open-canned alcoholic beverages in public areas such as parks and downtown Gainesville streets — but Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut wanted the plan to go further, she said. 

“We talked about people coming into town and using Gainesville as a regional party center,” Chestnut said. “We are at a point where we really have to take bold action here.”

The ordinance has yet to be implemented. A full draft of the ordinance must be voted on Sept. 14, then voted on again and passed on Sept. 28. 

Mayor Harvey Ward and commissioners Ed Book, Desmon Duncan-Walker and Chestnut voted in favor of the ordinance. 

Duncan-Walker wanted to focus on improving the safety of downtown Gainesville, where a majority of the city’s shootings occur, she said. 

“There are just too many things that are uncertain right now,” Duncan-Walker said. “But one thing is for sure— these [crime] numbers are rising, they’re not going down.”

Mark Goldstein expressed his support for reverting the ordinance back to a full ban on open containers during public comment. 

He pointed to the statistic that around one-third of all gun violence across America occured when the shooter is drunk, and a third of gun violence victims were also drunk. 

“We need to do whatever we can to reduce gun violence,” Goldstein said. “And the ability to be able to walk around with a drink probably is not much of an excuse to me.”

However, many business owners voiced concerns with the potential passing of the ordinance. They said it would hurt the downtown economy. They did not want local police to penalize those with open alcoholic beverages in front of their businesses. 

Danny Hughes, owner of Loosey’s, said downtown businesses already suffered financial losses during 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Outdoor areas are crucial to creating an enticing experience for his customers, he said. 

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But Duncan-Walker did not want to have to compromise the lives of Gainesville residents for business margins, she said. 

“The economics of how downtown thrives are critical,” she said. “There’s a cost there, but the cost is also safety.” 

The Gainesville Police Department was often cited by both members of the public and commissioners in favor of urging local police to control public crowds.

GPD Chief Lonnie Scott said there were limited resources regardless of a full staff to deal with downtown past 2 a.m. on the weekends, due to the sheer amount of people at bars and parties. 

However, limiting the hours of public drinking to before 11:30 p.m. would help deal with smaller groups of people causing issues in the evening, Scott said.

Lily Swanson, a 21-year-old UF anthropology senior, is one of many students who voiced their opinions on the proposed ordinance. 

“I don’t think it is the most necessary thing,” Swanson said. “It can be really annoying, but if the benefit of it is reducing gun violence in the town and would actually pay off, then I think it's worth it.”

She believes that the ordinance could negatively impact the local bars and businesses that make up Gainesville’s lively nightlife, she said. 

“The point of our city government is to govern the city, and if you’re going to make something illegal, I feel like it should be taken into a lot of consideration of how that’s going to affect business, individuals, family units,” she said.

Suzette Mercedes, a 22-year-old UF film senior, thinks blaming Gainesville’s gun violence on alcohol is the wrong approach, she said. 

“You can carry a gun around publicly,” Mercedes said. “That’s more of an issue than the actual alcohol. I feel like alcohol may enhance it, but it’s already an issue that somebody has a gun in the first place.” 

Mercedes is more or less indifferent, she said, because she typically doesn’t carry alcoholic beverages outside of bars. 

Commissioners Casey Willits, Reina Saco and Bryan Eastman voted against repealing the open container ordinance. Eastman wanted a more cautious solution than a sweeping action like a repeal, he said. 

He proposed the creation of entertainment districts — specifically designated areas in Gainesville to legally possess and consume open-canned beverages. 

Eastman referenced places that have downtown alcoholic open container policies such as The Pier in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Gainesville’s own retail and entertainment center, Celebration Pointe. 

“I feel like we are pulling the rug out from under the downtown business owners,” Eastman said. “I would like to see a better compromise.” 

Willits thinks the short turnaround time on drawing entertainment districts isn’t an appropriate length to accommodate for community input, he said. 

“We owe [voters] an opportunity to propose the idea, and then for them to talk about it and give feedback to the commission, not for us to whip something together," Willits said.

Ward wants to pass both an entertainment district ordinance and an open-container ordinance after the second reading on Sept. 28. 

He emphasized the importance of prioritizing public safety, whether there is a direct association between rising gun violence rates and openly drinking alcohol or not. There are too many lives affected by not taking some sort of action, Ward said.

“The problem is with party promoters outside of Gainesville that promote public drinking,” he said. “Three gun violence victims fell victim to these promoters. 

Ward believes it’s important to note that Florida has posed many restrictions to pass fire-arm related laws, he said. 

“We need to explore root causes of gun violence and work around the open availability of guns,” Ward said.

Ward anticipates an entertainment district in downtown Gainesville and the Grove Street neighborhood, he said. He wants to replicate the ordinance in other Gainesville areas, creating a checklist they can refer to.  

Mayor Ward and the commissioners urge any concerned Gainesville resident and those wanting to speak on the open-container ordinance to contact the city commission board at citycomm@gainesvillefl.gov.

Contact Kat Tran at ktran@alligator.org. Follow them on Twitter @kat3tran.

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Kat Tran

Kat Tran is a second-year journalism major and is the City & County Commission reporter for Fall 2023. They are also interested in a pre-law track (entertainment law). You can find them daydreaming about rainbows, unicorns, and sunshine in their free time. Currently, they are recovering after seeing Lana Del Rey live. 


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