The City Commission voted 4-3 Thursday to reinstate the open-container alcohol ordinance, which prohibits public consumption of alcoholic beverages.
Thursday was the first reading of the ordinances, which was reintroduced last month. The second reading where the ordinances will officially be implemented is on Oct. 26.
In addition to the first ordinance, which will bring back open container restrictions prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the City Commission voted 6-1 to create an entertainment district for downtown Gainesville.
The downtown entertainment district would be formed around NE 6th Avenue, Depot Park, the Power District, SE 7th Street and SW 6th Street. The hours of public alcohol consumption would be from 8 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. in an approved container.
Danny Hughes, owner of Loosey’s, has spoken out about his stance against the open container ban.
“We will be able to bring vibrance back to our community if we were allowed to still function the way we are functioning now, even if we have some more restrictions on it,” Hughes said.
Commissioners Casey Willits, Bryan Eastman and Reina Saco voted in opposition to repeal the open-container alcohol ordinance.
Eastman made a motion to amend the entertainment districts ordinance, including renaming the proposal to "Arts, Culture and Entertainment (ACE) Districts."
This would provide an incentive to retain the culture and arts of downtown in a more holistic approach, Eastman said. He also wants to decrease the district size and extend the hours from 11:30 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Eastman said he voted in favor of repealing the open container alcohol ordinance last month but has since changed his stance based on further discussion with the Gainesville community.
“I was the vote that pushed in the opposite direction,” Eastman said. “I realized that I made a mistake there.”
Jacob Larson, owner of The Bull Bar, believes the implementation of an entertainment district would be a great partnership with the city to work with business owners, he said.
“I think our retail spaces will have a renaissance so people are seeing that there's more vibrancy and ability to actively engage and excel in having retail spaces,” Larson said. “Which would be great for our community.”
Gainesville Police Department Chief Lonnie Scott said civil citations are the typical enforcement protocol police would use for the alcohol ordinance, rather than arrests. However, exceptions are made for people who become aggressive when confronted with a citation, he said.
Saco is still strongly against repealing the open container ban, she said.
“We’ve seen from hundreds of emails that we’ve gotten, a lot of them cited that it is unjust to punish the 99% for the actions of the 1%,” Saco said. “To treat grown adults who are capable of purchasing alcohol legally, like children, [just] because 1% of the population acts out or causes a nuisance.”
Saco said the open container ban could be a problem for the homeless population of the city. The housed population has the privilege of drinking in their homes, she said, so reinstituting an open container ban would criminalize homeless people who don’t have those same privileges.
“If I don’t have money for rent, I certainly don’t have money for a ticket,” Saco said.
Saco also believes that the creation of entertainment districts picks winners and losers.
She said she is wary the implementation of an entertainment district will push out small local businesses as people choose to move into a zone within the map boundaries.
“I don't think that it is the will of the government to decide which businesses will succeed and which ones will fail,” Saco said.
Saco said she thinks the entertainment district map needs to be more detailed and specified. She believes that reducing the hours and restricting easily identifiable locations is a simpler solution than an entertainment district.
Mayor Harvey Ward and commissioners Cythnia Chestnut, Ed Book and Desmon Duncan-Walker supported an open container ban to improve public safety.
Chestnut addressed the several emails received by the City Commission that point toward Celebration Pointe’s open container policy.
“One thing that's different from downtown is that Celebration Pointe provides private security,” Chestnut said. ”They have a private security that they pay for.”
Book was the single vote against the creation of an entertainment district in downtown Gainesville.
He referenced the fact that no other city in Florida allows for full public consumption of alcohol like Gainesville does. The allowance of open containers was necessary to reinvorgate businesses during the pandemic, he said. Now, there are still some health issues, but in general the city is outside of the pandemic, Book said, and public safety needs to be addressed.
“There is research-based evidence that indicates there's a nexus between alcohol and violence,” Book said. “Most of us behave in ways that make us responsible adults. On the other hand, we do have real issues with violence and alcohol in crowd management.”
Debbie Martinez, a former downtown establishment owner and retired registered nurse, is in support of the pre-pandemic open container ordinance, she said.
“Residents are suffering and this is the only thing the city can do to help reduce the crime, the chaos our residents are having to suffer,” Martinez said. “We cannot control state law. We cannot control federal laws. But we can protect our residents with sitting, tried, and true prevention policies.”
But business owners argue there are tools to balance safety and commerce.
Jose Perugno, co-owner of How Bazaar, believes that “active streets equals safe streets.”
“‘What causes problems is when there are dead zones between areas where people need to get to their parking place to get to their car, and it's not safe,” Perugno said.
Restrictions on the consumption of alcohol would be detrimental to the development of Gainesville as an accepting community for different cultural celebrations at a variety of businesses, Perugno said.
“We are on the precedent of possibly becoming a mecca for people to come to for cultural events,” he said. “We are almost there and taking this away would destroy all these businesses.”
Sali Bavdekar organizes outdoor Latin dance events in downtown Gainesville and has done so for eight years. When the initial COVID-19 pandemic occurred, the popularity of the dance social events significantly increased.
“I'm feeling that this entertainment district is something that can keep this community vibrant,” Bavdekar said. “This is not the same world we live in pre-pandemic, the bars face a different challenge.”
Ward said he is flexible to modifications to the ordinances. He wants to include daily hourly limits and look into prohibiting glass containers. He also wants the creation of more than one district map available for review prior to Oct. 9 and the expansion of the district to allow for parking spaces, he said.
I like the idea of a lot of this kind of [entertainment] district,” Ward said. “One of the reasons I like it is because it works in other places. We don't have to reinvent the wheel just because we're Gainesville.”
Gainesville residents are advised by the City Commission to provide input and feedback on the open container and entertainment district ordinance by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.