A split Gainesville city commission did an about-face on Thursday and moved forward to reinstate a ban on outdoor drinking on public property after the police chief described the department’s ongoing struggles with crowd control at pop-up parties.
The move will take a pair of readings before being finalized.
The 4-3 decision was made despite some elected leaders noting that the issue of block parties and crowds has been an issue prior to allowing people to drink freely in the streets.
Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe said police were largely ticketing Black and homeless people, saying the law then was “dumb” and “highly discriminatory.”
“The fact that I can drink a beer in my driveway but (the moment) I step out into my road and I’m a criminal is absurd,” Poe said. “The fact that I grab a glass of wine at Side Bar at Depot Park but the minute I step across an imaginary line I’m a criminal is absurd.”
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Interim Gainesville Police Chief Lonnie Scott said it’s a matter of safety and that people from all over the region have been traveling to Gainesville for parties due to its lax open-container rules, allowing people to drink throughout the day and into the night.
He described how his short-staffed police department has had to tackle alcohol-fueled, late-night drunken brawls and crowd control problems.
“I’m concerned for the safety of our officers and safety of our neighbors,” said Scott, who pointed out that 48% of people involved in shootings had alcohol beforehand.
The decision directs the city attorney and manager to bring back an ordinance that will later reinstate its open container law, meaning people can no longer drink on public streets as they have the past couple of years during the pandemic. Poe and commissioners Adrian Hayes-Santos and David Arreola were the dissenting votes.
“It is going to undo all the hard work we did to create an atmosphere for businesses to bounce back after COVID,” Arreola said. “Let’s not hurt the businesses we’ve worked so hard to help.”
Commissioners also voted to direct staff to bring back a process that will allow businesses to get permits for outdoor drinking by their establishments throughout the city.
“I don’t want to hurt businesses that have done the right thing,” said Commissioner Reina Saco who brought forth the discussion due to increased violence and crime.
Earlier this week, a man was shot and killed in the city’s downtown parking garage. But that wasn’t an isolated incident.
Scott showed commissioners a video that showed officers trying to break up fights in different locations in the downtown area, including the midtown area and the city’s parking garage, which showed people running, screaming, reaching for guns and throwing punches at each other and officers as they tried to break up the fights.
“That could have been a deadly situation,” he told officials.
Scott, whose department is down about 35 officers, said the number of noise complaints has increased in recent years as a result of the outdoor drinking parties is on pace for 5,000 to 6,000 complaints for the year.
“The lives of the officers are also in jeopardy, and that is troubling to me,” said Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker, who added that the city has a responsibility to solve the problem.
Saco initially had proposed to temporarily scale back the hours that people can drink outside on public property, asking that it stop at midnight and would only be allowed in the downtown area surrounding Main Street until GPD and the city can figure out a plan.
“This works in other places, there was to be a way to make it work here,” she said.
Hayes-Santos said he disagreed with the changes, adding that it doesn’t solve any of the issues at hand and doesn’t address issues on private property.
“I strongly disagree with doing a block by block permitting,” he said. “That will just create a mess.”
When the rule first passed, it was intended to support struggling restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic. Restaurants, like Loosey’s Downtown, have set up outdoor dining areas for patrons. During the daytime and early evenings, the atmosphere has largely been relaxed. On weekends, during late hours, is when more debauchery appears to take place.
Though some Florida beaches allow drinking, permitting beer, wine or cocktails, having the ability to consume alcohol outdoors on public property is rare in municipalities elsewhere in the nation. State law also continues to forbid drinking alcohol inside a vehicle on the road.
During public comment, Sharon Burney said the outdoor gatherings are happening because there are few options for African Americans in Gainesville.
“There are no places for the Black people to go party because we’ve lost all our clubs,” she said. “They have nowhere to go so they are congregating outside.”
Aaron Green, the former owner of Fletcher’s Lounge, said the relaxed open-container rules are causing problems and that people know of Gainesville’s lax rules.
“You are being taken advantage of by having that kind of relaxed rule,” he said.
The commission also voted to direct the Office of Equity and Inclusion to look at the impact of reinstating the open-container law and direct staff to put in lighting and ban parking in the city’s garage.
Since a man was recently killed in a downtown garage, the city has announced new garage policies, including increased overnight, patrolling security from Thursday through Sunday between the hours of 7 p.m. and 5 a.m.
The city also announced Thursday that it will upgrade the lighting and camera systems in the garage and would restrict drivers from entering the garage from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. from Thursday through Sunday.