coronavirus reopening

‘Booze on the Boards' Is Now Legal in Parts of the Jersey Shore. Is It Safe?

How have other cities handled public drinking?

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Visitors from Philly and even Connecticut flocked to Atlantic City on Friday, the first day it was legal to consume alcohol in some public spots.

Along with Cape May, the city joined Wildwood and North Wildwood in loosening the restrictions of open container laws. In an executive order Monday, Mayor Marty Small Sr. established "open container zones" on the boardwalk, a nearby area called the "Orange Loop," and parts of Gardner's Basin, also known as the "back bay" area.

"We get to do it out in Vegas, New Orleans," said Tynesha Alston, an Olney resident who spoke to NBC10 in Atlantic City Friday. "This is a place of excitement, entertainment. It's a good thing. Just drink responsibly."

Small touted the plan as a shot in the arm for bars and restaurants that have been struggling because of the coronavirus pandemic. And other officials have pointed out that in normal times, alcohol is a significant source of profit for those businesses.

Most Shore towns have some open container rules in common: no glass containers, clearly labeled drinks to show where they came from, and it's only legal in some spots. They're in lockstep that this is to support local businesses, too: no one is allowing you to bring in outside alcohol. And the towns differ on whether you can drink on the beach: in Cape May, yes, but not in A.C. Wildwood's rules allow drinking from to-go cups in the public right of way.

But some leaders say that once Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill making to-go drinks legal last month, customers weren't waiting until they got home to drink them - even before open container zones were made legal.

"When customers pick up their to-go cups, many are not waiting until they get home to consume them," North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello wrote on Facebook in May. The city decided to allow consumption in front of businesses "in an effort to head off what would be an enforcement nightmare."

With open containers allowed in Las Vegas and New Orleans, the party (and casino) towns Alston mentioned, there are examples for our region to follow.

How does it work elsewhere?

Comedian Hannibal Buress joked that in New Orleans, if he didn’t like a bar, he could get his drink to go, and leave for another place. Some Cape May residents brought up Savannah, Georgia, which has open container zones.

And public drinking – from plastic containers only – has been legal on the Las Vegas Strip for years, said Michael Green, a history professor at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. There's a significant police presence there and officers are not afraid to approach people flouting the rules. Though it might not be enforced consistently – Green compared it to driving over the speed limit.

"If not much else is going on, they’re really watching it, but if there are other things concerning them at the moment, you might be able to get away with it. ... If you decide to do 50 in a 30 zone, you'd better be hoping you don’t see a police car."

The police might also have to deal with individuals breaking those rules as outdoor dining comes back, Green said.

"At some point somebody’s going to say, 'Wait, I’m sitting outside with a glass, why can’t I just keep going?' And [when drinking] we do tend to get a little sillier with our thinking," he added.

It might lead to questions of, “If I can do it in this place, why can’t I do it in that place?”

Public safety

The opinions on whether this eases a burden on police or creates new problems are mixed.

"I think this gives the opportunity for a police officer to focus on the problems," Cape May Councilman Shaine P. Meier said in a Zoom hearing Wednesday. "Not on Mr. and Mrs. Smith, who might be in their 60s enjoying a Crush on the Boardwalk, or a beer on the beach."

Councilwoman Stacy Sheehan was not in favor.

"This is I think going to create a hazard," she said. "Right now when they’re drinking in the bar, they’re being controlled by the bouncers, everything is being controlled by the establishment. Now they’re going to be out in public, and it’s going to be the police that are going to have to establish order when people are getting drunk, obnoxious, and maybe not social distancing like they should be."

Steve Benvenisti, an attorney who represents victims of drunk driving crashes and volunteers with Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the group supports law enforcement which can prevent drunk driving.

"We are against any type of open container sales which would lead to a driver literally drinking and driving simultaneously," Benvenisti said. "The bottom line is wherever alcohol is purchased, it should not be opened or consumed until the purchaser arrives in a safe location," and where they have a guarantee of getting home safely - like through Uber, a cab or a designated driver.

Benvenisti knows of the dangers of driving under the influence firsthand. As a student at The College of New Jersey, a drunk driver hit him, sending him 70 feet and bringing him to death's door.

To sell alcohol in the open container zones, the towns have all required participating bars and restaurants to indemnify the municipalities of liability. Bar and restaurant insurance policies must also be amended to cover the city from damage and liability claims.

Multiple towns have said that they reserve the right to reverse the decisions at any time if things are not safe. And Atlantic City's executive order allowing drinking on the Boardwalk will expire in November or whenever Murphy allows bars and restaurants to open again - whichever date is later.

In the meantime, the desperate situation for some local businesses led to unprecedented changes.

“In normal circumstances I would agree that open consumption is not part of Cape May’s character," Deputy Mayor Patricia Gray Hendricks said in Wednesday's hearing. "But these circumstances are not normal.”

Cape May and Atlantic City are now allowing people to stroll in certain areas with an open alcoholic container. The Jersey Shore towns are hoping to boost business at bars and restaurants hit by the coronavirus pandemic shutdown.
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