Future of Gainesville’s open container ordinance

by Danny Hughes, Loosey’s Downtown

I remember the first time I said it out loud at a special planning meeting with the city. 

It was late April 2020, when COVID-19 was in full swing. Businesses, especially in the restaurant industry, were STRUGGLING. And my restaurant, Loosey’s, was certainly no exception. The day after Florida officially hit the panic button regarding COVID-19 I laid off all but four of my staff of 22. 

This was bad. We hoped that “two weeks to stop the curve” was true, but after a few weeks it became obvious that there was not relief in the form of reopening inside coming anytime soon and we had to make a change. Adapt or die.

“We should repeal Open Container and let the restaurants operate outside.” The rest of the restaurant folks in the room agreed, the two people from UF agreed and most of the staff from the city agreed. I saw a lot of restaurants on social media moving into their adjacent street spaces and people safely congregating and dining outside. 

I knew that dissent was likely, there was no question about that. There’s never a shortage of people that for reasons of their own, will reject the idea that alcohol can be consumed outside the confines of a bar or restaurant walls, but on the contrary, the geographical location of one’s drink should not affect its potency, right? With the rise in breweries and ‘brewery culture’ over the last few years, we have seen proof of concept—where consuming craft beer is something we can do as a family activity. They have kid spaces and pet spaces, food trucks and events, festivals, outdoor music and more—so why not us? 

Right around this time a nearby bar started selling daiquiris to go. It was *technically* against the law, but we all were doing what we could to get through the lockdowns, and so they went for it. 

A few weeks later the government’s Alcoholic Beverage and Tobacco regulators shut down the neighbor’s daiquiri operation only to be told the very next day that to-go drinks would be legal during the COVID pandemic. 

And just like that, we were all back in business. 

Everyone and I mean EVERYONE started selling “just add ice” cocktails to-go, package liquor backstock of hard-to-find brands like Blanton’s were going for oodles of money above retail and six-packs of beer were moving off our shelves nearly as fast as some Quick Stops. Did we just become a liquor store that serves burgers? The ever resilient, hard-nosed, sharp-knuckled restaurant lifers were figuring out a new way to keep ourselves going. Again.  

To-Go Service became the new model while we were working to move forward on repealing the Open Container Ordinance. There was a surge in business, but it wouldn’t be sustainable in the long term. Our laid-off staff was running out of unemployment, our PPP money was dwindling, and we were getting tired. 

I would spend nights at work alone or with one other person prepping large format meal service for first responders, the jail, and even a bunch of truck drivers a time or two. The co-owners at Loosey’s would work open-to-close-doubles for tips to shave down labor numbers. We were open for two services a day, but it just wasn’t enough. Repealing the Open Container Ordinance and filling outdoor spaces had to be next.  

It took a few more months to get there, but in September 2020, with the help of UF, city planners, GPD, and the city commission, I stood in the middle of University Avenue and Main Street, in full view of two GPD officers and upended a 3oz shot of tequila at 12:01am. I was legitimately proud of the work that we had done and the folks that had a hand in making this happen. 

We were able to talk down the naysayers and make the best of our new reality. A long existing Blue Law, lingering from another time, was finally a thing of the past. 

It’s important to remember that it wasn’t that long ago, 2012 in fact, that we couldn’t sell package drinks at all, and bars couldn’t serve until 1pm on Sundays. Blue Laws are, without question, religion-based legislation that is meant to limit or ban certain activities on any day including religious (Christian) holidays and Sundays. With your tongue firmly implanted in your cheek, you may be able to call a Blue Law “imperialistic,” but that might be a stretch, so let’s call it, for this purpose, legislated morality.  

Open container ordinances are Blue Laws. You can turn it any which way you like, but it is morality legislation and that is not how this is supposed to work.  

There is no shortage of municipalities of all sizes that allow consumption of alcoholic beverages in public spaces with little incident, but somehow public consumption of alcohol frequently becomes a scapegoat. I have heard countless times, “But we don’t want to become New Orleans!” First of all, if only. But seriously, we are realistically decades away from even coming close to a Frenchman Street-like atmosphere, much less the world-famous Bourbon Street.  

Over the past three years since Open Container was repealed, we have grown into this outside space, and as a culture and a city we have become very accustomed to that freedom. Last year’s Art Festival is a fantastic example of the embrace our community has for what we’ve accomplished. The How Bazaar has been hosting bi-monthly night markets that can only be described as a micro-incubator for small businesses, local makers, and programmers. 

The Bull has all but converted their entire operation into a mid-sized outdoor concert venue that is almost always free and the new restaurants on 1st Avenue, like the forthcoming Capone’s, are excited to participate in the programming and embrace the outdoor space in their adjacent street. And did you see Loosey’s during Fest last year?

Now we face a new challenge. You have probably seen reports of a few unfortunate incidents of late-night gun violence downtown. In response, GPD is putting pressure on the city commission to revert to the pre-COVID Open Container Ordinance as the solution to curb that violence. There is no guarantee that will work, but I can guarantee you that it will cost jobs and negatively affect some of the businesses along 1st Avenue and possibly beyond. 

There must be a more equitable answer that gives GPD the tools they need to control the crowds and gives the citizens of our community the latitude that they have been provided for the last few years. Rolling back these policies now will hurt the businesses, the community, and the vision of future Gainesville and Downtown.

Please take the time to email your commissioners and/or be present at the meeting on September 14. We need community voices to speak up and help keep us on the street. Ask your commissioners to rewrite the open container ordinance in conjunction with local businesses to maximize its usefulness in each section of Gainesville and mitigate potential violence at pop-up parties. 

With the help of our community and its local businesses we can, as one unit, bring on an entirely new and highly prescriptive ordinance that will embrace what we have built and limit the negative side effects. Ask the commissioners to represent their districts and vote accordingly.  

I’m confident that there is a solution for everyone.

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