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City commission votes 4-3 to repeal open container ordinance

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

The Gainesville City Commission voted 4-3 on July 19 to pass the first reading of an ordinance that would repeal the City’s prohibition on open containers of alcohol on the public right-of-way and City-owned property. 

A presentation from Gainesville Police Department (GPD) that was included in the backup recommended adopting a revised noise ordinance for vehicles on Gainesville roadways that is consistent with the current City noise ordinance; GPD also recommended adopting a “Hookah Lounge ordinance to determine the use of their facilities which is consistent and fair: Several are operating as after-hours nightclubs causing crowd issues.” The third recommendation was to pass an ordinance to fine businesses that are responsible for repeated calls for service “to deal with any sort of situation to include large crowds gathering on unattended property.”

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos immediately moved to adopt the new open container ordinance (which would repeal the existing open container ordinance) on first reading and direct the City Manager to work on the three recommendations from GPD. Commissioner Reina Saco seconded the motion.

Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker said she couldn’t support the open container ordinance “in the wake of the increase in gun violence, particularly throughout District 1 and other parts of this community, and understanding how alcohol can exacerbate that problem and that issue. I just got some news that there was another shooting in my district just a few moments ago. Last night… six people with one fatality, just blocks away from where I live. I have to grapple with the reality that it’s not so much about responsibility… as the difference in the way that alcohol consumption affects different people.” She said the ordinance “wouldn’t contribute to anything that is good in certain communities, and I hope we consider that its impact is different in different places.”

Commissioner Gail Johnson asked for more information on the hookah lounge ordinance, and Assistant Chief Lonnie Scott said it’s “a workaround for nighttime activities” because hookah lounges aren’t governed by the restrictions that are placed on alcohol establishments. So the bars close at 2:00 a.m., but the hookah lounges can stay open. People move from the bars to the hookah lounges “and become problematic as far as crowd management… They’re not supposed to operate as dance halls.” He said the lounges don’t serve alcohol, but people may bring their own. Scott mentioned a 2018 shooting after a rap concert held at a hookah lounge. 

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Johnson asked, “Who is attending the hookah events? Is it mostly black people?”

Scott replied, “Mostly, but not exclusively… They don’t serve alcohol legally, so… we’ve had folks out there 15, 16 years old… It’s not just the folks inside the establishment. It’s those folks who are outside, and that’s where the weapons are. That’s where some of the activity and the conflicts are. That’s where you have the drive-by situations that escalate.” Scott continued to explain that a hookah lounge ordinance could “get them to close down at a proper time” because when several thousand people are out, that puts a strain on GPD’s resources and ability to respond to incidents in other parts of the city. 

Johnson continued to ask what the ordinance would do, specifically whether it targets black people: “I’m going to say something unpopular right now. I’m going to say it. What it feels like to me is that we are policing communities of color differently than we would other communities because these same problems, from some of the conversations I’ve had, happen at other places, too. But we don’t discuss that, we don’t hear about it. It’s not covered in the news. So I don’t want us to set up a situation where we are doing something differently for different people.”

Scott replied that GPD focuses on the behavior and trying to create a safe environment “so people can do their thing.” He said there are also ongoing problems in pool halls – “that wasn’t a place, quite frankly, that you had a lot of minority folks” – but “it’s really the behavior.”

Saco said she doesn’t think alcohol causes gun violence: “I think the issue we have is a gun control and gun safety issue, not so much an alcohol issue. I’m going to assume everybody in this room is capable of having a drink and not going to shoot people thereafter.” She said she learned as a legal intern that open container laws “really punish our homeless neighbors… I think this is a step in the right direction to get rid of that, frankly, very negative war on poverty, where it’s not legal to exist as a homeless individual.” She said, however, that she was “really excited” about the business accountability portion of GPD’s recommendations. 

Commissioner David Arreola said that Duncan-Walker’s statement had changed his mind on the open container ordinance: “I can’t vote for this tonight.”

In response to Saco, Duncan-Walker said it’s not just her opinion that alcohol and violence are related: “It’s statistics… That’s not Desmon guessing, that’s what the stats say. That’s not conjecture. That’s what the stats say.” Saco responded that she meant that access to a gun is not dependent on alcohol: “If folks want to go and get a gun, access to alcohol is not going to impact the evil to go get a gun. That intent is already there.”

Mayor Lauren Poe said he supported the ordinance because “it’s clear that people that use alcohol are more likely to be violent,” but it matters whether they use it in public or private. “Women who are victims of sexual violence, it is much more dangerous for them to be in an environment that is private and enclosed than in public. When we talk about violence against other people, when it’s close up, bars are dangerous places to be. Many, many sexual assaults happen because of circumstances that happen in a private closed chaotic environment versus a public space where people can be away from other folks that could bring them harm. And this will always for me go back to the foundational point that these laws were instituted as a means to harass poor people. And they have been used almost exclusively throughout history to do just that… So I view these laws as discriminatory. I think they do much more harm than good.”

A request to collect data on how many homeless people have been cited in violation of the existing ordinance was added to the motion. 

During public comment, seven people spoke against the repeal of the ordinance; none spoke in favor of it. 

The commission voted 4-3 to pass the ordinance on first reading, with Duncan-Walker, Johnson, and Arreola in dissent. They voted 5-2 to ask staff to come back with research and a draft ordinance based on the suggestions from GPD, with Duncan-Walker and Johnson in dissent. 

  • Anyone recall the movie “Little Big Man?”

    Not only does the city of Gainesville have a problem with gun violence but now city leadership is going to allow the consumption of firewater on the streets.

    Leave it to Gainesville commissioners to make things worse by throwing fuel on the fire.

  • It’s another way to make the city look trashy. Let’s encourage all the vagrants to really embrace and explore their alcoholism and hope they won’t leave even more trash everywhere. Whoops! – One vagrant got too drunk and fell off the median and out into traffic. Who will be “carding” people and enforcing the normal restrictions you have in a controlled environment like a bar? Will there be roving bouncers in case there is a violent incident that needs to be broken up? Saco sounds like she has no clue whatsoever about alcoholism and addiction. Poe is too obtuse to realize that skid row alcoholics are generally poor – almost by definition – and that accounts for these laws “harassing the poor.” He harasses the poor every time he raises electric rates and property taxes. So Poe is projecting, as the deranged left often do.

    • Lots of people can’t handle their booze. This is a college town. People need to go home after the bars close.
      Guns and alcohol don’t mix. I don’t care what color
      Your skin is…you’re very smart Peabody!

  • How many more dumb ideas will they come up with? I can understand during Gator game days and major holidays — but every single day too?? Just to appease and attract even MORE non-local homeless?

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