News - Have a drink and relax

Sunday liquor laws are as outmoded as the moonshine still

It makes me damn mad -- this so-called world-class "international city" playing ludicrous games with its people, proprietors and visitors. While liquor laws in the Bible Belt have always been complex and loosely interpreted, the recent hardline policing that's putting the pinch on Sunday alcohol pouring in Atlanta bars makes the mundane seem ridiculous.

Atlanta's hellhole finances beg for as much revenue as possible these days. Yet on Super Bowl Sunday, dozens of bars and clubs were closed. On a day when the city could've cashed in on the liquor-by-the-drink tax, nearby Cobb and DeKalb counties were reaping the benefits. (Yes, ultra-conservative Cobb has more liberal booze laws than Atlanta.)

One can trace the Sunday booze crackdown to the upheaval in Buckhead after the Ray Lewis fiasco two years ago. A campaign to curtail bar closing times was waged in part by former Mayor Sam Massell and northside City Council members. Included in the new legislation was a provision putting a midnight limit on Sunday serving hours. What went almost unnoticed was the enforcement of a little-used clause that denies alcohol privileges to any establishment that does less than 50 percent of its annual business in food sales.

At first, Atlanta police ignored enforcement of the law, just as they have since 1978. Bars and clubs continued to pour, and many thought that, despite the keen eye of the Atlanta City Council lifestyle police, Sundays would be business as usual.

They were wrong. Beginning last fall, the city began an unprecedented crackdown.

One can rightly argue that Sabbath-related Blue laws are archaic. From my perspective, you ought to be able to purchase beer from a convenience store on Sunday, or buy a fine wine or bourbon from a liquor store without what amounts to church interference.

The city of Atlanta, with millions of tourists and conventioneers, needs to find a way out of the quagmire in which it now finds itself embroiled. Our city's bartenders and bar owners depend on Sunday sales — and they need to be freed of feeling like criminals for doing their jobs. And city dwellers should be able to visit the neighborhood pub to watch a sporting event or chat with friends. Night owls and hospitality workers who work late hours ought to be able to enjoy a drink on their day off after midnight on Sunday.

As such, Atlanta's legislative package before the General Assembly should include a waiver on the current Sunday pouring laws. To start with, the food sales stipulation must be abolished — and that has to be done at the state level. But under the leadership of Mayor Shirley Franklin and City Council President Cathy Woolard, enforcement of the law's current statutes can and should be waived until new legislation is passed. The mayor and council also should repeal the Sunday midnight closing regulation.

Bar and restaurant owners are not taking this matter lightly, and nor should their patrons. If the city doesn't act quickly, the matter may end up in a costly court battle, ultimately embarrassing the city. Every Sunday that bars and clubs are padlocked, the city loses tax revenue, jobs are in danger, and businesses lose profits. Needless to say, it makes Atlanta seem like Mayberry.

With spring and summer just ahead, the time for our elected officials to act is now. What at first seemed like harmless enforcement of an antiquated law is no joking matter. People's livelihoods are at stake, and the sorry specter of losing convention business to cities like Orlando and New Orleans looms large in the near future.

Tom Houck is a veteran observer of local nightlife. His motto is: "one last taste."??

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