The following op-ed was co-authored by R Street Governance Policy Fellow C. Jarrett Dieterle.
Every September, thousands make their way to the District’s H Street neighborhood for the H Street Festival. The outdoor event features 10 blocks of live music, exhibits, karaoke stages, kids zones, mobile portrait studios and a fashion stage. But for an event that seemingly has everything under the sun, visitors are still forced to drink in the shade.
Aside from a “liquor garden” or beer garden, most of the alcohol consumption that takes place at the H Street Festival is required to occur inside nearby bars and apart from the rest of the festival’s activities. Most other city festivals around the country operate similarly, keeping drinking to dark interiors and away from the sunshine. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Several cities have recently relaxed their public drinking laws, and it’s time more consider following suit.
Today, public drinking is prohibited in 89 of the top 100 most populated cities in America, according to an analysis by the Huffington Post. Since most Americans only associate (legal) public drinking with such anything-goes environments as Bourbon Street in New Orleans or the Strip in Las Vegas, they assume that such cities must have passed special laws to authorize outdoor drinking when in fact, the opposite is true: until the 1970s, almost no government in the country prohibited the public consumption of alcohol.
Public drinking laws were proposed as a substitute for constitutionally questionable anti-drunkard status laws that towns had relied upon until then. When jailing someone for the crime of being an alcoholic started being seen as in poor taste and possibly illegal, cities such as Chicago and New York decided to outlaw any consumption of alcohol in a public space, treating every citizen as a potential riotous drunk.
The laws quickly spread from there. By the 1990s, the majority of American cities had enacted public-drinking bans, and the trend has even started to catch on abroad. These laws also became a key component of the “Broken Windows” theory of policing, which prioritizes cracking down on minor offenses as a way to disincentivize more dangerous criminality.
But signs are emerging that the pendulum may be swinging back toward more lenient outdoor drinking. In recent years, numerous cities have eased up on their public drinking restrictions, and now towns as distinct as Fort Worth, Texas, and Erie, Pennsylvania — and many in between — allow some form of public imbibing.
Formerly sleepy suburbs and towns are trying to develop their own downtown core, to become a place and not just a collection of bedrooms. They have recruited restaurants and shops, overhauled their zoning and repaved their streets. City leaders have realized that keeping every guest of these new establishments locked up inside the bar where they bought their beer will keep the newly built town squares unnaturally empty.
Seeking to to breathe life into these new, dynamic districts, towns such as Duluth, Georgia, have opened up their outdoors. Relaxing drinking laws can create buzz and energy, since it helps attract both new businesses and residents and allows vendors to share customers and atmosphere in a positive-sum game, rather than a cut-throat competition to lock people up indoors.
Relaxing open-container zones can have other benefits, as well. It can dissuade those partaking in street festivals or bar crawls from chugging their drinks before heading to another bar. Also, if cities contain drinking to a specific zone or district, people may be less tempted to drive from bar to bar after having a few drinks. Ride-hailing services could even work with cities to target their services to particular public areas to further encourage safe transportation.
There are of course legitimate concerns when it comes to encouraging public drinking, and cities would be justified in carefully monitoring and regulating it. For example, Butte, Montana, which traditionally has allowed public drinking, tweaked its laws to restrict public drinking between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m. Other cities have required public drinks to be purchased from certain bars in an entertainment district, rather than allowing individuals to bring their own booze. There will naturally be some increase in litter to be managed, and some citizens might abuse the privilege. Regardless, if done properly, many cities will likely find that the benefits of liberalizing public drinking laws outweigh the costs.
Far from being a radical idea, more cities should consider easing their public drinking restrictions. It’s time to let more Americans enjoy some sunshine while drinking a beer.