The Gainesville City Commission continued wrestling with the city’s open container ordinance on Thursday, passing an almost identical two-part motion to a motion passed by the previous commission on May 5, 2022. The motions from 2022 were never finalized, and the current City Commission will need a first and second reading in September to finalize their motions this time around.
City staff on Thursday brought forward an ordinance that further restricts times when residents may possess open containers of alcohol on city property, including sidewalks and other public rights of way. The ordinance, created by general government and police department staff, aimed to break a commission stalemate from March while helping law enforcement deal with late-night crowds and crime.
Currently, city law allows open containers from 7 a.m. until 2:30 a.m., only restricting possession for four and a half hours in the morning.
The recommendation would have further restricted open containers. It only allowed possession from 8 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. on Monday through Saturday. On Sunday, open container possession would be allowed from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Instead, the commission voted 4-3 to direct the city attorney to return on Sept. 14 with an ordinance that would completely reinstate Gainesville’s pre-pandemic ban on open containers of alcohol, prohibiting open containers 24/7.
A second part of the motion, critical to its passage, directs city staff to return at that Sept. 14 meeting with an ordinance that will create entertainment districts, areas like Celebration Pointe where businesses patrons can drink alcohol on the sidewalks or public property.
Mayor Harvey Ward said the motion will give the City Commission nearly a month to contemplate the issue, reach out to those involved, and hear from citizens. Still, Ward said he was torn on the vote.
“I’m not feeling good about supporting a full repeal at all,” Ward said. “But we have a problem on our hands, and I am told that this will help fix that problem.”
On May 5, 2022, then-Commissioner Harvey Ward made a motion, seconded by Commissioner Reina Saco that read as follows: “Direct the City Attorney and the City Manager to bring back an ordinance reinstating open container, specifically in the city parking garages. Bring back a process that will allow permitting of businesses for an allowed “open container” in locations around the city.”
Ward said at the time that the reinstatement of the open container ordinance would be an issue for the new commission to discuss when it was seated in January.
Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut proposed the first part of the motion on Thursday and pushed Ward, who she called the swing vote, to join her and commissioners Desmon Duncan-Walker and Ed Book in support.
Chestnut started the open container discussions by bringing gun violence into the mix. She said the city must take bold action to control gun violence, referencing the city’s Aug. 8 and 9 summit on the issue.
“The rest of our citizens are not being protected because we’re all downtown trying to manage alcohol,” Chestnut said. “I urge you, I beseech you, Mr. Mayor, to join us in repealing this and going back to the original ordinance.”
Commissioner discussions brought up national and Gainesville Police Department (GPD) data, with different sources and fallacies referenced. GPD served as the center of much of the talk. The discussion considered economic impacts to downtown businesses, strain on GPD resources and gun violence.
GPD Chief Lonnie Scott told the commission on May 5, 2022, that the department continued having issues dealing with late-night, weekend parties that moved around Gainesville. That month, City Manager Cynthia Curry changed the city’s policy on parking garages, only allowing patrons inside at night.
GPD showed body cam footage of what those parking garage events look like, and the City Commission made the motions listed above to address the issue, but city law remains the same now as then. Scott said on Thursday that the issue has seemed to improve in the past four months and said the department was working to verify that assessment.
Scott said the open container ordinance allows GPD to break up smaller gatherings earlier in the night, preventing larger events that require more manpower.
The City Commission repealed the open container ordinance in 2020 to provide flexibility for downtown businesses and create a streetery concept. Scott said Gainesville began pulling in citizens from around the region because of the repeal, which became permanent in 2021 through another commission vote.
“We want to be a regional draw for many things, but one of them is not because I can drink there and I can’t drink in my own community,” Book said. “That makes no sense at all.”
Saco was a driving force to bring back the open container ordinance in 2022 to assist GPD. At the time, she said that she would only want to ban open containers across the city if the commission allowed open containers for businesses through a permitting/ entertainment district process.
On Thursday, she reiterated that position, saying she doesn’t support a full reinstatement.
Commissioner Bryan Eastman also questioned Ward on voting to reinstate the whole open container ordinance and prohibiting the consumption of alcohol on the sidewalk in front of their home. He asked if the commission couldn’t compromise by allowing open containers until only 8 p.m. or 6 p.m. instead of the current 11 p.m. limit.
Any final decisions will come after Sept. 14, when only a first reading will be brought forward.
However, City Attorney Daniel Nee raised concerns about the ability of his office to bring back an entertainment district ordinance without a template for what that district looks like.
Brief past discussions on the issue led to concerns of equity, including at the May 2022 meeting. But, city staff under the manager hasn’t given a formal presentation on districts and options for the city. Curry said staff had other priorities this year, likely referencing the city’s budget constraints and a bill that removes control of Gainesville Regional Utilities from the City Commission.
“We can bring something back and I will try to make sure it is a quality document that has had the proper research and wraparound,” Curry said. “Whether it will be as thorough as it needs to be—probably not.”
In December 2022, the city of Newberry denied 3-2 a proposal to allow limited open containers during special events.