City moves to lift open container restrictions

Gainesville has taken a first step to permanently lift its open container rules by approving on first reading changes to its alcohol ordinance.

The city had temporarily lifted open container enforcement restrictions during the pandemic and found that crime and disorderly conduct didn’t increase substantially.

If approved on a second reading, the alcohol ordinance would be altered to remove restrictions on possessing and consuming alcohol on city property and public right-of-way.

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Restrictions on the sale and distribution of alcohol remain in effect.

The City Commission voted 4-3 to approve the changes on first reading at Monday’s meeting, which was postponed from last week over air quality concerns at City Hall. Commissioners Desmon Duncan-Walker, Gail Johnson and David Arreola voted against lifting the open container restrictions.

Supporters of the change said lifting the ordinance will help people experiencing homelessness in Gainesville.

“Open container laws really punish our homeless neighbors,” Commissioner Reina Saco said. “It punishes people who are poor who don’t have a home where they can have a drink. I think this is a step in the right direction.”

Duncan-Walker said she was concerned about the role alcohol can play in increasing violence in the city.

“In the wake of the increase in gun violence, especially throughout District 1, and understanding how alcohol can exacerbate that problem and that issue… I can’t put my stamp of support on something that statistics show will exacerbate violent behaviors,” Duncan-Walker said.

Opponents of the ordinance change also were concerned about how lifting restrictions might affect the number incidents the police have to respond to.

Assistant Police Chief Lonnie Smith acknowledged that could be an issue.

“With open container, people can stop anywhere and start a party,” he said in response to a commission question. “It gives us more locations to respond to, and we have to deal with that gathering of folks.”

Commissioner Gail Johnson said she was concerned about not only the burdens but the actual costs to the department for increased enforcement.

“The best policy comes forward when we are trying to solve a problem and we haven’t agreed what that problem is,” Johnson said.

The ordinance must go through a second reading before any permanent changes are made.

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