ST. PETERSBURG — Attention, late-night revelers: This month the City Council will discuss the implications of allowing drinking establishments to sell alcohol for an extra hour, until 3 a.m.
In a time when restaurants are taking it in the gut, some bar and restaurant owners from Gandy Boulevard to downtown are peppering council members to level their playing field. Right now they must close at 2 a.m. In Tampa, bars are allowed to serve alcohol an hour longer.
The discussion takes place Feb. 25.
Council member Jim Kennedy, who put the item on the agenda, said the change "would establish that our objective is to have a vibrant downtown" and other business districts.
But Kennedy concedes that a change to the blue laws may also call for more police presence on roads to combat drunken driving, and on streets to control rowdiness and noise. He said the council will be looking for studies examining the pros and cons.
Mayor Bill Foster declined to comment on the topic before the council discussion. Police Chief Chuck Harmon, who will have a representative at the discussion, also declined to comment.
The rules now: In the city and Pinellas County, restaurants and bars cannot sell alcohol from 2 to 8 a.m. weekdays, and to 11 a.m. Sundays. The city also regulates the hours that packaged alcohol can be sold. In the city and county, that ban extends from 12:01 a.m. to 8 a.m. weekdays, and until 11 a.m. Sundays.
Tampa allows drinking in bars from 7 a.m. to 3 a.m. Monday through Saturday. On Sunday, the drinking does not begin until 11 a.m.
The discussion is not entirely new. Back in 2006, then-Mayor Rick Baker threatened to veto a proposal extending the packaged liquor rule from midnight to 2 a.m. after it was approved by the City Council. The code revision failed to reach a public hearing.
As a council member at the time, Foster voted with Baker, who said he did not want to encourage early morning booze runs.
Back then, the issue was brought before the council by Dave Mamber, owner of Dave's Aqua Lounge, at 10820 Gandy Blvd. N, which has a liquor store. In 2003, Mamber was forced to stop selling bottled alcohol at midnight after his business was incorporated into the city. Mamber is still pushing for the change.
This time, the support for extended hours includes several downtown business owners, among them Jeff Knight, who is rebuilding Jannus Landing and has invested in several bars and restaurants and a liquor store there.
Knight said the change would be good for safety as well as business.
"You have so many people who drive across going to Hillsborough County at night that it literally creates an unsafe situation," he said. "People would be much better off staying home."
At Hiro's Tokyo Steakhouse and Sushi Bar, 5420 Fourth St. N, the doors stay open until 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, but the staff can't serve sake with your sushi if you visit past 2 a.m.
Manager Nga Lai, 25, said when she wants to party, she goes to Tampa, where bars stay open until 3 a.m. "We would definitely love it" if we could keep serving liquor, said Lai. "We're doing pretty good, but it could be better."
But some say reducing the hours that drinkers imbibe at bars is a better way to increase safety.
"I would almost prefer that our county (Hillsborough) go in the other direction and close at 2 a.m. so that we're all on the same page," said Ellen Snelling, co-chairperson of the Tampa Alcohol Coalition, a nonprofit group that works to reduce drunken and underage driving. "I would hate to see everybody go in the 3 a.m. direction."
Snelling said that regional statistics show DUI arrests are highest between 6 and 10 p.m. and midnight and 4 a.m. They also increase as the week ends, with the highest numbers Thursday through Saturday.
City Council member Leslie Curran, who represents part of downtown, said residential areas that don't have bars might frown at convenience stores selling alcohol an extra hour.
"There are some neighborhood bars where 2 a.m. is late enough," she said.
Echoing her, City Council member Karl Nurse said he wants to explore the idea of creating districts where a later closing time is allowed. One might be along Central Avenue in downtown, he said.
One downtown civic group is wary. Emil Pavone, president of the Downtown Residents Civic Association, which represents 499 condo owners, said extending the closing time to 3 a.m. sounded problematic.
"I doubt that our members would be enthusiastic about that," said Pavone. "I don't see how it contributes to anyone except a few tavern owners."
Luis Perez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2271.