Bigger Savannah St Patrick’s Day festival zone and mandatory wristbands inviting trouble

From the Savannah Morning News’ Savannah council OKs bigger St. Patricks festival zone:

The city has authorized creating a festival zone from River Street south to Broughton between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and East Broad Street. Adults who pay $5 for a wristband can drink outside from to-go cups.

Among the decisions:
• Restaurant and bar customers will not need wristbands to drink inside an establishment.
• Smokers will be allowed to stand outside without needing a wristband.
• It will be up to patrons, not bartenders or wait staff, to get a wristband to drink on the street.
• Festival-goers will need a new wristband for each day.

The city will get $1 from each wristband sold. The remaining $4 will be divided by the DBA, the waterfront association and the City Market Association. Those three groups will use any profits to organize future festivals.

This is going to be an enforcement nightmare and is going to discourage locals from going downtown on March 15 (from 8 a.m. to 3 a.m.) or 16 (5 p.m. to 3 a.m.) — the official festival days.

Let me make a few rather obvious points:

As noted in a much more thorough piece in yesterday’s paper — Get ready: Savannah’s St. Patrick’s party zone will extend to Broughton — some of the business owners most affected by this policy, like owners of The Rail and Vinnie’s, were not consulted about the plan. (I’ll be curious to hear if any residents of the area were consulted.) As they observe, locals can drink from to-to cups in the northern portion of downtown year-round. Charging $5 for something we can do every other day of the year will discourage local customers and generally leave a really bad taste in many mouths.

While the rules remove the onus of enforcement from the business owners, consider the various scenarios that will arise:

  • Someone with a drink will want to stand outside with a smoker with a drink. There will be clusters of a dozen or more people in front of nearly every bar, like there always are. Are all those people going to be hassled about wristbands? And by whom? Do we really want the police accosting a crowd of otherwise calm drinkers to order them to go somewhere else to buy a wristband?
  • Someone will walk into the zone with a drink and be told by someone that he’s not allowed to drink without a wristband. Does that drinker a) claim to be on his way to a table to buy one and continue on? b) swear that he doesn’t have alcohol in the cup? c) quickly down — or just pour out — the remnants of the drink? d) argue with law enforcement about how he didn’t have to spend $5 to drink downtown last year, or even last week?
  • None of this will be enforced during the parade itself. With the large crowds and the fact that so many parade-goers bring their own booze, enforcement would be pretty much impossible. But before the parade is even over, thousands of people will already be in the festival zone, and many will still be there at 5 p.m. when enforcement is scheduled to begin. At what magical moment will enforcement actually begin? With responsibility for enforcement out of the hands of bar owners, how will those early partiers even find out they need wristbands? From their first negative encounter with a scolding police officer?

Last year, I thought the Savannah metro police did a great job with a kind of hands-off presence downtown. They seemed content to let crowds gather and let the drinkers drink until problems arose. This year, we’re asking police to play hall monitor.

Sure, maybe we need more revenue to support the full costs of the festival. This is not the way to do it.

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