By Hunter Hines
Christian Action League
May 6, 2022
Until recently, if someone bought an alcoholic beverage at a restaurant or some other place where on-premises consumption was allowed, the patron would have to drink it inside the establishment. However, a new law allows for what’s called “Social Districts,” where people may stroll outside of an establishment within designated areas of a city or county, drinking while they visit shops, enjoy a concert, or some other activity.
Social Districting was part of legislation that made massive and historic reforms in North Carolina’s alcohol policy and significantly loosened alcohol controls. Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, said the measure, HB 890 – ABC Omnibus Legislation, had more than thirty provisions.
“The legislation circumvented local option alcohol referenda, allowing distilleries to sell bottles of liquor on Sunday, when our ABC stores are required to be closed by law. It provided for the sale of two alcoholic beverages at a time during college sporting events,” said Creech. “Furthermore, it provides for bars on tour buses and boats, doubles the size of growlers, which is a jug people fill and refill for draft beer. And of course, there are now Social Districts, which allow people to freely walk around certain areas with open containers.”
Creech said that HB 890 was the worst alcohol legislation he had seen in his twenty-two years as a registered lobbyist for the Christian Action League.
“When the bill was being considered, I was near death from COVID with a temperature of 105 and other related ailments. I couldn’t work with lawmakers at that time to encourage them to amend out the bill’s bad provisions. As it turned out, the measure was purely industry-driven and did not give sufficient attention to public health and safety questions. Respectfully, very few lawmakers understand the ramifications of the policies they make about alcohol. They only see dollar signs,” he added.
According to various media reports, several communities have already opted-in to have Social Districts, or they are at least considering it. One such community is the town of Oxford in Granville County.
The proposal for a Social District has stirred controversy among the citizens of Oxford.
On his Facebook page, Bryan Cohn, an Oxford City Commissioner, said he believes Social Districts are “a good idea for Oxford.” He describes what a Social District would look like, its times (Wednesday through Sunday 12:00 pm through 9:00 pm), and its primary purpose.
“The primary purpose for creating a Social District in downtown Oxford is purely an economic driver. We want to be able to recruit and develop retail and restaurant options downtown and support our existing local businesses as much as we possibly can,” said Cohn. “A Social District encourages people to come downtown and stay downtown longer than they probably would typically have.”
Cohn’s statement seemingly wishes to calm concerns. He says the proposal is based on positive feedback and input from the community, City staff members, and even has the support of the police chief.
But Joan Roberson, who has been a citizen of Oxford her entire life, has expressed grave concerns about how Social Districting would change the culture of her small city.
In an op-ed published by the Oxford Ledger, titled “Social District – Most of Downtown Oxford to Become an Outdoor Bar,” Roberson expounds on numerous reasons she and other citizens find the proposal disturbing.
Roberson says she doesn’t believe there has been sufficient information or time provided to Oxford’s citizens to effectively deliberate and weigh in on the matter. She says her research and investigation on the subject show that the initiative is turning out to be “a hasty decision with little to no data or any discussion of pros and cons.”
“Good governance will never be accomplished by rushing to vote without examination and consideration for all people,” Roberson wrote. She also admonished that unless people participate in Democracy and are fully informed, “they get whatever those ‘in power’ deem to be the best for them.”
The Christian Action League holds that alcohol is not an ordinary commodity and poses public health and safety risks that should never be overlooked, no matter how much an alcohol proposal alleges to provide an economic boom. Although public opinion has made drinking more acceptable in recent years, alcohol-related harms continue to rise exponentially. This was especially the case during the Pandemic.
For instance, this year, The New York Times pointed out that among adults younger than 65, alcohol-related deaths outnumbered deaths from Covid-19 in 2020 (74,408 from alcohol-related causes; 74,075 from the virus). Plus, the rate of increase for alcohol deaths in 2020 outpaced the rise in deaths from all causes, which was 16.6 percent. Studies also show that alcohol-related deaths during the first year of the Pandemic in North Carolina rose by 18%.
“My experience has demonstrated to me that policy makers are not paying attention as they ought to the rapid and tremendous growth of alcohol problems. They plow ahead giving Big AL and other business people everything they want, but neglect the need for responsible policies that check the industry in the name of public health,” said Creech.
The Christian Action League contends that Social Districts work against many of the important values of a community.
- Alcohol Social Districting is not inclusive of all members of the community. Instead, it is mainly for those who drink. According to statistics from the National Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC), 30% of American adults don’t consume alcohol. Many citizens do not consider drinking a family-oriented activity. This is one of the reasons why on-premises consumption of alcohol is a practice that has previously been required for the inside of a licensed establishment. Many parents don’t want their children exposed to it. People who struggle with an alcohol use disorder will be undermined to stay clean unless they avoid a social district. It’s one thing to avoid going inside a bar, but quite another to evade alcohol’s pervasive presence on the sidewalk and in the street. Many churches may desire to hold an event in the downtown area, either during the time a Social District is in operation or near the Social District or in the location of the Social District, and find their efforts limited, denied, or frustrated. Social Districts create a state of affairs that favors alcohol-related businesses and drinkers at the expense of a substantial number of its citizens who don’t drink and disapprove of drinking. Social Districting is not all-inclusive. Places that were once freely accessible to every citizen without hesitation become practically limited or off-limits for other citizens because of alcohol.
- Alcohol Social Districting will precipitate alcohol-related crimes. Wherever alcohol is permitted for extended periods, there are inevitably adverse alcohol-related incidents. Either to a lesser or greater degree, depending on a community’s ability or commitment to enforce controls, public intoxication, underage drinking, arguments and fights that would not usually happen will occur. Although some businesses see Social Districts as an opportunity to sell more goods because people are drinking and more apt to buy, they should also consider people drinking may also be more prone to steal or shoplift. Additionally, there has been an unprecedented assault on law enforcement in recent years, causing a massive shortage of police officers and sheriff’s deputies in towns and cities across the state and nation. No community is wise to approve a Social District if there is currently a deficit of law enforcement officers. Over time, Social Districts will increase the strain on law enforcement personnel and resources.
- Alcohol Social Districting puts businesses outside the district’s parameters at a competitive disadvantage to those within the district. A Social District’s intent is to increase traffic for businesses, not simply the sale of alcohol. But a Social District generates an unfair business disparity where some businesses will fare better than others because they are inside the district, and customer traffic is being drawn to them. Some businesses outside the district might have customers to spill over their way, but this would likely be countered by potential customers being drawn away to the Social District. This is an unfair business practice sanctioned by a city or county’s commissioners.
- Before legislation passed for the Brunch Bill in 2017 and HB 890 last year, every question concerning alcohol sales in the state was left to voters at the ballot box. Local option alcohol referenda decided every question about alcohol sales. Whether a community would have an ABC store, whether beer and wine sales would be allowed, or whether mixed beverages would be permitted, each question was to be determined by the people at an election because of its potential for changing the face of the community. Social Districting puts a monumental community decision, one with moral overtones and profound community-altering ramifications, into the hands of a few at the expense of the electorate, where it should be decided. It might also be legitimately argued that the lawmakers in the General Assembly who crafted the legislation, circumventing the local option process, did so at the behest of high-powered lobbyists for the breweries and distilleries across the state. It was purposely meant to suppress public judgment. It’s always much easier to gain the votes of a few councilmen than a majority in the community.
- Alcohol Social Districts will be progressive as most alcohol policies always increase in scope. Business interests usually present such proposals as something limited and restricted, but it never works out this way. Eventually, there is an effort by commerce to expand the perceived privilege and its opportunity for prosperity, no matter if the evidence shows that it results in high social costs. HB 890 clearly stated that the County Commissioners may also approve Alcohol Social Districts. Once a Social District is authorized, they have the potential to be approved in other locations. More alcohol locations ultimately result in more alcohol related harms. Access to alcohol is always progressive.
The Oxford Commissioners will meet again on Tuesday, May 10 at 7:00 pm, on the third floor of the Oxford City Hall. Commissioners are expected to vote on whether to have Social Districts.
“You can be certain that business interests will have their folks there to speak in favor of the proposed policy,” said Rev. Creech. “Citizens who oppose it should also make their voices heard and fill the room.”