A proposal under consideration in the Ohio Legislature will allow bars to keep serving alcohol on weekends until 4 a.m., eliminate Sunday restrictions on alcohol sales and ease restrictions on designated outdoor refreshment areas.
The bill is designed to give an economic boost to businesses suffering from the recent COVID-19 shutdown, said State Rep. Brett Hudson Hillyer, R-Uhrichsville, sponsor of the measure. But it also means that bars in college towns such as Oxford likely will remain crowded with student drinkers until the pre-dawn hours.
“We’re very concerned about the impact on student drinking and how it will affect our public safety, including both police and fire EMS,” said Oxford City Manager Doug Elliott.
Lt. Lara Fening, of the Oxford police, said she has concerns about stretching the workload of third shift officers, but said she remains hopeful about the bill. “I’m pretty open-minded and am thinking ‘bigger picture,’ that if it benefits businesses, then let’s see how we can all work together to make it work,” she said. “It might be more work for us, but let’s see how we can manage it.”
Hillyer called the bill “the logical next best step in moving us forward,” after the economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 business shutdown. He said the measure, House Bill 674, grew out of recommendations of the Ohio 2020 task force for economic recovery.
“Through the Ohio 2020 task force, it was clear that people might not be interested in cramming themselves in a small bar but maybe eating outside or getting something to do, so we began working on DORAs and started looking at some of Ohio’s archaic laws,” Hillyer said. Designated outdoor refreshment areas (DORAs), are specified sections of local communities patrons can buy alcoholic drinks from licensed vendors and then consume them while walking around the area.
Oxford had been considering creating a DORA in the Uptown area and passed the measure at its June 16 meeting. The Oxford DORA will allow patrons to stroll with drinks in specially purchased cups during the summer months. The Oxford DORA is expected to go into effect around July 7 and will end before students return to campus. HB 674 would require only two licensed liquor permit holders in the DORA, rather than the four now required. It would eliminate acreage limitations on DORAs and eliminates the number of DORAs a community can create based on population.
Jessica Greene, Oxford’s assistant city manager, said the proposed law could create problems with problem drinking, but she said she is confident those problems can be dealt with. “Although this could lead to big changes for our night-time crowd, I believe we are an adaptable town,” said Greene.
Mark Johnson, general manager of Skippers Pub & Top Deck, 121 E. High St., said he was not sure the proposed law would have much effect on his clientele. “I think the bill will be great for bigger cities in terms of sales, but I’m unsure of how well it will do in Oxford,” Johnson said. “The drinking culture here has largely shifted to day-drinking, so who knows how this bill could affect Oxford,” he said.
Miami University Professor Rose Marie Ward had concerns surrounding what she sees as the unintended implications of the bill. Ward studies student alcohol consumption at Miami and described the effects alcohol has on the immune system and its correlation to COVID-19. “Alcohol suppresses your immune system and in return could make you more susceptible to contracting COVID-19,” Ward said. “This is not the best time to use alcohol to boost our economy.”
Ward also worries the bill might have unintended consequences to the academic performances of Miami students. “Given that Ohio has a reputation and some of our state institutions have reputations for heavy drinking, it’s more problematic than it looks on the surface,” Ward said.
HB 674 will not allow any legislative leeway within towns for liquor laws, as the Ohio General Assembly is the sole and exclusive authority to regulate the sale and distribution of beer and liquor, according to the Ohio Legislative Service Commission.
The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. John Becker, R-Clermont County, was introduced May 26 and passed in the House June 11 in a 76-11 vote. It is now awaiting action by the Ohio Senate, but Hillyer said he is confident it has support there.