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D.C.’s Mayor Wants to Okay Drinking in Public — With a Bunch of Caveats

A new bill would allow people to walk and drink within specially licensed commercial centers

CityCenter DC struggles in the pandemic
Areas like the CityCenterDC development downtown could become public drinking centers, according to a new bill proposed by the mayor
Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

D.C. this week took steps toward relaxing open-container laws in designated commercial districts — as long as the areas obtain special licenses and install a set of rules that prohibits people from bringing in their own drinks.

Proposed legislation included in a “Reopen Washington, D.C., Alcohol Act” that Mayor Muriel Bowser announced Tuesday, January 25, would allow visitors to walk and drink within designated mixed-use or commercial areas that obtain a “commercial lifestyle center license.” Districts that acquire the permit would allow tenant businesses to sell drinks that can be consumed on “plazas, seating areas, ... concourses, walkways, and other such thoroughfares.” The type of developments that would be eligible include the Wharf, the Georgetown Waterfront, CityCenterDC, and the Entertainment and Sports Arena complex in Southeast.

The proposed Alcohol Act aims to boost to-go booze sales for bars, restaurants, hotels, and other businesses that have struggled through the novel coronavirus pandemic. D.C. lifted a monthlong ban on indoor dining last week with capacity capped at 25 percent.

D.C. would still be far cry from Bourbon Street or a Vegas-type atmosphere. The proposed cutoff for alcohol consumption in commercial lifestyle centers is 11 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on weekends. Alcohol vendors would have to sell drinks in plastic or other non-glass cups that are clearly marked with their logos so it’s obvious they’re allowed inside.

Such specially zoned alcohol areas already exist in Northern Virginia shopping centers and restaurant hubs. Visitors can wander around freely with to-go booze in tow in Arlington’s Village of Shirlington (Taco and Pina, Guapo’s, Busboys & Poets); Pentagon Row (Thaiphoon, Zen Bistro & Wine Bar, Napoli Salumeria); Fairfax Corner; Loudoun Station; and the Village at Leesburg.

D.C.’s 47-page bill aims to prop up new and existing businesses during the pandemic via proposing regulatory changes to D.C.’s alcohol and zoning provisions. One provision encourages more full-service grocery stores to open in Wards 7 and 8 — two notoriously underserved jurisdictions — with beer, wine, and spirits making up to a quarter of store sales. In addition, existing outdoor dining setups on streets and sidewalks can continue to operate through 2021 for free. And for a one-time registration fee of $100, they can reapply for 2022 and 2023 to operate during the months of May through October.

Washington City Paper reports that the mayor’s act is a piece of permanent legislation, not a short-term emergency measure, so the DC Council will consider it and hold two votes that provide time for community feedback.

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