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Thursday, June 20, 2024

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Cape May OKs Public Alcohol Consumption

By Vince Conti

To access the Herald’s local coronavirus/COVID-19 coverage, click here.
CAPE MAY – With the start of Gov. Phil Murphy’s Stage 2 of the Road Back plan just days away, Cape May City Council held a special meeting June 11. The principle issue for the meeting was whether the city would relax its prohibition on open public consumption of alcohol, as an aid to bars and restaurants that would be limited to outdoor dining starting June 15.
In the end, the city approved a resolution that suspended many of its prohibitions against public consumption within time and location constraints. 
As is often the case in Cape May, the vote was not unanimous. The resolution took effect immediately.
Shore businesses are feeling the enormous pain that follows almost three months of lockdown constraints. Across the county, governing bodies are easing local restrictions in an effort to help local business owners survive. 
At the same meeting, Cape May approved outdoor retail options for city businesses, even though there were four days left until capacity limited indoor retail could resume. They did so under the rubric “every little bit helps.”
Liquor consumption on the beach, Promenade, and city sidewalks was not a simple sell. Concerns raised by some that it would irrevocably alter the family ambiance of the city were real and deeply felt. 
Robert Elwell, a former city mayor, expressed grave reservations about the move. “It’s the wrong message to send out,” Elwell said. 
He added his concern that the loss of oversight, normally provided by bartenders and staff, would mean a greater level of intoxication just as the virus, through the forced closing of the county Police Academy, left the city without its normal complement of Class II special officers for the summer.
The board of directors of the Taxpayers Association sent an email in opposition, raising concern for the danger the move posed to the “safe family atmosphere” in the resort and challenging whether the council had the authority, in this case, to alter ordinance imposed regulations without going through the longer ordinance amendment process.
Others shared their concerns, but the largest number of public comments on the issue was in support of the move. Restaurant owners pleaded for “a fighting chance,” as they seek to reopen under capacity and social distancing constraints. One server, living outside the city, sent an email asking council to “help me and my family earn a paycheck.”
Many of the appeals to the governing body were emotional ones, muted somewhat by the fact that they were emails read into the record by the clerk, and therefore lacking the tonal qualities of the author. Yet, the emotion and the desperation many felt still projected from the printed page.
One restaurant staff member spoke of her job as one in which she “helps people have memories of Cape May.” She spoke of her husband, a naval officer, of their travels, and of their love for Cape May above all the places they visited. She urged council members to look at the effort as a way to add to the experience people have in Cape May. “This is not about being intoxicated,” she said.
The council was divided on the issues, which showed in the split vote. A resolution was approved with three affirmative votes, one negative and one abstention.
Mayor Clarence Lear, Deputy Mayor Patricia Hendricks, and Councilman Shaine Meier supported the measure, stressing the temporary nature of the resolution, which is set to expire Nov. 1. They also emphasized the extraordinary circumstances of the present crisis and its impact on local businesses.
Councilwoman Stacy Sheehan voted against the measure, expressing concern about the damage that the move could have on the public perception of the city as a family resort. She argued that the potential for drinking on the beach after lifeguards go off duty poses yet another danger that would be hard to control. Sheehan expressed a desire to keep consumption where it belongs: under the control of the establishment selling the liquor, where bartenders, bouncers, and wait staff have been trained in managing consumption.
Councilman Zack Mullock concurred with Sheehan’s concern for the Cape May brand. “We have worked 100 years to establish our reputation,” Mullock said. Mullock pointed to the fact that his family owned a bar and restaurant in the city, as he opposed, what he termed, “mobilizing” alcohol. “I don’t think it is the right way to go,” he said. He abstained because of his family business.
Mullock cited concerns expressed by the police chief, lifeguards he spoke with, and some city residents. He expressed empathy for the plight of the businesses and argued for public consumption at outdoor dining tables where the control over the alcohol served would rest with the establishment. The model advocated by Mullock is in place in Stone Harbor, which he cited.
In the end, the resolution suspending public consumption rules passed. The prohibition against open containers and public consumption remains in effect, except between the hours of 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., along the sidewalks of defined streets, along business districts with restaurants and bars, and with the further restriction that the drinks must be in “plastic cups or appropriate plastic containers.”
Drinking during the defined periods will be allowed on the beaches, the Promenade, the Washington Street Mall, Rotary Park, and the sidewalks of the following streets (stated as they are in the resolution):

  • Lafayette Street, from Perry to Franklin
  • 400 block of Bank Street
  • 400 block of Elmira Street
  • Perry to Beach (starting at Lafayette)
  • Jackson to Beach (starting at Lafayette)
  • Decatur to Beach (starting at Lafayette)
  • Ocean to Beach (starting at Lafayette)
  • Washington Street (Perry to Jefferson)
  • Carpenter’s Lane (Perry to Ocean)
  • Lyle Lane (Perry to Ocean)
  • Howard, from Columbus to Beach
  • 1300 block of Texas Avenue
  • Beach Avenue, from Patterson to Pittsburgh

The resolution also prohibits “large containers of alcoholic beverages,” such as coolers and kegs, from use where public consumption is allowed.
To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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