City Enacts New Liquor Laws To Combat Underage Drinking

Category: Hospitality & Tourism

SBJ Staff

11/23/2009 - Savannah is known for establishments where wine and liquor flow freely, but the city has decided to put the clamps on the managers and door workers letting underage partiers through their club doors.

Reacting to underage drinking arrests and nuisance incidents, the Savannah City Council Thursday launched a crackdown after a series of public hearings on the topic for months.

They did it through an ordinance mandating criminal background checks, alcohol server training, registration and permitting for workers at bars, lounges, nightclubs or hybrid/restaurants who handle, mix or dispense alcoholic beverages. In addition to bartenders and servers, managers and doormen fall under the requirement.

Aldermen left full-service restaurants out of the mandate – for now.  They included the hybrid/restaurant category as a way of including in the mandate establishments that serve as both liquor lounges and restaurants.

Full-service restaurants found guilty of a violation of city or state alcoholic beverage laws will be put under the training and registration requirements.

Businesses will be responsible for hiring and providing the server training for their new and current employees.

The employees will have to register with the city’s Revenue Department. Both the permit and registration will require a fee payment and must be renewed every two years, the ordinance says.

The worker must undergo a background check before registering, according to the ordinance. “Someone convicted of a violent crime in the last three years or an alcoholic beverage violation attributable to their work” will be ineligible for registration, City Manager Michael Brown said.

The background check by the city will cost $25, Brown said. “I don’t think anyone can say the city of Savannah is going to make money on this.”

Alderwoman Mary Ellen Sprague said more thought should be given to including convenience and grocery stores in the ordinance, but Brown said those businesses  have not been the problem. The underage sales and nuisance problems have occurred at bars and nightclubs, he said.

Alderman Tony Thomas said he wants stronger punishment of minors arrested on alcohol-related charges. “We need to work on strengthening the penalty for under-age drinking,” he said.

By contrast, Alderman Jeff Felser said the new ordinance is just about right. “I think this is a proper and adequate response,” he said, though he suggested the city examine the law’s effectiveness after six months.

An alcohol-server trainer in the audience spoke in favor of the new ordinance, though he said the city fell short by not including full-service restaurants. “This will have tremendous benefits,” William Lord said of the new rules. He noted similar laws have worked well in Georgia’s DeKalb and Gwinnett counties and in the states of Texas and Tennessee.

Under the city’s exemption for full-service restaurants, said Lord, someone who fails a background check or violates the city ordinance can walk across the street to a restaurant for a new job.
He said the city was wise to exclude servers and others who handle alcoholic beverages for special events and for Grayson Stadium and other sporting venues. Stepped up law enforcement can take care of underage drinking at these events, Lord said.
During the public hearing process on the new ordinance, a number of bar owners have said that as high as 40 percent of their current staff will not be eligible for employment under the new requirements, which was going to be a serious transition problem for owners.

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