Burning question

Asking for a Friend: Am I Supposed to Be Drinking in Public?

A hang session in Bayfront Park made me curious about the City of Sarasota's rules for drinking in public. Here's what I found out.

By Cooper Levey-Baker November 5, 2020

Sometime this summer, after months of working from home and avoiding friends and family because of the Covid-19 pandemic, I was aching to hang out with a buddy, and so we came up with a simple idea: Let's meet up at Bayfront Park, sit in beach chairs set at least six feet apart and crack a brew or two. Only when I popped the tab on my can did it occur to me: Was I supposed to be doing this?

According to the code of the City of Sarasota, the answer was no. Per section 5-21 of the city's code, it is verboten to drink alcohol or even possess an open container of alcohol on public property. (There exists one notable exception: It's fine to drink alcohol on Lido's public beaches, as long as the container isn't glass.) Outside city limits, in Sarasota County, open containers are banned on public rights-of-way (e.g. streets and sidewalks), but not in parks or on beaches, with some exceptions. In both jurisdictions, the rules can be waived for special events, like festivals.

While I escaped official censure that night in Bayfront Park, it set me to wondering. With the coronavirus raging, shouldn't it be OK or, dare I say, even encouraged, to allow the consumption of alcohol in more outdoor spaces? Around the country, because of the pandemic, many cities and states have at least temporarily loosened their rules about alcohol sales and consumption.

In Florida, early in the pandemic, the state allowed restaurants to sell sealed alcoholic drinks to-go, as long as the customer's order also included food. But you still couldn't take your meal and drink to, say, Bayfront Park, and enjoy them with a friend.

Enforcement of the city's rule has dropped this year. As of mid-October, the Sarasota Police Department had issued only 84 citations for drinking on public property this year, a lower rate than in 2019, when the department enforced 327 violations, and far lower than in 2018, when the number hit 581. (Those numbers don't only include violations in parks.)

Jason Bartolone, a spokesperson for the City of Sarasota, says there is no internal discussion about changing the city's regulations on drinking on public property, and there appears to be no real public movement to alter the regulations.

Should we start one? I'm in favor, but crafting the right policy gets sticky. Should someone be able to tap a keg and throw a rager in the middle of the Payne Park circus playground? That is...perhaps not an ideal outcome. Barring any change, we'll likely muddle along, some of us knowing the rules, others not so much. But if you are going to break the rules, I have some simple advice that will serve you well in most, if not all, situations: Just don't be a jerk about it.

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