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Council Considers Looser Liquor Laws

Better grab a to-go cup: D.C. is getting closer to loosening its liquor laws. 

The D.C. Council will take up a sweeping proposal today that could reshape the world of drinking in the District, finally acting on legislation Mayor Muriel Bowser first pitched more than a year ago. The bill contains a list of changes for the restaurant and bar industry, but the most notable ones affect aspiring outdoor imbibers. 

It might not transform D.C. into New Orleans, but the legislation would open the door to “sip and stroll” areas in the city, letting the owners of large developments (or perhaps groups of nearby restaurants) apply for the chance to allow outdoor drinking. The bill would also extend COVID-era changes to liquor laws, such as more permissive rules for “streateries” and pop-up restaurants. 

Bowser has framed the bill as a way to give a major boost to the industry as it recovers from the pandemic (she’s dubbed it the “Reopen D.C. Act” to drive the point home). But it also functions as a bit of a political Christmas tree, with changes to all manner of obscure provisions hung on its branches. The bill would increase the number of nightclub and tavern licenses allowed in Georgetown, for instance, and would allow brewpubs to sell their wares directly to other retailers instead of going through a distributor.

The legislation has attracted broad support from the industry, with the influential Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington and a coterie of other bar and restaurant owners showing up to support it when the bill earned a hearing last May. Perhaps the loudest voices in opposition were beer distributors fighting the brewpub distribution rule. One wholesaler equated it to “deregulating” the industry and suggested it would cost local jobs.

Several organizations who testified at that hearing also suggested that the newly created outdoor drinking areas, dubbed “commercial lifestyle centers,” would be concentrated in wealthy areas at the expense of communities east of the Anacostia. The Wharf and CityCenterDC are prime contenders to win these new licenses, but an analysis by the Council Office of Racial Equity suggested that wards 7 and 8 lack similar developments because those areas are “overwhelmingly zoned for residential apartment use, not commercial or mixed-use.” The office also noted that the bill doesn’t do much to address the fact that just 4 percent of all establishments licensed to sell alcohol are located in wards 7 and 8.

“Limiting this license class to only private space is inequitable and creates winners and losers by only allowing some neighborhoods to have this across D.C.,” Kristen Barden, the head of the Adams Morgan Partnership Business Improvement District, testified at the May hearing.

The bill’s backers do note that it includes a provision specifically aimed at addressing one disparity east of the Anacostia: It would allow grocers in wards 7 and 8 to get a license to sell spirits alongside beer and wine (a privilege that just two stores in the District currently enjoy, per Council research), and let them generate up to 25 percent of their gross receipts from alcohol sales (up from the current cap of 15 percent). If they operate that store for a year, they could apply for the same license elsewhere around the city (though the racial equity analysis warned that the bill lacks a clawback provision should an operator shutter their location east of the Anacostia).

The bill didn’t attract much pushback from the Council in the committee process, but its first vote before all 13 lawmakers will tell the tale later today. The Council needs to vote on it twice and then send it to the mayor for it to become law.

Alex Koma (tips? akoma@washingtoncitypaper.com)

  • To see today’s COVID-19 data, visit our coronavirus tracker.
  • D.C.’s indoor mask requirement ends today. But private businesses may still require face coverings. [DCist, WUSA9
  • Road closures due to President Joe Biden‘s State of the Union address take effect today after 5 p.m. [WUSA9]
  • A closer look at the legacy of former D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe, now deceased. [WUSA9, WTOP
  • D.C.’s public skating rink won’t be closing for renovation just yet. Operators of Fort Dupont Ice Arena, blindsided with the project’s steep costs, are putting plans on hold. [WTOP]

By Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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