Savannah officials are seeking feedback from business owners as they consider making changes to the recently updated alcohol ordinance.
The city’s focus is on addressing concerns regarding serving permits and training provisions, Sunday sales, enforcement and people under the age of 21 in alcohol-serving establishments when the kitchen closes, according to Bridget Lidy, director of Savannah’s Tourism Management & Ambassadorship Department.
“We are not doing a total revision,” Lidy told a group of restaurant and bar owners during an input-gathering session Wednesday. “Some issues have come up, and the city is looking at tweaking them.”
The issue that generated most of the discussion during the first of two meetings Wednesday was the future of the service permit, or “bar card,” program.
After implementing the new ordinance governing alcohol sales earlier in the year, Savannah officials decided to hold off on enforcing new rules requiring restaurant servers and other employees who “handle” alcohol to obtain bar cards meant to ensure employees are trained and following the law. Under the old ordinance, servers were not required to obtain the $25 serving permits that bartenders were required to get as a way to prevent underage drinking and over-serving in bars.
Now the Georgia Restaurant Association and some business owners are advocating for city officials to eliminate the bar card program and drop a requirement that alcohol servers go through background checks.
Georgia Restaurant Association lobbyist Mike Vaquer has called instead for an alternative certification, which would eliminate background checks and make training the responsibility of the businesses.
David Thorne, co-owner of The Bar Bar, said he is not opposed to ensuring his employees are trained, but the bar card program and required background check is overly burdensome to employers trying to find employees in a market that’s stretched thin as it is.
“We don’t have problem with certification process,” Thorne said. “But that is where it should begin and end.”
The city had initially proposed to eliminate the bar card program when the new ordinance was being developed, but staffers say they backed away from that plan at the request of business owners who said the permits provide incentive for their employees to comply with serving laws.
Savannah-Chatham Police Chief Joseph Lumpkin is also opposed to ditching the background checks, said Sgt. Shinita Young with the department’s Alcohol Beverage Compliance Unit. The checks are a way to monitor the people who are applying and ensure they have not been convicted of a crime, such as serving a minor, that would block them from obtaining a bar card, Young said.
“The criminal background part is basically record keeping,” she said.
But other business owners argued that the decision should be left up to the owner, especially those who wish to give offenders a “second chance” by offering them employment. City officials say they do not have the resources to administer the program in-house and are determining whether to develop a request for proposals to outsource the process if it is retained.
Jim Deal and William Lord said they merged their separate training companies into Bar Card Training, LLC, when they learned the city was planning on outsourcing the process. Now they say they are waiting to find out if their efforts were worth the investments they have already made, including the establishment of an office and acquisition of the necessary software.
“We were ready to become a one-stop shop,” Lord said.
The Savannah City Council had approved the revised ordinance in August 2016 after a draft was first presented to the public two years earlier after more than a year of development.
The ordinance also created an entertainment license that allows bars to open to 18- to 20-year-olds during live performances. In addition, the ordinance also allows minors to attend alcohol-serving “event venues” such as the Trustees Theater that do not operate as bars. Other new types of licenses created by the ordinance permit caterers to serve alcohol, as well as allow non-traditional alcohol establishments, such as hair salons, to provide complimentary glasses of wine or beer to their patrons in limited amounts.
Stephanie Voyles, project coordinator of Beyond the Bell, on behalf of the Savannah Substance Abuse Coalition, said her group’s aim was to ensure people are educated and minors are not being served.
“When you reduce underage drinking, you can also reduce other drug use in the community,” Voyles said. “We can also reduce other crimes as a result as well as reducing the rates of addiction.”
The city plans to have a follow-up meeting regarding the potential changes on Sept. 6 before presenting the revisions to the City Council for consideration later that month.