060220_nws_container CM Mall Beer

Several people strolling the Washington Street Mall over Memorial Day weekend enjoyed takeout beverages purchased at one of the bars. The rules say they were not allowed to take a sip until they got home, but no one seemed to object.

CAPE MAY — A proposal to allow the public consumption of alcohol in the city is likely to be voted on at a special meeting of City Council at 4 p.m. Thursday.

The meeting is set to be held remotely due to the pandemic, which is also the reason for the proposed change to the city’s longstanding prohibition on open containers of alcohol in public. Mayor Clarence “Chuck” Lear supports easing the restriction while Gov. Phil Murphy’s emergency orders keep patrons from entering bars.

Other communities have already taken the step, including North Wildwood and Atlantic City, where Mayor Marty Small Sr. issued an executive order Monday allowing alcohol consumption on the Boardwalk and in Gardner’s Basin and the Orange Loop. The order goes into effect Friday.

Cape May City Council was set to vote June 2 on a resolution allowing open containers, but when the matter was discussed at length at a workshop meeting that afternoon, members decided to delay the vote to allow more time to reach a consensus.

As presented on the agenda, the resolution lifted the ban on open containers entirely, without limits on where or when people could drink.

“So under this resolution, just so I’m clear, I could take a keg to Soldiers and Sailors Park at 3 o’clock in the morning, and I’d be completely legal?” said Councilman Zack Mullock. He and Councilwoman Stacy Sheehan raised concerns about the proposal during the workshop. Councilwoman Patricia Gray Hendricks at one point suggested they find ways to improve the ordinance instead of shooting it down, but Mullock responded that was exactly what he was attempting to do.

“What are you comfortable with?” asked Lear, who has said takeout is not enough to sustain local restaurants. Many have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for a license to serve alcohol.

Mullock proposed limiting where and when alcohol could be consumed. Lear said a resolution could be ready this week limiting the hours of consumption, but the two men did not reach an agreement on where.

Mullock seemed amenable to allowing people to stroll the Washington Street Mall with open containers, saying it is a pedestrian-only route. But Lear wants to include the city’s beachfront Promenade and some streets connecting the mall with the beach, including Jackson Street, where there are several bars and restaurants.

The city hopes to help bars and restaurants stay solvent until they can invite patrons back inside. State rules on alcohol sales have also been eased, allowing bars to sell mixed drinks, beer and wine in sealed containers, with some restaurants on the mall selling to walk-up customers on recent weekends.

“I don’t think the goal is to have people walking all over town drinking alcohol,” Mullock said.

But city Attorney Frank Corrado said there is no reasonable way for the city to limit the resolution to drinks purchased at local establishments.

“If we pass this resolution, it doesn’t have to be a drink that you buy in a bar, a cocktail to go,” he told council. “You could mix a martini and walk onto the street and take it down to the beach and drink it.”

Officials also heard from police Chief Anthony Marino, who said one of his biggest concerns was about banning glass containers. Councilman Shaine Meier said many people walk barefoot in the summer resort and could be hurt by broken glass. Marino was not only worried about accidents in keeping bottles and glasses off the street.

“We’ve all seen in the Police Department what kind of damage that could do to a person in a fight,” he said.

There also were concerns raised about public intoxication and the possibility of changing the family atmosphere in Cape May. Lear asked Marino about how police typically handle people with a cooler on the beach, with the assumption that some already drink in public.

There are a few cases each summer, Marino said, but it has not been a big issue. There have also been times when someone is intoxicated and difficult to control, the chief said.

There are a lot of unknowns, said city Manager Jerry Inderwies Jr., suggesting the city proceed carefully. There also was a question of whether the city could take the step, he said, citing an email from the state division of Alcohol Beverage Control, which states that takeout containers of alcohol must be sealed. Corrado expressed doubt that the ABC would have any say once the beverage is bought and removed from the licensed site. There is no statewide prohibition on drinking in public, he said.

“The ABC doesn’t have any jurisdiction over the sidewalks of Cape May or the beach in Cape May or the Promenade,” Inderweis said. But he acknowledged many of the issues are entirely new.

For instance, Corrado is basing part of the resolution and other steps on the broad powers granted to governments in an emergency.

“So we’re going to say an open container law is an emergency? Is that why we’re claiming to do this?” Mullock asked. At the same time, he agreed the city needs to act swiftly.

“I’m not saying it’s an emergency to drink on the sidewalk,” Corrado said. “It’s legal terra incognita here. Am I certain that my legal opinion here is correct? No, of course not. You pay me to make these kinds of judgments, and that’s the judgment that I made.”

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