By DANIEL SHAPIRO, HAOYANG ZHANG and NATE ANTON
COLUMBIA – At the request of the Missouri Students Association, Columbia mayor Bob McDavid has asked city staff to look into the possibilities of “soft closings” for downtown bars.
“Soft closing” means a business must stop serving alcohol one hour before it closes. McDavid made the request at the June 3 city council meeting.
Camille Hosman, the organization’s legislative advocacy officer said she hopes soft closings would accomplish a reduction in alcohol related incidents by giving bar patrons an hour to sober up before being sent onto the street as a bar closes.
According to Denis McCarthy, a psychological sciences professor at MU, blood alcohol content in the body lowers at a rate of .01-.02 percent per hour. This means that a person at or above the legal limit of .08 could fall below the limit an hour after their last drink.
McCarthy said the drop in blood alcohol level is “not a big change,” but added, “Is it better than no change? Yes, but it’s not enough for anyone who is legally intoxicated to get to a safe level.”
McCarthy pointed out that after a bar stops serving alcohol, it does not mean that someone will stop drinking, but they could instead keep drinking previously purchased drinks, something McDavid agrees with.
“Some people will buy three beers at 1:55 if the bar stops serving alcohol at 2:00, so that is one way they people will try to get around it,” McDavid said.
“There’s not a consensus about whether this soft close idea is in particular better compared to the fact that it’s reducing the number of hours you can drink,” McCarthy said.
Business owners see a number of problems with the soft closing idea.
“There’s just no reason to pay employees to hang around and take care of people just to give them a sober up,” Nash Vegas bar owner Justin Conrad said. “We don’t want to be the drunk tank, and I definitely don’t want to pay to be the drunk tank.”
Nash Vegas patron Darek Busch said that while soft closings may make crowds leaving bars smaller, few people will stay to sober up.
“When it’s last call that’s typically when you finish your drinks and everyone vacates,” Busch said.
Lisa Howell, visiting Nash Vegas for line dancing classes, is in favor of soft closings.
“I think it’ll teach discipline,” Howell said. “Plus, I think some of the alcohol will run through the system, especially if someone is dancing.”
Line dancing instructor Connor Elliott is in the middle, saying that he sees the advantages that could come with soft closings but that it would hurt the economy in the long run.
“I think the current system works fine, with last call being 15 minutes before closing,” Elliott said.
On the Rocks bar owner Matt McGee said that soft closings would negatively affect tourism in Columbia, saying Columbia does not attract enough conferences and conventions because the city does not allow bars to stay open until 3:00 a.m.
“Part of the reason why (the General Assembly) gave St. Louis, Kansas City and the Lake of the Ozarks exemptions for that is specifically so they can recruit that business,” McGee said. “So it seems to me (Columbia) should get that privilege.”
Megan McConachie, the web and communications manager for the Columbia Conventions and Visitors Bureau, said that bar closing times is not something that most conferences or conventions look at, but instead look at cost, location, and facilities.
McDavid said that the Downtown Community Improvement District will conduct the report. The group, composed of businesses located downtown, will be looking at Gainesville, Fla., a fellow Southeastern Conference city, as a model to see if soft closings are viable in Columbia. Like in Columbia, the policy was started by a request by the local student government.
Collin Thompson, press secretary for the University of Florida student government, echoed the sentiments expressed by Hosman, saying that if bars stop serving alcohol an hour before closing, it will give students time to sober up and find safe ways home from bars.
“We are confident that soft closings will be a good thing for students and improve safety not only in Gainesville but in college towns all over the country,” Thompson said via email.
“Soft closing of bars allows for a natural wave of students to leave bars in a safe and timely manner as opposed to just being thrown out before 2am in one large clump. When you have a heavy concentration of students being thrown out all at once, you see more fights occur and it also makes it harder for police authorities to perform their job.”
Conrad disagrees with the notion that people will stay at the bar to sober up and leave the bar slowly.
“They’re thinking that if we have an hour and a half buffer of time where people aren’t drinking they’re thinking the bars won’t all let out at one time, people will just trickle out so that they won’t have all these bars letting out with huge crowds gathering,” Conrad said. “I just disagree with their thinking on that because I think when bars stop serving alcohol, people are gonna leave. There are always gonna be a couple really wasted people that are kind of lingering around, but as soon as the bars empty out then they realize everyone is gone and they usually leave.”
The Improvement District is expected to discuss soft closings at their next meeting.
Bar owners leery of soft closings idea
The City of Columbia is examining the possibility of implementing “soft closings,” which would require bars to stop serving alcohol an hour before they close. The owners of three downtown Columbia bars — Nash Vegas, On the Rocks and Roxy’s — give their thoughts on the idea.