COVINGTON - While the City Council mulls over an update to the alcohol ordinance, restaurant and bar owners are pushing for an extension of hours that alcohol can be sold.
The first reading of the new ordinance was set to take place Monday night, but was tabled due to concerns from business owners and the council about the draft document.
One change not in the draft that restaurant owners and managers said they'd like to be added is an extension of hours for alcohol sales.
Currently, alcohol for on-premises consumption can be sold between 8 a.m. and 12:45 a.m. Monday through Saturday and from 12:30 p.m. until midnight Sunday.
But closing up that early is causing local restaurants to lose customers to neighboring counties with longer hours, owners said.
"We have competitors in neighboring counties, and we have to compete or we cannot survive," said Debbie Harris, owner of Five O'Clock Somewhere.
In Rockdale County, beer and wine can be sold 24 hours a day, Monday through Saturday. Distilled spirits may be sold from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to midnight Saturdays. On Sundays, sales are from 12:30 p.m. to midnight.
In Conyers, sales are allowed from 7 a.m. until 3 a.m. Monday through Friday, until 1 a.m. Saturday and between the hours of 12:30 p.m. and midnight Sunday.
Harris said she would like hours in Covington extended to at least 2 a.m.
Katy Mote, owner of Down the Hatch, said longer hours are needed to attract national entertainment acts to their establishment. Most patrons don't come in until about 10 or 11 p.m., especially in the summer when it gets dark later, Mote said.
City Manager Steve Horton encouraged the council to consider that crimes and DUIs will likely increase if hours are extended.
At a previous council meeting, Police Chief Stacey Cotton said there are about five local restaurants acting more as bars and, "A weekend doesn't go by when we're not making an arrest at one of these places."
But owners of those establishments said they'll do whatever it takes to get patrons safely home.
"We have a lot of local residents come in here, and if they're close to home, we'll get them home," said Mike West, general manager of Down the Hatch.
"We'll provide transportation home under any circumstances," Harris said. "We'll take keys. We want to keep them here (in Covington) for their safety's sake and for our revenue's sake."
A city ordinance prohibiting establishments that serve liquor from having pool tables, dart boards and other games, including pinball and video game machines, has been eliminated.
"That's a huge plus for us and then again there's the competitive aspect of it. We needed that advantage to keep our clientele with us," Harris said, adding that when she took out her dart boards in September, she lost 10 dart leagues with eight members each that competed three nights a week.
The draft ordinance under consideration would also require a background check and fingerprinting for employees of establishments that serve alcohol, at a cost of $50 per employee.
Jim Stalvey, owner of Stalvey's Restaurant and Lounge, said that fee is too steep, and he'd likely have to end up footing the bill for employees who couldn't afford it.
Stalvey said he didn't think the rule should apply to employees such as busboys, dishwashers and cooks.
With the downturn in the economy, "that's the first thing people stop doing when times are hard, is eating out," he said. "This is not the best time to do this for restaurants, if it's instituted as written."
Cotton said the $50 fee is to cover a background check to determine if employees have been convicted of any felony or violation of law relating to alcohol sales or manufacturing or use, controlled substances, sex crimes or crimes against children. The ordinance would not allow employees to work in establishments that serve alcohol for five years after conviction. Employees would be required to renew permits annually.
Cotton said the rule would mainly apply to managers, the alcohol license holder, bartenders and other servers of alcohol.
"We're really trying to deal with the decision-makers. The bartender is like the captain of the ship," he said.
Cotton said there is already a similar requirement for pawn shop employees and that soon may extend to employees of taxi companies.
The council agreed to table the first reading while the ordinance is further modified.
"This is a living, breathing, working document and we're going to go back and work on it and incorporate your comments," Mayor Kim Carter said.
Two readings of the ordinance are required before it becomes law.
The first reading will take place at the council's May 19 meeting, set for 7:30 p.m. at City Hall. If that is approved, the final reading will be June 2.
Crystal Tatum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.