City considering license to allow outdoor drinking

City considering license to allow outdoor drinking

WINCHESTER — City officials are considering a measure that could make the Loudoun Street Mall resemble an open-air bar.

In order to help dining establishments and other small businesses whose sales have been hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic, Virginia is now allowing localities to issue special-event licenses that let people drink alcohol outdoors.

Winchester Development Services Director Shawn Hershberger said the city is considering the issuance of such a license to boost business in Old Town.

The special-event license, Hershberger said, would allow people to openly carry alcoholic beverages throughout a designated area — for example, the Loudoun Street Mall — as long as the drink was purchased from a participating merchant within the designated area and served in a specially branded cup. It would be similar to the city’s existing practice of letting customers drink in the outdoor seating area of restaurants, but the special-event license would allow people to carry their drinks off of restaurant property.

Hershberger said merchants within the designated area would have the authority to decide if they want to allow people with open alcoholic containers to shop inside of their stores.

“Conceptually, it’s a great idea, it’s a great opportunity,” Richard Bell, chairman of City Council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee, said at the panel’s meeting on Thursday.

But it’s also a proposal that could lead to problems.

“How do you ensure an underaged person can’t get access to alcohol?” committee member Kim Herbstritt asked.

“We would be implementing this very carefully,” City Manager Dan Hoffman replied.

Hershberger said city officials are already discussing the potential special-event license with the Winchester Police Department, which would be tasked with enforcing laws related to underage drinking and public intoxication. Merchants within the designated area would also be asked to report any suspicious or inappropriate activity to law enforcement.

Mayor David Smith, who serves on the Planning and Economic Development Committee, said a similar outdoor activity involving alcohol consumption — the annual Hop Blossom Craft Beer Festival in downtown Winchester — has been held since 2013 and there have been very few problems. (Note: This summer’s festival has been canceled due to COVID-19.)

Hershberger said the Old Town Winchester Business Association has already expressed its support for the special-event license, and the Old Town Advancement Commission is expected to issue its recommendation early next month.

The Planning and Economic Development Committee was not asked to weigh in on the issue. Rather, Hershberger said he wanted the panel to be aware of the matter before he makes a formal request of the full City Council.

Hershberger said he will continue speaking with downtown merchants to see if open-air drinking is something they would welcome or oppose.

Attending Thursday’s meeting of the Planning and Economic Development Committee in Rouss City Hall were Chairman Richard Bell and members Kim Herbstritt and David Smith.

By BRIAN BREHM with The Winchester Star