NC Capitol

NC Capitol

House panel OKs 'bars on wheels,' downtown districts for drinking

Posted May 5, 2021 3:11 p.m. EDT

— Charter buses could serve alcohol to riders and cities and counties could specify areas where people could openly drink on the streets under two bills that advanced in the House on Wednesday.

House Bill 693 would create a special permit for charter buses to serve beer, wine and mixed drinks to passengers on trips 75 miles or longer. So-called party buses that eventually wind up back where they started and Greyhound, Trailways and other interstate bus lines wouldn't qualify for permits.

Sponsor Rep. Tim Moffitt, R-Henderson, compared what would be allowed under the permit to the first-class section of an airplane. Virginia already allows it, he said, noting a charter runs regularly between Norfolk and Richmond.

But Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, slammed the plan as creating "bars on wheels" that would supersede the local will of communities that have traditionally decided how and where alcohol would be sold.

"It's true we already allow alcohol sales on planes and trains, but buses are not the same," Creech said, predicting fleets of buses serving liquor and subsequent changes in the law to allow party buses, Greyhound and others to take part.

The bill restricts the hours when alcohol could be served to charter bus passengers and would prohibit employees of the bus line from drinking.

A second measure, House Bill 781, would allow North Carolina cities or counties to create "social districts" where people could carry an open container of alcohol and drink.

Moffitt, who also sponsored this bill, said it follows legislation from last year to allow people at shopping malls to wander about with drinks purchased at restaurants in the mall. A social district would allow similar activity in downtowns or other areas, he said, and local officials could restrict it to certain times, such as during a festival or on the first Friday of each month.

Andy Ellen, president of the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association, said Michigan, Ohio and some other states have similar laws. People couldn't go bar to bar, he said, but they could shop or browse in other nearby businesses with an open container.

"Some people, right now with COVID, are not comfortable staying inside a restaurant or bar. This lets them get outside," Ellen said.

Rep. Greg Meyer, D-Orange, said the proposal could help economic development and police underage drinking.

"This may not be right for everywhere, but I think we could do this in a way that, in a town like Chapel Hill that has challenges sometimes with public alcohol consumption among minors, this actually is a mechanism that we could use to be much more clear on what's allowed and what's not allowed," Meyer said.

Both bills passed the House Alcoholic Beverage Control committee on voice votes but still have to pass through other committees before going before the full House.

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