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Durham City Council approves downtown social district, will allow alcohol to-go in certain outdoor areas

In late October, Durham City Council voted unanimously to approve the creation of a downtown social district, allowing people to drink outdoors. The ordinance allows people to take their alcoholic drinks to-go in specially approved, labeled plastic cups. 

The new social district boundaries include almost all of Downtown Durham, starting right next to East Campus. The new rules are planned to go into effect on Dec. 1, with the social district being open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Businesses voluntarily participating in the social district are required to serve the to-go alcoholic beverages in specially branded cups and have a sign displaying their participation in the social district. Per state law, only businesses carrying Alcoholic Beverage Control permits can sell alcoholic drinks. 

According to the ordinance, individual violations will be enforced as a noncriminal infraction with a fine punishable up to $100. The ordinance stipulates that businesses can be fined civil penalties between $250 and $2000. Proceeds of the fines will be directed towards Durham Public Schools. 

Durham is not the first city in North Carolina to create a social district. In September 2021, Governor Cooper signed House Bill 890 allowing cities and towns in North Carolina to start creating social districts by allowing geographically defined exemptions from the state’s open container laws.

Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh are among several NC cities which have also approved the creation of social districts. 

The social district in Durham will be run by Downtown Durham Inc., a business association working to revitalize downtown, rather than city staff. 

Proponents believe this new ordinance may support small businesses and revive activity to levels prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Downtown or Durham Central Park is where the farmers’ market is. It's a very used community space,” said At-Large Council Member Javiera Caballero. “You see a lot of really great foot traffic, and you see a lot of activity in downtown. I think [the social district] would be great for small businesses.”

However, some are skeptical of whether the district will attract more people to downtown.

Durham resident Luis Pietri said that the social district may be good for existing residents, but wouldn’t necessarily draw new people into town. 

“This is still a hometown for homeowners, not necessarily a big party town. So when the students leave, it's dead here. Completely dead,” Pietri said.

Durham resident Marcella Middleton raised concerns regarding issues such as the management of public intoxication. She noted that there will have to be a tradeoff between flexibility and public order, including the regulation of underage drinking.

“It's easier to have leeway and flexibility to do something as opposed to being controlled so much,” Middleton said. “But I think overall, you gotta let people be grown.” 

Caballero also noted the bipartisan support for the ordinance which passed the state House of Representatives by a vote of 95-8 and passed the state Senate unanimously.

“I think that you're going to find both on the Republican and Democrat side that where they spend their dollars is actually important to them,” Caballero said, referring to the local support of small businesses.

To address concerns about sustainability and waste management with the use of plastic cups, Caballero also said that DDI is working with local nonprofit Don’t Waste Durham to implement reusable cups.

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