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Tampa may lift Sunday beer rule

The City Council considers allowing alcohol sales at an earlier hour on Sundays. Airport officials push for 7 a.m.

By ROB BRANNON and CORY SCHOUTEN
Published August 8, 2003

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[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
"If you're not going to be a responsible drinker, you're not going to be a responsible drinker whether it's 11 o'clock Sunday or 7 o'clock Tuesday night," said Rose Ferlita, Tampa City Council member.
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TAMPA - The wait may be over soon for beer-parched Buccaneers fans and thirsty passengers at Tampa International Airport who have found the tap sealed shut on Sunday mornings.

Tampa City Council members Rose Ferlita and Shawn Harrison raised the prospect Thursday of revising the city's blue laws, which regulate the sale of alcohol on Sunday. They wanted to discuss letting the taps flow at 11 a.m., not the current 1 p.m.

They had the enthusiastic backing of airport officials, who pushed for even more latitude for the sale of alcohol at TIA bars. The airport wants to be able to start selling drinks at 7 a.m., even if the rest of the city has to wait.

Their reason: Airport officials said about 6-million travelers a year pass through TIA, and they come from all over the world. Many arrive from different time zones, blurring the lines of traditional drinking hours.

They often find Tampa's Sunday morning version of prohibition baffling, said Louis Miller, airport executive director

The current rules in Tampa, called "blue laws" after a 17th century practice of regulating commerce on the Sabbath, allow drink sales from 7 a.m. to 3 a.m. on every day except Sunday, when sales can't begin until 1 p.m.

The airport simply wants Sunday to be like every other day of the week, allowing the facility to serve alcohol at 7 a.m., he said, not so much to boost airport revenue, but to improve customer satisfaction.

"It's not a whole lot more money," Miller said. "It's minimizing the frustration of passengers, making it available to them. ... Waiting until 1 is very difficult for them to understand."

He was backed by TIA food service representatives who said it also would help them economically, since they often turn customers away.

Representatives from the Florida Restaurant Association, the Tampa Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce all lined up to ask for the rule change. The boon to business, they said, would also increase sales tax revenue.

Council members sounded sympathetic and asked their staff to research the idea of granting the airport a special exemption before they take up the topic again at a future meeting.

"I think we've seen some compelling reasons why we need to do this," Ferlita said. "This is simply a good business attitude."

Moving it back to 11 a.m. for the rest of the city would also affect another popular Sunday destination: Raymond James Stadium.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers games that begin at 1 p.m. often kick off to a half-empty stadium as many fans choose to wait in the concourse for beer sales to begin.

With airport bars just a few miles from the stadium opening at 7 a.m., would TIA find itself packed with Bucs fans on game day? Would the airport see an influx of local boozers stopping there to drink until other city taverns open?

Miller doesn't think so.

"I think most Buccaneer fans that drink and tailgate buy their drinks the day before," Miller said. "(The airport) is just not an easy place to come if you're not a traveler."

The changes contemplated Thursday would be a complete about-face for Tampa, which has lagged behind other Florida cities of comparable size in revising their laws. St. Petersburg recently made a similar change in its rules.

In Pinellas, city and county officials are still debating whether St. Petersburg has the authority to move the drinking hour from 1 p.m. to 11 a.m. on Sundays. More than a month after the City Council relaxed its blue laws, the county attorney issued an opinion saying the County Commission is the only body that can change the law regulating alcohol sales, because it clearly calls for uniform regulations throughout the county. City attorneys disagree.

Until they resolve this, the county has agreed not to enforce the earlier restrictions in St. Petersburg, which means alcohol can continue to be sold at 11 a.m. Sundays, City Attorney John Wolfe said.

The perceived relationship between blue laws and religion is one reason cited for changing the rules.

"Frankly I think it's ludicrous for the government to identify Sunday as a different day," council member John Dingfelder said.

Harrison said with St. Petersburg's recent actions, Tampa had to respond.

"We have to remain competitive," he said.

But Dingfelder said it was not simply economics or regional competition that motivated him to push for change. He said the issue is one of personal freedom, and the public's right to choose for itself.

"To me, this is not an economic issue at all," he said. "The thought that we have to compete with St. Petersburg is sad."

Noticeably absent from the public hearing were religious and community leaders. Only one man out of all the speakers was against the rule change.

Ferlita, however, said when she first suggested a rule change, she received messages from people calling her a sinner. She warned the council that heavy criticism may result from a rule change.

"But if you're not going to be a responsible drinker, you're not going to be a responsible drinker whether it's 11 o'clock Sunday or 7 o'clock Tuesday night," she said.

Workers and travelers interviewed at the airport on Thursday evening were enthusiastic about loosening the law.

Christa Lynn, a bartender at Wharf Brewhouse in the airport, says bring on the bright-and-early boozers.

"I think it's a brilliant idea," said Lynn, who starts work at 9:30 a.m. Sundays to do "three hours of charity work."

Allowing patrons to drink earlier on Sundays would attract more customers and ease the impact of the smoking ban, she said.

Ron Bridges of Niceville, in Tampa on business, said he understands the need for a smoking ban but can't understand restrictions on liquor.

"You're not getting any secondhand alcohol," he said Thursday, his hand on a tall glass of Michelob Light at Friday's restaurant. "If there's a demand, let them sell it."

Deirdre Wetzel of Palm Harbor, who was dropping a friend off at the airport, said blue laws are in place for a reason - because Sunday is a holy day.

But Brian Jones, a church deacon visiting from Atlanta who doesn't drink, says God believes in freedom of choice.

"This is supposed to be a free country," Jones said.

Amen, says Andy Gangadharan, who was dropping off a friend for a flight.

"Why is Sunday different from any day of the week for a traveler?"

[Last modified August 8, 2003, 15:03:18]


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