Hundreds gather to protest Columbia drink special regulations

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COLUMBIA – About 200 people gathered at Columbia City Hall to protest a proposed drink special ordinance. 

The proposed regulations would limit drink specials between 9 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. Businesses would not be allowed to sell drinks below retail cost during that time frame. 

There was a Facebook event for the protest titled, "A Protest Against Prohibition." On Monday, almost 200 people marked that they were attending the protest. Another 800 marked that they were “interested” in the event.

The protest started at 2:30 p.m. in front of city hall. It wrapped up as soon as the council's public hearing on the issue that began at 3 p.m. 

The description on the Facebook event argues the council is, "making laws we don't need for problems we don't have."

Jackie O’Rourke, who has lived in Columbia since the 1980s, said the “Protest Against Prohibition” is the first protest she has ever attended.

“I don’t think it’s the city’s role to tell business owners what to do,” she said. “That feels like an overreach to me.”

The city's Substance Abuse Advisory Commission argued studies show alcohol abuse is a very real problem within the city.

Columbia Police Lt. Matt Stephens is a liaison with the Substance Abuse Advisory Commission. He said the proposed ordinance is modeled after other states with similar laws.

“You’ve got a lot of different states and a lot of different cities that have already done this. So it’s not like we’re recreating the wheel by throwing this out there as an option,” he said.

In 2015, the Responsible Hospitality Institute (RHI) served as an independent consultant and conducted a study that surveyed Columbia’s dining, entertainment and nightlife. The study suggested Columbia faces challenges of violence, robbery, sexual assault, vandalism, underage drinking and noise complaints.

This isn't the first time the city council has discussed limiting drink specials. In 2017, the council advised against a proposal to regulate specials. Instead, council members wanted the police department to pick up the slack by enforcing stricter penalties for establishments serving minors. 

In February of this year, city council members asked the local health department, the police department and the city's finance and law office to draft an ordinance prohibiting drink specials after 9 p.m.

Heather Harlan attended the hearing in support of the ordinance. She said she was booed and asked asked to sit down when she spoke in favor of the regulations.

"We have a problem in Columbia with violence," she said. "Lowering drink specials is one way the city is working to keep safe."

There's also an online petition circulating against the possible regulations. The petition titled, "Fight for your right to party!" has more than 1,100 signatures with a goal of 1,000. 

KOMU 8 also reached out to Steve Hollis, the human services manager at city's health department, but did not hear back.