The Oak Bluffs Select Board voted last week to move up the closing time for bars an extra half-hour. With that, last call will be earlier as well — the same time as Edgartown and many towns in Massachusetts.
The change won’t take effect until after this summer, but it is still a painful one that needs further consideration.
Thirty minutes might not seem monumental, but it’s nothing to laugh at: Bar owners with late-night patrons say the business in that half-hour window can represent a significant amount of their profit — some say between 7 and 10 percent; for bartenders trying to make a living on the Island, that last hoorah is a good amount of cash for their bottom line; not to mention the Vineyarders who enjoy that extra half-hour out on the town.
There’s also a fear that Circuit Avenue and the rest of Oak Bluffs might lose the edge that attracts so many visitors and Islanders during the summer.
Larkin Stallings, the owner of the Ritz, famously said at a recent discussion that he opened his establishment in Oak Bluffs because of the vibe. The O.B. vibe is legendary in corners far and wide, and it’s important to maintain that energy.
A strong supporter of the earlier closing time is Police Chief Jonathan Searle. He met with key stakeholders as the select board considered the change, including bar owners.
His reasons for supporting an earlier closure comes down to personnel. To put it mildly, his department is understaffed.
Searle tells us that when Oak Bluffs extended the closing time for bars in 2008, the department had 18 full-time officers, along with 10 auxiliary officers. Auxiliary officers work only in the summer months, and often become full-time officers. “They were our farm system,” Searle tells us.
Today, his department has 15 full-time officers, one school resource officer, and just two auxiliary officers.
Searle says the shortage makes a difference. Calls can add up, especially late in the evening, whether it’s a fight at a bar or a drunk driver. With officers responding to a variety of calls, that can leave the rest of the town potentially vulnerable.
“We’re not the bar police, we’re the Oak Bluffs Police,” Searle says.
Adding to the problems, the change in shift for police starts at 2 am, meaning that many officers are racking up overtime while dealing with patrons leaving the bars after the 1:30 closing time.
Before we blame everything on housing, the chief says that new training requirements brought on by police reform laws in recent years have made becoming an auxiliary officer more difficult. Also, public perception of police following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis officer has not helped. And there’s the general labor shortage that’s hard to overlook as well.
But housing certainly plays a role. Searle says that over the past 15 years, he’s lost 11 officers to off-Island departments because they can’t afford to live the life they want to live here. Most recently, he had an officer leave in October (an interesting note: The Hanson Police Department, Searle says, has four former Oak Bluffs Police officers who moved to the South Shore for more reasonably priced housing options).
Searle says they are considering building dormitories, similar to Nantucket’s, but he says that likely won’t be a huge help in the long run, as officers, understandably, will want their own homes.
But while we can sympathize with the chief’s conundrum, it’s ultimately up to the select board to find a solution. Solving our housing problems could, unfortunately, be years down the road. Waiting for the Island to solve its existential housing crisis is almost certainly years away, and would definitely deal a substantial setback to the funky vibes of Oak Bluffs and late-night establishments.
And we also worry that it might not be just bars that suffer from an earlier last call. It could mean fewer visitors to eateries and shops that thrive on that Oak Bluffs personality.
Ultimately it is the select board’s job to decide what is best for the town, and then work with town departments as well as residents and affected businesses to come up with a good plan. We are encouraged that the board did not make their decision lightly.
But laying this off on the O.B. Police Department and general housing shortages to effectively make policy is backwards, especially for a staffing problem 15 years in the making.
Basing the last-call decision on police shortages doesn’t seem like the definitive issue that a good plan requires. Maybe it means stricter enforcement of establishments where there are recurring problems; maybe the town considers increased training opportunities on the Island that help hire more auxiliary staff. There’s also hope that this summer might not be as rowdy, compared with the past few summers.
So, regretfully, it will mean still more deliberation. The worst thing that can happen is losing the vibe that makes the Island community unique.
I don’t think an extra half hour of drinking is going to make or break the town vibe. That half hour early closing may actually save lives. 7 to 10 percent profit loss in a half hour? Give me a break
Carl. I think it’s safe to say that most bars break even or lose money until about 8:30 pm when people actually start going out in significant numbers. If the bar is open until 1:30
That means there are ten 1/2 hour periods that are operating in the black. If all those 1/2 hour periods took in equal amounts of money, then each half hour would account for 10% of the establishments profit.
That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it ?
The greatest profit margin is from alcoholic drinks not from food.
Andy –I think we all know that… I don’t think many people order a burger at last call.
Why did you reply to me with that comment ?
I was just helping Carl understand some basic math and logic.
Vibe, what vibe do you speak to
Vibe? There’s been no vibe in Oak Bluffs for 20 years.
Oak Bluffs has as much vibe as it had 20 years ago.
Has Jim lost his vibe?
Most people do as they age.
What vibrates you at 20 may become tiresome at 40.
Many of our visitors who come here and spend a ton of money enabling the rest of us to live here year round are accustomed to last call at 4 or 5 in the morning. They don’t even go out until midnight. That’s just the way it is in many cities across the globe. They are laughing at this news and may be taking their vacation dollars elsewhere.
Just a silly argument. I stopped regularly going to the bars 20+ years ago and I’m almost certain last call was earlier than it is now and OB’s vibe was just fine. Last call may have been as early as 11:30 and closed by 12:00, might have been 12:00 and 12:30(memory not what it was).
I was a bar manager 50 years ago.
Windsor Hall closed at 1:00 AM.
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