Despite pleas from a number of Oak Bluffs business owners, the town’s select board will be moving forward with the implementation of a new alcohol policy, requiring that bars move up last call and close half an hour earlier.
The policy, which mirrors that of Edgartown establishments, will be going into effect on Sunday. Both towns will now have a 12:30 am last call and 1 pm closing time.
Discussed in length by the Oak Bluffs Select Board earlier this year, the time changes came about as part of the town’s effort to update its alcohol policy, which town officials said had some pre-existing discrepancies.
But the major driving force of an earlier closing time has been concerns over police staffing, and whether the Oak Bluffs police department would be able to adequately ensure safety during closing time — shortly before the officer’s 2 am shift change.
On Tuesday, the Oak Bluffs Select Board heard from the town’s police chief Jon Searle, who highlighted the department’s issues with staffing. Searle has said the shortage has been brought on by an increasing unavailability of housing for officers. Searle reiterated his recommendation that the town ought to align its alcohol policy with that of Edgartown.
The board ultimately agreed, sticking with its proposal from earlier this year — an approval of the new changes, but a delay in enacting them.
Back in April, the select board voted 3-2 in favor of establishing an earlier last call and closing time, to begin in October, after the busy summer months.
At the time, former select board members Brian Packish and Ryan Ruley had advocated for immediate implementation, suggesting that the board heed the advice of local law enforcement, who had, for a while, been expressing concerns about staffing.
In what was their last meeting on the Oak Bluffs select board back in April, the two outgoing board members were the only two who voted in opposition to putting off the policy change, calling it “a cowardice move to delay it to the fall.”
Select board members Gail Barmakian, Emma Green-Beach, and Jason Balboni all agreed on waiting, in order to discuss the proposal with the two newly elected board members, and to give business owners enough notice.
Now, at the end of what local business owners called an overall “positive” summer, concerns reemerged, as the new policy is set to go into effect in less than a week.
On Tuesday, Oak Bluffs restaurant and bar owners urged the board to reconsider the new restrictions, claiming that moving up last call and closing even just 30 minutes earlier would be detrimental to business, and the town as a whole.
Larkin Stallings, owner of the popular Circuit Ave bar, the Ritz, explained he’d likely see a loss of 10 to 15 percent to his business as a result of the new times, and the consequences would be even more far reaching.
“It has serious impacts for both me, my staff, entertainers I hire, and the folks that frequent our establishment,” he said at Tuesday’s select board meeting.
The earlier closing time will also disrupt some bar events, like private parties, he said, noting that particularly in the summer months, patrons often show up around midnight, which would now leave virtually no time for staff to earn lucrative late-night tips.
Since first discussing the policy earlier this year, Stallings said that he’s made a significant effort to mitigate certain disruptions like late night rowdiness, specifically during this past summer, in order to prove to the board that incidents involving police were few and far between.
JB Blau, owner of a handful of year-round establishments, agreed, saying that he’s also made changes to reduce incidents, which had, in part, led to an overall “positive” peak season.
Both owners emphasized the importance of keeping summer visitors in Oak Bluffs, which is when the most cash is made, and added that the extra half hour of business is crucial, as it essentially helps keep the lights on during the off-season.
“There’s a lot of ramifications that aren’t being thought about,” Blau told board members; including the effect the change would have on not just the business owners, but year-round staff and the “hundreds of thousands of guests who come to this town because it’s Oak Bluffs.”
Without the draw of a later nightlife, visitors may be less likely to choose Oak Bluffs for their Island stay, he argued, noting that owners of other nearby businesses could ultimately be seeing a loss in their sales too.
“People shop in Oak Bluffs and eat in Oak Bluffs because [their nights] end in Oak Bluffs,” he said.
“Because it’s open later, it’s where people book [to stay],” Blau said. “If we get rid of that in Oak Bluffs, we’ll just be Edgartown 2.”
Where often Island visitors would leave Edgartown for Oak Bluffs to enjoy the later closing times, guests may now lose the incentive, and opt to spend their time — and money — in Edgartown, he said.
Despite attempts made by chair Green-Beach to invite additional conversation and reconsideration of enacting the new policy, the other four board members made no motions to reverse April’s decision.
The new policy, which restricts alcohol sales past 12:30 am, and calls for a closing time of 1 am, goes into effect Sunday, October 1.