When the Iowa City Council passed the 21-only ordinance in 2010, raising city bars’ entry age from 19 to 21 after 10 p.m., a major goal was to curtail excessive underage drinking in downtown Iowa City.
But some local bar and restaurant owners say the ordinance needs some tweaking, due to a few bars finding ways to bend the rules, mostly involving the uneven distribution of exception certificates.
"In this year since the ordinance has come into effect there are certain individuals who are going to work around the ordinance and that's being accomplished through the exemptions," said Bo James Owner Leah Cohen. "It's really presented an unequal playing field for restaurant-bars downtown."
Cohen addressed the council Tuesday night, representing seven owners of 12 downtown bars and restaurants that took part in a list of recommendations presented to the council in an effort to make these 21-only exemptions more fair.
The recommendations discussed at Tuesday's meeting can be found at http://www.iowa-city.org/Weblink/DocView.aspx?id=1146098&Page=158.
The six-month exemption for new businesses is part of the problem, along with the 50-percent rule, Cohen said.
When establishments reap more than 50 percent of their revenue from food, they are exempt from the 21-only law. These types of businesses include the Airliner, Buffalo Wild Wings, Graze, Mickey’s, The Saloon, Short’s Burger & Shine, and Sam’s Pizza.
"What we have seen happened is some places are getting away with a lot," Cohen said. "We are really asking you to look at this and get this ordinance tweaked so we don't go backward."
In addition, some longstanding restaurants, like the Fieldhouse and the Airliner, have changed owners and gained the status of a new business, along with a coveted exception ticket.
"Currently a bar with an exception certificate has a lot of financial incentive to not do much about underage access to alcohol," said Kelly Bender, the coordinator of Campus and Community Harm Reduction Initiative at the University of Iowa. "They are attracting very large audiences so there is a lot of profit that comes with that."
Because of this, the main thrust of the suggestions to the council are to modify the exceptions to make sure that the establishments are a 50 percent food establishment, and that they are maintaining an environment where underage drinking arrests remain below a set threshhold. If either these are violated, the groups suggest that the exception certificate should be revoked.
Bender is also the coordinator of Partnership for Alcohol Safety, a collaboration between the city of Iowa City and the University of Iowa to identify and advocate for strategies that reduce high-risk drinking and promote a vibrant downtown. Both Cohen and Iowa City Mayor and Council Member Matt Hayek serve on PAS, Cohen as a committee member and Hayek as co-chair.
The exception certificate allows some bars to reap the benefits of more alcohol sales with none of the legal risk, Bender said.
"There is incentive obviously not to sell alcohol to a minor because if they get caught with that, then the bar suffers the consequence of that as well as the server," she said. "But if the young person just has alcohol - for instance that is served in a pitcher - and they're at the table and have access that way, and it's not sold directly to them, it's the young person that has the consequence and the bar doesn't have one."
Another recommendation for tweaking the 21 Ordinance Food Related Exception Certificate included streamlining PAULA (Possession of Alcohol Under the Legal Age) data to include both University of Iowa police and Iowa City police force data when checking the 0.5 Paula ratio.
Currently, the bars that physically separate drinking from non-drinking patrons during special events, like concerts, can take advantage of the entertainment-venue ordinance only if they have a 0.5 or less PAULA ratio and put on 150 shows a year.
By adding the University PAULAs to the Iowa City Police data, the figures should more accurately reflect their number, Bender said.
"We're not against people being able to draw large audiences of young
people downtown, that was in fact the goal of having an exception
certificate is to be able to still have that possiblity down there," Bender said. "But we just want them to practise responsbile alcohol sales and
service that prevent underage access and excessive drinking."
Cohen said with the help of Iowa City Attorney, Eleanor Dilkes, the city council will have the chance to discuss and vote on a formal list of finalized recommendations at their next meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 6.
"Our purpose was to really get a diverse viewpoint about what might
work and what might not," Bender said. "So we had a lot of conversation with a lot of different directions before we got to the recommendations that we finalized and sent to you."