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Columbia bar and restaurant owners welcome removal of alcohol sales curfew

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Five Points night lined up 5 Points neon sign (copy)

John A. Carlos II / Special to The Free Times

Columbia restaurant and bar owners were largely pleased with the news that Gov. Henry McMaster’s 11 p.m. alcohol curfew will be waved starting March 1.

The curfew had been viewed as a pointless measure by some in the local hospitality community, who criticized the way it seemed to have little success with its intended effect and instead harmed businesses already struggling amid the COVID-19 pandemic. McMaster said he decided to lift the order he imposed in July because the “targeted and limited safety measures are no longer necessary.”

The governor also nixed the requirement for the state Department of Commerce’s approval for events with 250 or more people.

McMaster had initially instituted the curfew order as a way to prevent young people from transmitting the disease to other older people. However, in Columbia’s Five Points neighborhood, the order seemed to be ineffective as college students simply hit the bars at earlier hours.

For that neighborhood, the removal will be a welcome sight, said Steve Cook, president of the Five Points Association. The leader of the merchants group viewed the now-defunct curfew as well intentioned, but ultimately counterproductive.

“People are fighting for their survival, the survival of their business,” he said. “It's going to encourage more responsible behavior for people that might’ve been pushing the envelope or edging what they could do.”

The neighborhood has been a frequent target of criticism for its bar scene amid the pandemic, with large crowds, long lines and, at times, sparse mask wearing. Cook asserted the curfew played a role in worsening this.

“Whenever you take the hours somebody was allowed to operate and restrict them, of course it's going to cause overcrowding,” Cook said. “I do think it is really a good step towards getting those businesses getting to operate in their normal hours.”

Prolific Five Points bar owner Jon Sears said he’d “take anything he can get” in terms of assistance for his businesses. He owns popular college spots like Jake’s, the Cotton Gin and Pavlov’s, in addition to the trendy downtown rooftop bar Hendrix.

He was pleased with the move, but was uncertain how much of a difference it would make on his business.

“It's been about a year we’ve been in the pandemic and a lot of normals have changed, I think people’s habits have changed as well. I’m hoping that it will be helpful,” Sears said.

Each of his businesses will be open later now and he thought that the upscale Hendrix could be among the biggest beneficiaries.

Still, the lingering pandemic cost Five Points its signature St. Pat's festival for a second straight year. The festival is Columbia's largest, typically drawing more than 30,000 people. 

McMaster's move was also met warmly from those who run restaurants in other parts of the Capital City — though some curbed that enthusiasm with a wait-and-see outlook on what impact it ultimately would have.

Bourbon bar

Bourbon

“It’s about time. I mean it never made sense anyway,” said Kristian Niemi, owner of downtown’s popular cocktail bar Bourbon. “It didn’t do anything except punish restaurants that serve alcohol.”

The curfew caused other headaches, too. At times, Bourbon faced issues from out-of-town guests who didn’t know it was in effect, Niemi posited. The move will also return the whiskey bar to its status as a late-night service industry haunt, with workers often grabbing a cocktail after their evening shifts.

Fellow upscale downtown eatery Hampton Street Vineyard isn’t likely to take full advantage of being able to be open until 2 a.m., but it may explore expanding its bar hours to midnight, depending on customer demand, said co-owner Chelsea Carrier.

That would fit the original vision for an all-day brasserie that she and her two partners had when they opened the restaurant in August. She pointed to the popular Main Street steakhouse Halls Chophouse, which also seems like an unlikely beneficiary, as it boasts a strong late night bar program.

“I do think Columbia likes to go out and they like to be social. That’s the beauty of Columbia,” she said. “I hope it does promote business a little bit later for us.”

While she said the curfew lifting was welcome, Carrier also expressed some concern with the lifting of the event approval requirement, though that’s not something that directly affects them.

She underscored that the restaurant wouldn’t be making any changes to pandemic procedures like its 50 percent occupancy and six-foot distancing.

“I do fear with the lifting of the curfews and these large gatherings that it might affect the numbers, but that’s all hypothetical,” Carrier explained and further pointed to the lack of occupancy restrictions and other issues.

Others were equally hopeful, but noted some practical hurdles the extended hours may present.

At the still relatively new Transmission Arcade on Main Street, the owners initially envisioned being open until 2 a.m. The curfew’s removal is welcome and they will extend their hours, but they won’t rush into it, said co-owner Cam Powell.

Powell explained that the arcade bar and smoked meat restaurant will need to figure out how to adjust staff schedules.

Additionally, he speculated that they’ll have to double down on their COVID-19 policies as people are more likely to make multiple stops drinking in a night under normal hours.

“It definitely presents a handful of challenges." Powell said. "I think we’re excited about the potential for more business, more traditional business” 

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