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The rejection of a group of firefighters by the parade committee might be this year's juiciest St. Patrick's Day controversy, but a new to-go cup policy has caused no lack of flap among Savannah residents.
For the first time, Savannah's normally-free privilege of walking around with a drink has a price tag:
During St. Patrick's Day weekend, people drinking alcoholic beverages outdoors anywhere within the newly-expanded festival zone are required to purchase wristbands for $5.
It's a small tab compared to the alternative: If you're caught with a cocktail in hand without one, the fine is $67. If you're under 21, the fine can be up to $1,000.
"If you have alcohol on the street, you need to be wearing a wristband," said Marty Johnston, Director of Special Events for the City of Savannah, at a meeting covering St. Patrick's Day logistics last Wednesday.
Wristbands can be purchased by those 21 and over who show a valid I.D. at one of 20 booths or to several roaming vendors, all of whom have the same "bar cards" that bartenders must have to serve alcohol. Enforcement of the wristband policy will begin Friday night and go through Sunday morning at 4 a.m., excluding Saturday's parade.
Separate wristbands — in different colors — have to be purchased for Friday and Saturday.
The purpose of the wristbands is not to inconvenience but to prevent underage drinking, reiterated Johnston. She encouraged bartenders and proprietors to check I.D.s, even if someone is already wearing a wristband.
"College students can be ingenious in the ways they're going to get a drink," she reminded.
More than 40 local business owners and managers were in attendance at Wednesday's meeting, including representatives from Bay St. Blues, Molly MacPherson's and Circa.
Over concern whether patrons needed a wristband to drink inside one of the bars within the zone, Johnston clarified that the policy only applies on the street.
"Businesses will not be held responsible when your customers walk out the door with a to-go cup," she said. "It's up to the individual consumer."
"But what if they want to go outside to have a cigarette and they don't have a wristband?" asked one of the attendees.
Johnston replied after confirming with Fire Marshal Craig Landolt that smokers did not need to purchase wristbands as long as they were within the 10-foot smoking buffer outside an establishment.
A dollar from each $5 wristband will go back to the city to help defray the cost of a weekend that attracts almost a half million people to Savannah, including added security. The rest of the wristband proceeds will be divided among the Savannah Waterfront Association, City Market and the Downtown Business Association and help pay the musicians performing throughout the weekend.
On Friday and Saturday, over 40 bands will play on six stages throughout what the city is calling the "entertainment zone": River Street between MLK Blvd. and E. Broad as well as south to Broughton Lane (encompassing all of Broughton Street) between MLK Blvd. and Drayton Street. Barricades designate the boundaries of this larger-than-ever-before festival site, designed to keep partygoers in a manageable space.
In addition to the new wristband policy, other changes to the St. Patrick's Day Festival ordinance are the prohibition of coolers, dogs (with the exception of residents who live within the boundaries) and all manner of reptiles (whether they're part of your outfit or not).
Also banned in the zone are bicycles, which SCMPD Lieutenant David Gay explained "can quickly turn from a mode of transportation into a weapon or a projectile."
Though the changes may irk some residents and visitors who aren't used to them, many who attended the meeting seemed to appreciate the extra effort to keep the peace during the busiest — and potentially most rambunctious — weekend of the year.
Overheard from one longtime downtown resident:
"If you've seen what I've seen, all of this sounds pretty reasonable."