Right to choose, or a threat to public? Liquor: Garrett County has banned Sunday sales of it for years. Now a proposal to allow voting districts to choose embroils the county.

September 08, 1996|By Sherry Lane Frantz

AS THE COUNTRY gears up for the November election to decide national policies and issues, Maryland's westernmost county is embroiled in its own controversial issue: whether to allow diners the choice of being served an alcoholic beverage with their meals on Sunday.

It is an issue that is pitting community leaders, residents and business owners against one another. It is also an issue raised again and again in Garrett County, only to fall soundly in all its various forms, from proposals to allow unlimited liquor sales on Sunday to the most recent measure, which would provide restaurant patrons the option of an alcoholic drink with a meal.

Garrett County, one of the most popular resort areas in the state, has historically prohibited the sale of liquor on Sundays. Liquor stores and bars are closed. Beer and wine coolers in grocery stores are locked. Restaurants cannot serve drinks. And a group called Friends for Alcohol-Free Sundays was formed to keep it that way.

While most tourists and residents have learned to accept the fact that packaged liquor is unavailable on a Sunday in Garrett County stores, many diners have reacted with irritation and even anger. When their server tells them about it, some have left restaurants and headed to nearby West Virginia, Pennsylvania or Maryland's Allegany County to have drinks with their Sunday meal.

In recent years, Garrett lawmakers have attempted to repeal the county's "blue laws" by placing referendum questions on the November ballot. The attempts have failed, whether they were aimed broadly at alcohol sales or just at the serving of alcohol with dinner. The newest tack is to offer every voting district in the county the right to decide for itself.

The controversy over Sunday liquor sales resembles the one about whether to allow slot machines at Maryland's race tracks. Proponents of the sales, who have formed their own organization, Supporters of Tourism, cite economic benefits and individual's right to choose. Opponents raise moral arguments and cite the public's health and safety.

Tom Doyle, an Oakland attorney and real estate appraiser who serves as treasurer of the Friends group, believes that if a person "has to have a drink every time he eats a meal, he's addicted."

Doyle and his supporters also see the district-option measure as just the first step toward allowing unlimited Sunday sales. "Once you get the first pickle out of the jar, the rest come easy," he says.

Many residents who favor Sunday sales attribute the opposition to religion and fundamentalism. Doyle himself asks, "If the Lord is with us, who can be against us?" But then he quickly argues that his position is "totally nonreligious."

Michael Mudge, a local pastor and community leader from Crellin, is chairing the Friends group and also says that religion has no influence on his position.

"It's not a religious crusade," Mudge says. "We would just like to have one day a week when we don't have to worry about alcohol-related problems." He also notes that it seems to be a "glaring contradiction" that the whole country is involved in a campaign to stamp out tobacco use but still allows alcohol, even though there are numerous and serious documented health hazards from the abuse of both substances.

Mudge also believes that a contradiction exists within the tourist industry, which promotes Garrett County's slow pace and better quality of life, yet insists on catering to city dwellers' demands for urban amenities - such as a drink with dinner any day of the week.

"We have a different perspective here that we want to be preserved," he says, "and in a time of celebrating cultural diversity and tolerance," he thinks banning alcohol on Sunday is not too much to ask.

Maryland State Police Sgt. Dan Stanton of the McHenry barracks also opposes opening the door to any Sunday sales and believes that one of the most compelling arguments is the fact that "the more society drinks, the more conflict we'll have with public safety and the more alcohol will contribute to the death and crime rate."

Reporting that alcohol-related accidents and fatalities occur at a much higher rate on the weekend than during the work week, Stanton stresses that alcohol in any amount affects a person's judgment. "It makes people think differently and do things they wouldn't normally do," he says, adding that while many people can stop at one drink, others cannot.

"Nobody argues with having a drink with dinner, but if we allow Sunday sales in any form, it opens up the door and makes it easier for people to stop at one or two drinks, and I guarantee you will see an increase in alcohol-related accidents and crime," he concludes.

While most supporters of limited access to alcohol say they, too, are concerned about public safety and maintaining the county's rural atmosphere, some feel the current law is an insult to the responsible drinker.

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