Baltimore pub crawls spur debate over regulation

Activities have gotten out of hand, community groups say

March 18, 2010|By Peter Hermann | peter.hermann@baltsun.com

Free cups of coffee. Free bowls of Lucky Charms. Penny pints of Guinness.

Breakfast at 6 a.m. at South Baltimore's No Idea Tavern on Hanover Street, a pre-dawn start to St. Patrick's Day revelry.

It was also the beginning of another day of pub crawls in and around Federal Hill, a controversial topic these days after a stabbing a few weeks ago on Covington Street prompted complaints from community groups that organized bar-hopping has gotten out of hand and needs to be regulated.

By 7:45 Wednesday morning, the bar at No Idea was lined with early risers who each paid $5 for a cup and then a penny for each Guinness. That special led to another - $5 for all-you-can-drink Guinness from 8 until noon. And then, if that wasn't enough for a morning in the middle of a work week, patrons embarked on a pub crawl that lasted until after sunset, the second part of a fundraiser that started Saturday.

"2 Days, 4 Bars," the tavern advertised.

"How can I pass this up?" asked Bill Rollins, 31, who along with Steve Belcher, 25, drove from Towson and were on bar stools eating cereal and downing stout from green plastic cups before the sun came up. "The idea," said Belcher, himself a bartender, "is to drink as much as possible."

Patrons said they had heard of the stabbing, which occurred a little more than two weeks ago when a participant in a pub crawl to raise money for a flag football team called the Hitmen stabbed another three times in the back just after the revelry had concluded. Police blamed the attack on an argument over a girl.

Participants in that pub crawl never went into No Idea, but owner Jason Zink conceded that "the stabbing didn't help us." He has a twist that he hopes will win over skeptics: Proceeds from his pub crawl and Guinness specials are being donated to Thomas Jefferson Elementary School on Light Street (he raised $1,500 on Saturday alone). And another pub crawl he's planning for Cinco de Mayo could help a nearby housing complex for the elderly.

But even drinking for a good cause hasn't headed off what has become a wide-ranging discussion among bar owners, patrons, community leaders, politicians and police over whether pub crawls should and can be regulated and who should be held responsible for drunken partyers parading through neighborhoods, sometimes with beers in hand, breaking flower pots and leaving bottles and other trash on homeowners' doorsteps.

Community association leaders met Saturday morning at Rallo's restaurant on Fort Avenue (pancakes, no Guinness) and agreed to push for some sort of permit process for pub crawls. How that might be accomplished is a matter of debate. What constitutes a pub crawl? How many people does it take to qualify? Are T-shirts necessary? Or fees? Is an informal bachelor's party that goes bar to bar a pub crawl? And can you legally require permits for people just walking from one pub to another?

Del. Brian K. McHale, who lives in South Baltimore, said he might consider legislation next year to regulate pub crawls. Such a bill might include requiring two weeks' notice to police and other city officials.

Lawyer Stephan Fogleman, head of the city's liquor board, said the regulatory agency could require license holders to notify inspectors when they sponsor any event involving two or more establishments. But trying to regulate outings that are thrown together by a football team or a household - but not formally sponsored by a bar - would be difficult.

"Twenty people can form a bachelorette party and go from pub to pub," Fogleman said. "You can't [require] a permit for that."

That is precisely the problem Rhode Island lawmakers faced when they tried to craft legislation banning pub crawls after a college student was killed by a bus in 2004 during a pub crawl in Newport.

The measure that finally passed - and took effect in July 2009, without the governor's signature - prohibits licensed liquor establishments from knowingly participating in a pub crawl, according to a spokesman for the state Senate. Before the bill's passage, The Providence Journal reported, debate focused on how bartenders could distinguish between an organized event and a group roaming from bar to bar.

That same debate is taking place now in South Baltimore.

"Pub crawls happen," said Paul W. Robinson, president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association. "But when you have three or four of them, and you've got 15 to 20 venues all involved, that is going to be a crowd-control problem. They market these things because they need to be successful. But when you're being served penny Guinnesses at 6 in the morning, people could get pretty, uh, happy."

Robinson meant rowdy, and noted that many crawls start about noon or earlier, and that patrons sometimes drink openly in the street as they move from bar to bar.

"Families aren't likely to roll down to the Cross Street Market with their kids when you've got youngsters drinking penny drafts for God knows how long," he said.

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