Outdoor drinking areas could offer big boost to Virginia's economy

Posted at 8:25 PM, Dec 23, 2020

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. – While it’s considered illegal in Virginia to walk around in public while drinking alcohol, a new bill could virtually change that.

Virginia Del. Will Wampler (R-Abingdon) sponsors the legislation that would create what’s being called an "outdoor refreshment area." It would allow a person to, within reason, sip an alcoholic beverage outside a cafe, bar or hotel without police batting an eye.

“I think people really want more space to gather,” Wampler said. “They want to support small and local businesses. What this bill will do is allow them to go in, order food, order a beverage - including alcohol - and take it out into the outdoor refreshment area, enjoy their community.”

If passed, each city, town or county would first need to implement a public safety plan. Then, three designated areas in a municipality would essentially become open-container areas for people to carry and drink alcoholic beverages, similar to the Las Vegas Strip.

The idea is to allow patrons to buy a drink at participating establishments and then stroll the nearby shops, boutiques and experience the area.

Del. Martha Mugler (D-Hampton) co-sponsors the bill.

“It’s a win-win for communities and a win for small business,” Mugler said. “This is an opportunity to give a little bit of an economic boost to restaurant owners who have really struggled during this pandemic.”

Mugler represents part of Hampton and said the city and others across the state are on board with outdoor refreshment areas.

In terms of having a desire for this legislation to pass, all the way from Abington to Galax, to Fairfax to Hampton Roads, there are communities interested in this opportunity,” she said.

For months, restaurants and cafes have used sidewalks, parking lots and even the street to offer al fresco dining as a way to survive during COVID-19’s indoor dining restrictions.

Wampler said his bill would expand that concept, giving a much-needed boost to the economy.

“Restauranteurs, hoteliers, retail businesses have been absolutely crushed by this virus,” he said. “This bill is going to help drive foot traffic back to those businesses, back to small businesses, local businesses.”

According to a recent survey by VRTLA, 39% of Virginia restaurant operators say it is unlikely their restaurant will still be in business six months from now if there is no additional relief packages from the federal government.

Wampler said several other states, including Ohio and Arkansas have created outdoor refreshment areas. Both he and Mugler said there’s been bi-partisan support for the bill, and they’re hopeful it’ll pass once session starts back up on January 13, 2021.