CAPE MAY — The city officials of this historic town have spent a surprising amount of time lately talking about marijuana and alcohol.
The city has introduced an ordinance banning smoking cannabis in public — a step they see as necessary to keep the stuff off the Washington Street Mall — and officials plan to limit public consumption of alcohol.
Last year, the city eased its restrictions on open containers in hopes of helping bars and restaurants hard hit by the pandemic and the sweeping restrictions put in place to contain it. After New Jersey allowed bars and restaurants to sell beer, wine and cocktails in to-go containers, Cape May offered pedestrians somewhere to go with it, allowing pedestrians to stroll the mall, walk the Promenade and go to the beach with an open container.
Now, the city sounds set to rein things in, at least in the city’s residential zones.
Mayor Zack Mullock has suggested limiting open containers to the immediate area of licensed properties.
At the March 16 City Council meeting, members kicked the can a little way down the road. The existing rules, which were put in place as an emergency resolution, were set to expire on March 17.
Council approved extending them into April.
Mullock says the timing had nothing to do with St. Patrick’s Day, but instead it gives the council more time to discuss the matter at a special meeting, likely to take place March 31.
Council already had a lengthy agenda at the March 16 meeting, including the introduction of an ordinance banning smoking or vaping cannabis on public property.
Last year, as a city councilman, Mullock joined Councilwoman Stacy Sheehan to vote against the resolution allowing public consumption of alcohol, approved in a 3-2 vote. Since then, Mullock unseated Clarence Lear as mayor and another council member who voted to allow public consumption lost her reelection bid.
At a March 2 workshop meeting, council members discussed ordinances related to the public consumption of alcohol and cannabis at length. Councilman Chris Bezaire, who was not a member when the original open container resolution passed, said the idea was to support local businesses.
“It promoted more income for businesses that were being restricted due to COVID,” he said. The intent was not to allow people to bring a cooler to the beach, Bezaire suggested. He said it’s time to “tweak” the restrictions.
“Overall, I’m still a proponent of the open consumption of alcohol, but I’m also open to any comments or suggestions from the public and from council as far as restricting it a little bit more to ensure we’re still acting in the best interest of the public and not just have it be a free-for-all,” Bezaire said.
According to Mullock, who’s family runs a bar in town, allowing public consumption does not help the businesses much. He added that the change was only ever intended to be temporary.
“This is for COVID-19 and we are not necessarily looking at doing this in the future,” Mullock said. “I see no need for open containers in our residential areas.”
At the workshop meeting, Sheehan raised concerns about safety if people drink alcohol on the beach.
Plus, she added, the move appears deeply unpopular with residents.
“And they’re the ones that are living here,” she said.
In a statement issued on the matter, the Taxpayer Association of Cape May lambasted the open container rules and called for their repeal.
“It is quite extraordinary that even in the depth of the 2020 pandemic restrictions, no other seaside resort town in this county, including Wildwood, permitted this behavior,” reads a statement posted to the group’s website.
“There was no public value for our residents and taxpayers in morphing our public spaces into extensions of taverns and bars. In the interest of bolstering alcohol sales in our licensed hospitality venues, we rebranded Cape May into ‘Bourbon Street.’”
Police Chief Dekon Fashaw reported to City Council that there were fewer problems related to pubic intoxication and fights in 2020 than the year before. He cited a change at the state level that limited the sale of alcohol until midnight. Cape May’s closing time would usually be 2 a.m.
Fashaw told council that he was not recommending a permanent change in the city’s closing time, but said if people believe they are allowed to carry their drinks between venues from between midnight and 2 a.m., that is likely to raise new problems for police.
According to Mullock, City Council will likely be ready to vote on the issue in April.