Changing the spirit of Sunday liquor sales
Once upon a time, retailers in Spartanburg, S.C., made an annual holiday trek to the city council to request a temporary repeal of the city’s blue laws that prohibited malls, discount warehouses or home improvement stores from opening before 1:30 p.m. on Sunday. And each year, the council granted its business people their request to open earlier. The council’s holiday reprieve helped local retailers to be competitive with surrounding counties during the holiday season.
In November, voters approved two measures on the city’s ballot. The first allowed the opening of certain types of stores, such as malls, anytime on Sundays. The second measure permitted restaurants to sell alcohol on Sundays. “Everybody felt pretty good that it happened,” says Spartanburg City Manager Mark Scott. “It was done through the election and very one-sided in favor.”
The passage resulted in additional cash flow for the retailers and for the city. With a population of just 40,000, an annual budget of $32 million and a hospitality tax of 2 percent, Spartanburg will receive roughly $200,000 a year from Sunday alcohol sales, according to Scott.
The Washington, D.C.-based Distilled Spirits Council, a national trade association representing producers and marketers of distilled spirits, lobbies for increased Sunday sales at all levels of government. Over the past two and a half years, 10 states have passed some form of Sunday sales laws, says Peter Cressy, council president. Although the trade association does not have statistics for counties and cities, Cressy maintains that the state trends to repeal blue laws suggest similar ones at the local level.
The regulation of Sunday liquor sales falls into one of several categories: states that allow sales by all retail licensees, such as liquor or grocery stores; states that allow local governments to decide whether to allow sales; states that allow sales in certain geographic or demographic locations; and states that allow licensees to choose any six days to remain open for alcohol sales.
In total, 31 states allow Sunday liquor sales in some form. Sunday sales put spirits on a level playing field with beer — currently sold on Sunday in 48 states — and wine, currently sold on Sundays in 45 states. Local governments in 12 states decide whether and where to allow Sunday sales.
When St. Petersburg, Fla., City Council member and teetotaler John Bryan proposed to revise the city’s blue laws last year, his constituents intimated they would not want to be in his shoes come voting time. However, he has not heard many complaints since the blue laws were changed to allow Sunday sales of alcohol. “We had really very little opposition,” Bryan says.
The repeal of the age-old blue laws — so-called laws that regulate moral behavior — has not put money into St. Petersburg’s coffers, but instead has assuaged hostile tourists who wanted a mimosa on their day of rest. Before the resolution, beer and wine could not be sold in St. Petersburg before 1 p.m., and hard liquor could not be sold at all on Sunday. Now all alcohol may be sold beginning at 11 a.m. on Sundays.
David Laband, a policy professor at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., and author of “Blue Laws: The History, Economics and Politics of Sunday-Closing Laws,” says blue laws are in a long-term decline. Laband has been studying blue laws for 20 years and traces the trend to repeal them as far back as World War II when the large number of women entering the workforce could no longer shop on weekdays.
“The most recent wave of repeals is due to the economic downturn,” Laband says. “Localities are looking for ways to boost tax collection and view Sunday [alcohol] sales as a way of contributing tax sales to local economies.”
Laband also notes a sharp decline in religiosity and in Americans’ willingness to allow government to regulate behavior as contributors to the trend. With such a strong tie to economics, he predicts the trend of repealing blue laws will subside until the next economic downturn if the country’s economy is bolstered by the November presidential election.
— Sibley Fleming is an Atlanta-based freelance writer.