In downtown Knoxville’s Market Square, you can enjoy a beer on a rooftop. You can enjoy a beer on one of the many patios, too. But take one step outside the boundaries separating restaurant customers from window shoppers passing by, and your server will stop you: “You can’t take your drink out there.”
Now, in the age of coronavirus, restaurant customers even can enjoy a beer in the center of the Square within a temporary seating area allowed through a new city permit. But what’s so sacred about the sidewalks when it comes to beer?
Scott West, owner of multiple Market Square bars, believes the new city permit allowing restaurants to expand the spaces they serve food and beer is a step toward his vision of a reimagined Market Square — one he told Knox News could have a “glowing fantasy land of glittering lights floating above romantic table seating” and new rules allowing open containers of alcohol.
West has a history of seeing his predictions come to fruition. He saw a potential nightlife scene when rundown buildings with boarded-up windows defined Market Square. He refused to reopen during COVID-19 because he anticipated another mandate to close, which recently happened for a brief time.
Only time will tell if this vision will come true. But it should — for the benefit of local businesses, residents and outsiders exploring the Scruffy City.
Market Square essentially is a patio to begin with — a rather large one. There are no cars, plenty of open space and multiple patios lining the Square’s edges. And now there is a large patio smack dab in the middle of the Square, too.
With all of the space to drink, having to leave your beer behind to stroll down the walkway just seems silly. The few feet between the walkway and a table doesn’t make much of a difference. So why not turn the whole space into a patio by allowing patrons to walk the area with a drink in hand?
Allowing open containers in Market Square could help local bars bounce back after months of financial struggle due to COVID-19. A refreshed open container law could help get more customers in the doors. Strict, reduced capacity means only so many people are allowed inside for a drink. But allowing people to take their drinks on the Square means bartenders could potentially serve more people in a safe manner. COVID-19 has increased the need for outdoor seating and social distancing, and this would address both of those concerns.
Ordering food to-go is often more attractive than eating out, as you can still run into a tight patio that makes it hard to stay apart from other groups. And taking food to-go means customers can’t stick around for a drink, which not only means less sales but also less tips. Open containers would allow people to enjoy their drinks with less worry, bringing in more money to business owners and spreading wealth among multiple bars and restaurants as people move from place to place.
Plus, how many times have you sat at a bar just waiting for the last person at your table to finish their drink? Tell that slow sipper to take their drink on the go as your group explores other businesses Market Square has to offer.
Walking into a bar comes with an unspoken obligation to stay for at least one drink. But if you’re not feeling the vibe of a bar for whatever reason, you can still support the business by purchasing a to-go drink as you look for other options.
Having that ability to drink openly in Market Square would be a great way to drive visitors to downtown. I don’t think by any stretch of the imagination that Market Square would become the next Bourbon Street, but the novelty certainly would be attractive to nearby residents and people passing through the area.
As with any new practice, allowing open containers of alcohol will come with some concerns. City Councilman Andrew Roberto told Knox News there are benefits to businesses serving drinks in a controlled environment. But that wouldn’t really change.
Just because open containers would be allowed doesn’t mean businesses would relinquish control. Any responsible bar owner knows that IDs must still be checked. And if anybody looks like they’ve had too much to drink, bartenders always could, and should, refuse service.
In fact, it’s much easier to spot someone who’s intoxicated on the street rather than in a crowded, dark bar. People, knowing they are on full display for all of Market Square to see, should hold themselves accountable.
Anyone concerned about drunk driving should remember that DUI laws would not change. People still can drink as much as they want inside a bar until they are cut off and drive home. They shouldn’t, but they can.
Allowing alcohol in an open environment could encourage more social, responsible drinking. Walking around with a beer is a more casual experience than sitting at a bar and ordering a second drink as soon as you finish your first. After all, Market Square is a relatively small portion of downtown Knoxville. I find it hard to believe people wanting to get intoxicated will do so by walking in circles around the Square.
Roberto also brought up the possibility to Knox News of people handing off drinks to someone underage. While I do understand this concern, getting away with handing off a drink is easier in a dark bar than out in the open, unless IDs are checked at the door.
We cannot guarantee every open container rule would be followed, but all it would take is some prominent signs on the ends of Market Square to remind people of the boundaries and consequences for breaking the rules. Plus, there already are police officers who station themselves at the end of Market Square to keep an eye on people passing through.
It’s obvious the benefits outweigh concerns when it comes to open containers. Not only will people enjoy this new freedom, but business owners should enjoy the profits that come along with it.