Last call in California is 2 a.m. That's when bars, restaurants, nightclubs and any other businesses licensed for on-site liquor sales are legally bound to stop serving alcohol, and that's when most of those establishments close for the night.
Why 2 a.m.? That's just the way it's been in California for the last 80 years, ever since the 21st Amendment ended the national prohibition on alcohol and states were left to set their own laws governing its sale and distribution.
California picked 2 a.m. as the appropriate time to stop pouring libations. So did Colorado, Iowa, Texas and about two dozen other states. Indiana, Tennessee and West Virginia picked 3 a.m., while Alaska, Illinois and New York settled on 4 a.m. Several states, including Nevada and New Jersey, have no state limits at all on when alcohol can be sold. Many states also give cities and counties the flexibility to set their own local rules on alcohol sales. That's why New Orleans bars can stay open 24 hours a day, while bars in nearby Baton Rouge have to close at 2 a.m.
The point is that there's no firm science behind last-call laws, no data that prove that 2 a.m. is better than 4 a.m or 6 a.m. or any other time. The laws are more a reflection of a state's history, its cultural practices and its politics. California is still hewing to a 1935 law dictating that alcohol sales stop from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., and that blanket prohibition no longer makes sense for cities with thriving music and nightlife scenes that compete for investment and tourism with the likes of New York City, Las Vegas and other late-night cities.
It's time to give local governments more control over when, where and how alcohol is served. A city like Los Angeles, for instance, shouldn't have to shut down its bars early each night in deference to a fusty, 80-year-old law. Letting responsible establishments in appropriate neighborhoods stay open later would help create a fun, bustling, vibrant, big-city atmosphere attractive to younger people and tourists — while also generating tax revenue, creating jobs and increasing the earnings of small businesses.
Senate Bill 384 would have California follow the lead of other states that have allowed cities and counties more authority to set rules on closing times. The bill would establish a process by which the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control would allow certain bars, restaurants and nightclubs to sell alcohol between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. — if, and only if, the local government wants to allow extended hours.
There would be lots of hoops to jump through. The City Council or local governing body would have to submit a plan to the department that identifies when and where extended hours would be allowed, how law enforcement authorities would manage the effects and what transportation services would be available. The local authorities could decide to limit extended hours to certain commercial districts only, say, or to allow them only on weekends. The department would need to sign off on the plan. Then individual businesses would need to apply for permission from the ABC, which would require notifying law enforcement and residents within 500 feet of the establishment.
The hoops are designed to address concerns from law enforcement and community activists, who have successfully killed previous efforts to relax the 2 a.m. cutoff amid fears that later hours will lead to more drunk driving and raucous partying. Those are legitimate concerns, although advocates for the bill note that of the 10 states with the highest DUI-related fatalities, only three allow alcohol service after 2 a.m.
The reality is 2 a.m. is unnecessarily early for communities with busy restaurants, music venues and clubs, such as downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood and San Francisco. Why should bars close at 2 a.m., especially if law enforcement can handle the additional patrols and taxis and ridesharing apps, like Lyft and Uber, give revelers more options to get home without a car? State lawmakers should support SB 384 and let cities and counties set a last call that works for locals.
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