Monday, September 14, 2020

soon, you'll be able to drink in montgomery county parks

Starting Thursday, you might be able to legally enjoy a drink in a Montgomery County park. A new directive from Montgomery Parks will allow alcohol, including beer, wine, and spirits, in a designated area in nine county parks. It’s a trial, and would only take effect through next May.

A juicebox in Sligo Avenue Park, which is not one of the parks where you'll be able to drink harder things. Photo by the author.

The proposed rules are part of “Picnic in the Park,” a new effort by Montgomery Parks to promote its parks and support local restaurants. Visitors to nine parks in Silver Spring, Takoma Park, Bethesda, North Bethesda, Wheaton, and Germantown can order takeout from a nearby restaurant and have it delivered to the park.

Under the new directive, people would now be able to enjoy a drink in designated areas within one of the nine parks. The county began allowing restaurants to sell alcohol to-go when everything shut down in March due to Covid-19, but has kept the rule in place even as restaurants were allowed to have indoor dining. Of course, you’ll have to be 21 to drink in the park, and people are encouraged to drink responsibly.

The new rules are part of a growing movement in Montgomery County to give people more room to spend time outside while maintaining social distance. With encouragement from a group of advocates, Montgomery Parks has closed several miles of roads in parks, including Sligo Creek Parkway and Beach Drive. The Montgomery County Department of Transportation has turned miles of residential lanes into “Shared Streets” where through traffic is discouraged to make it safer to walk and bike.

During the summer, that expanded into outdoor dining, which also means outdoor drinking. In Bethesda, DOT worked with local restaurants to shut down Woodmont Avenue for outdoor dining, along with some space for curbside pickup. The Maryland State Highway Administration agreed to close two lanes of Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring (a state road) for outdoor dining. Neighbors and County Councilmembers are currently trying to do the same on Ellsworth Drive in downtown Silver Spring (though developer Peterson Companies, which controls much of the street, has been resistant).

This was only announced last week, though Parks Department officials say they’ve heard from some residents who oppose it. Naturally, some people are worried about this encouraging bad behavior, especially in an area where kids might be nearby.

People already drink in parks

One block away from our house is Sligo Avenue Park, which is not in the Picnic in the Park program. It has a grill and some picnic tables where many of our neighbors like to eat outside. That’s become especially important during the Covid-19 pandemic, as we know it’s safer to socialize outside than inside.

If you’re fortunate enough to have a yard during the pandemic, you’ve probably hung out in your yard with friends and family, and perhaps even enjoyed a meal or a drink. There are a number of large apartment buildings in our neighborhood, and for people who don’t have private outdoor space in their homes, Sligo Avenue Park is basically their backyard.

Just as people drink in their backyards, people already drink in this park, often in a little clearing to the side, away from the playground and the tennis courts. My partner and I walk our dog in this park every day. Nobody really gives us any trouble here. But it sucks to find beer bottles and food waste in the grass, and more than once we’ve had to pull an errant chicken bone out of our dog’s mouth.

Trash and bad behavior are two concerns I’ve heard from people in the few days since the proposed rules were announced. Another concern is that the rules could be enforced unevenly, and target people who may already drink in parks. When I first tweeted about this Tuesday, the Silver Spring Justice Coalition, a grassroots organization that opposes police brutality, replied, “They will arresr [sp] and harass the poor and unhoused folks for this, however it’s okay for the middle class.”

The new rules don’t prohibit BYOB, but they don’t exactly encourage it. There’s a risk that encouraging people to enjoy takeout drinks and food in a park - in other words, people who can afford takeout drinks and food - might make it easier to police the actions of someone who can only afford a drink and wants to enjoy it in one of the few places available to them. Instead, Montgomery Parks has an opportunity to set norms for good behavior while drinking in a park, regardless of who you are: be respectful of others and pick up after yourself.

Now what

On Thursday, the Montgomery County Planning Board, which oversees Montgomery Parks, will review the proposed rules and vote to approve them. After May 31, 2021 they’ll expire, and can be renewed for up to 12 additional months. If you have thoughts about this, you can contact the Planning Board by visiting their website.

What do you think? Do you look forward to grabbing a drink in a Montgomery County park?

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