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Is exempting wet restaurants from the 21-ordinance good policy?

BY DI EDITORIAL STAFF | JUNE 06, 2011 7:20 AM

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YES

The food-exemption status provided to numerous Iowa City businesses is a wonderful example of what the city should do to promote a healthy downtown business district.

Since the 21-ordinance passed, young people only have a few places to frequent at night. Simply put, Iowa City offers very little in the form of activities for young adults aside from a diverse assortment of restaurants and an overload of Redboxes. And with few entertainment venues offering all-ages shows, it would seem the vibrant downtown nightlife is off-limits to anyone younger than the drinking age.

But what’s important to remember is that “nightlife” is not synonymous with “binge drinking.” And because this is often overlooked, many responsible underage people are unfairly shut out from enjoying downtown Iowa City’s businesses. If those underage want a place to grab a late meal, they can go to Panchero’s or the like; but as many well know, that’s no replacement for Airliner pizza.

Obviously, then, the food-exemption system is the most efficient way of allowing underage people to visit the local restaurants they know and love. It allows those underage to socialize and be a part of the community, giving them places to go other than fast-food joints and house parties. And it prevents businesses from being forced to turn away customers just because they choose to serve alcoholic beverages with their food.

Are there going to be businesses that take advantage of the food-exemption system? Absolutely. But this should not negate the opportunities such a status can bring. And rather than demonizing the system, perhaps naysayers should recognize the city’s utter lack of entertainment for those underage.

Clearly, arguments can be made for reforming the current system of exemptions. However, it’s my belief that providing exemptions for food and entertainment purposes is something that benefits all of Iowa City.

— Matt Heinze

NO

There are always exceptions to every rule. Sometimes they work to the advantage of said rule; other times, not so much.

Let’s take the 21-ordinance.

Entertainment venues are a good exception to the rule. They provide a legitimate reason for those underage to remain in a bar after the restricted hours, and they face stringent requirements, including professional sound capacity and a low PAULA ratio.

However, here’s where I think the line should be drawn.

Food exemptions are a bad exception. The only requirement for a food exemption is proof that more than 50 percent of the business’s revenue comes from food sales. Establishments that have been granted exemptions — the Airliner, Sam’s, and (at least temporarily) the Summit, to name a few — are allowed to serve underage people after 10 p.m. for this reason alone, although Airliner has voluntarily gone 21-only.

While it may seem plausible that many that have been granted the privilege have abused it, even for those that haven’t, I suspect that an all-ages late-night hangout might trend inevitably toward non-food revenue.

Furthermore, some establishments might include other non-food sources, such as cover charges, to exceed their food totals, Bo-James owner Leah Cohen asserted.

“It’s making the ordinance ineffective,” Cohen told The Daily Iowan in May.

I wholeheartedly agree. If we’re going to stick to this ordinance, we can only have so many exceptions before it is completely useless. I can’t help but see underage people capitalizing on the food exemption as a way to drink, the same way they do for entertainment venues — but a restaurant provides less cultural capital than a musical venue.

— Taylor Casey


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