FARGO — Residents of Fargo and West Fargo hoping to make a newly-legalized early Sunday morning run to the liquor store will need to pump the brakes.
Although the North Dakota Legislature passed Senate Bill 2220 Friday, March 26, local ordinances in both Fargo and West Fargo still preclude restaurants, bars and liquor stores from selling alcohol prior to 11 a.m. on Sundays.
The local ordinances are vestiges of the previous state legislation, which hearkens back to the state's once-strict "blue laws", first established in 1889 when the state was founded.
Now though, Senate Bill 2220 permits alcohol service and sale beginning at 8 a.m. on Sundays. Still, ordinances in both cities will need to be revised in order to allow residents of the state's largest metropolitan area to take advantage of the relaxed law.
The bill faced an uphill battle in the Legislature. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 4-2 to give the bill a "do pass" recommendation, however the upper chamber voted 21-26 to stop the proposal. After reconsideration, the bill was sent to the House of Representatives by slim 24-22 vote.
Despite the House Judiciary Committee voting 8-4 to give the bill a "do not pass" recommendation, the bill advanced to Gov. Doug Burgum's desk by a 49-41 vote and was subsequently enacted Thursday, April 1.
Local changes required
In Fargo, Commissioner Dave Piepkorn, a liaison to the city's Liquor Control Board, said the city will in all likelihood attempt to mirror the new state law and that a revision to the existing ordinance should be on the horizon. "I would say more than likely that we would obviously want to have the same rules as the state," Piepkorn told The Forum. "It'll be on our agenda and I would say more than likely we would match what the state does."
Piepkorn said the city ought to match the state policy because "we've had some bad experiences in Fargo where we try to do something different."
Fellow Liquor Control Board liaison Commissioner Tony Gehrig shared the same viewpoint, saying that local ordinances are easier to understand when they match state laws.
If the matter were presented to the City Commission, both Piepkorn and Gehrig indicated they'd be in favor of making the revision. "Adults can do adult things and they can decide when they want to do those adult things," Gehrig remarked.
When it comes to changing liquor laws in the city, however, Gehrig said "you never know" where the votes will fall.
West Fargo Commissioner Mark Simmons, one of two Liquor Control Board liaison in the city, also said that the city generally attempts to match state law. "Normally we will follow state law without any real concern," he said.
Commissioner Eric Gjerdevig, the second board liaison in West Fargo, agreed. Though Gjerdevig said the Commission hasn’t discussed the matter yet, "I would assume the city would be updating its ordinances to reflect the change at the state level."
'All about fairness'
Representative Michael Howe, R-West Fargo, a sponsor of the bill, cited numerous reasons for favoring the proposal. "The reason I sponsored the bill was more for the restaurant and bar industry," he said.
If restaurants which offer Sunday brunches, such as the Blarney Stone in West Fargo, wish to serve Bloody Marys or mimosas prior to 11 a.m., they should be able to do so, Howe reasoned.
The bill also made sense to Howe because it would allow golf courses to serve alcohol earlier on Sundays when golfers arrive to play a round. "If you have a round of golf at 10 a.m., you couldn't have an alcoholic beverage until 11 a.m.," he noted.
SB 2220 still faced heavy scrutiny in Bismarck, though, where some argued it would impede on religious services or foster alcoholism.
Howe contended that while alcoholism is a "very real problem" in the state, "just because someone wants to have an alcoholic beverage before 11 a.m. on a Sunday doesn’t mean they’re an alcoholic."
He also said that the law is "all about fairness" and that the law won't sway people from going to church. "I'm a Christian and I do attend church, but if I wanted the choice to purchase alcohol just like the other days of the week, I don’t think the government should stand in the way of doing that," Howe said.
Liquor stores in Fargo and West Fargo, still bound by city ordinances, said they'll be monitoring what competitors are doing before making a decision to open early on Sundays.
Mike Wold, manager of Bottle Barn, which has stores in both cities, said the store is "probably leaning towards opening early" and will watch what other stores decide.
"Now we can try and catch people before they take off for the lake on Sunday," he said.
Wold noted that staffing, which has already been difficult, could pose an issue. Employees will likely want more free time on weekends with summer right around the corner, he said.
Jodi Plecity, who owns LakeMode Liquors in West Fargo, said she is waiting for the city and competitors to make a decision as well. "I've kind of thought about it a bit and I'm kind of on the fence with it," she said. "I guess I kind of need to see what plays out."
Plecity added that she'd need to gauge her staff's thoughts before making a decision but that there isn't a great sense of urgency to begin opening earlier. "It's not anything that I feel like needs to happen right this minute. The only surge we see on a Sunday is if there's a football game," she commented. "You open right at noon and games are starting right at noon, so you get a mad little rush."
'Every little bit helps'
Local decision-makers cited a desire to help businesses weather the pandemic as another point in favor of the new law.
Piepkorn said allowing an earlier Sunday opening would be another way in which the city could support an industry which the pandemic hit especially hard. Fargo has already allowed alcoholic beverages to be sold with carryout food orders, a program which recently ended, as well as waived liquor license fees and utility bills for six months for restaurants and bars.
Simmons agreed with Wold's assessment that an earlier opening would allow liquor stores to catch more customers traveling to recreational activities or on their way to lake houses. "Every little bit helps, I know that," he said. "Anything we can do to help them, I’m definitely for."
Liquor stores on the west side of the Red River would hold a marked advantage over their Minnesota counterparts. Minnesota state law limits alcohol sales to between the hours of 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Sundays.
Howe said that an early opening on Sundays could help both businesses and employees. "I think it's a win-win for employees that want to work those hours and also of course the business owners to gain more revenue as well."
It's up to local decision-makers to revise the ordinances now, however. Though Howe said he wasn't initially aware of the conflicting ordinances, he'd defer to the city's decision on the matter.
"I hope they do change. That was the intent of my signing onto the bill. I hope it's uniform across the state, but I would respect each local political subdivision's choice," Howe said. "That's the beauty of local control."