The words “Open 6 a.m.” light up a neon sign hanging above the entrance of The Zebra Club, beckoning serious boozers, late shift workers, wasted revelers and cheap diners to the old-fashioned watering hole on P Street in Sacramento.
As it is now, the bartenders usher out the last customers at 2 a.m. and shutter the club long enough for drunk patrons to take a nap before the taps start pouring again. Under a proposal in the California Legislature, The Zebra Club could be allowed to stay open until 4 a.m. and join a new extended nightlife scene in Sacramento.
“I feel like if we want to compete with the big cities, we have to act like one,” said Gerry Fredette, the owner of the bar for more than three decades and a supporter of Senate Bill 905.
Not everyone agrees with Fredette. Customers at his own bar worry about more excessive drinking and drunk driving if the plan moves forward.
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“They say nothing good happens after midnight,” said Gary Hudson, 69, as he sipped a beer and ate cheese fries at the bar.
Similar conversations are taking place all over the city among business owners, employees and patrons. Some say the proposal makes sense for progressive urban population centers that never seem to shut down. But they wonder: Is it right for Sacramento?
“We’re not New York, the city that never sleeps,” said Lindsay Stone, a bartender at LowBrau on 20th and K Streets. “I’m not sure we’re ready for that.”
The bill would allow local governments in Sacramento, San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, West Hollywood, Long Beach and Palm Springs to draft and approve their own rules to extend alcohol service no later than 4 a.m. Bars, restaurants and nightclubs could begin applying for licenses as early as 2021. The program sunsets in 2026.
The bill affords residents plenty of time to weigh in, and already received the blessing of Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg. He argues extended hours will bring more money into the city and attract more tourists, conventions and conferences.
“With the newly built Golden Once Center and entertainment districts flourishing, Sacramento is a prime example of a city that would like to have the optional tool of customizing our hours to best fit our needs,” Steinberg wrote in a letter of support to the bill’s author. “With the addition of SB 905, Sacramento can make its appeal as a destination city all the more enticing. “
State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, pushed an earlier iteration of the bill last year to allow cities all over California to license bars to serve alcohol until 4 a.m. The proposal faltered against heavy opposition from dozens of groups that worried the extended hours would lead to more drunk driving and place a greater burden on law enforcement.
This year Wiener took another shot with a scaled back five-year pilot program that only applies to the seven cities. Participating cities and the California Highway Patrol would have to submit reports to the Legislature detailing the impact of extended hours on community resources and public safety.
He argues that the measure updates an antiquated 1935 law that bans alcohol service after 2 a.m. and gives local communities the freedom to decide what’s best for them.
“This bill is a pure local control bill,” Wiener said at a press conference in San Francisco to unveil the measure. “It does not require any city to allow its nightlife to go after 2 a.m., but it gives permission to have local decision-making so that cities can decide for themselves whether to stay at 2 a.m., or go to 3 a.m. or to go to 4 a.m.”
Wiener’s office argues that data from a 2015 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show no correlation between DUI-fatality rates and states with later alcohol service. Opponents contend that decades of public health research finds that longer alcohol service leads to higher consumption and related problems, such as violence, injuries, drunk-driving and car crashes.
Wiener said California’s nightlife is critical to its culture and visitors from other states and countries often question why major metropolitan areas in in the Golden State shut down so early.
“Sacramento is supposed to the capital of California, but it’s like the boonies,” said Erika Lee, a 32-year-old off-duty waitress enjoying happy hour drinks with friends at Iron Horse Tavern on 15th Street.
Lee supports the bill and believes it would modernize Sacramento. If people choose to stay out later and drink more, “that’s on them,” she said. “They should have a choice,” Lee said. “That’s what America is all about.”
Her friend, Stacey Risko, felt less certain.
“I just think more people would not get home safe, even though it would be good for business,” said Risko, 35.
At LowBrau, employees said midtown crowds can be rowdy enough already.
James Stover, a 25-year-old host at the restaurant, said diverse groups often collide in the city’s most popular nightlife district, resulting in fights and other problems.
Stone, the LowBrau bartender, said she usually gets off work around 4 a.m. after closing the bar. The streets aren’t very populated in the early morning hours, and she worries about the safety of patrons on the streets.
“I see it two ways,” said Stone, 31. “I see the option to make more money as a bar. But I still think that 2 a.m. is a natural cut-off point.”