OPINION: Opening Bars in Secret Silences Communities

by Mayra Jimenez, Advocacy Manager, California Alcohol Policy Alliance
a paper cutout of a face with an "X" taped over its mouth In 2022, California State Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), backed by San Francisco Mayor London Breed, introduced Senate Bill 980. The bill enacted a number of so-called reforms which would supposedly “streamline” the liquor license application process for new bars and restaurants. These changes include:
  • Preventing the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) from denying licenses due to proximity to schools, parks, and other youth-oriented areas
  • Lifting the requirement that applicants notify all residents within a certain radius of where they planned to open
  • Forcing ABC to prove that the new license would disrupt normal standards of quiet and safety, rather than allowing ABC to ask the licensee to prove that it wouldn’t
  • Allowing liquor license applicants to withdraw an application then reapply on the same day
Whatever hardship the Senator and Mayor feel applicants are facing, they are nothing to those facing California Alcohol Policy Alliance (CAPA) constituents. This bill would exacerbate these hardships, and bring down from above a smothering blanket of silence on their communities.

Our constituent members represent low-income, working-class neighborhoods that bear the brunt of alcohol harms every day. Alcohol harms continue in the same historically segregated and disenfranchised neighborhoods. This is directly tied to over concentration of alcohol outlets—research shows on-sale outlets, not only liquor stores, disproportionately impacts low-income Black, Indigenous and communities of color most.

Regulating alcohol density is a protective strategy for neighborhood many of you represent. It is already extremely complicated and not accessible for community members to protest an alcohol license in CA.

Communities cannot afford legal counsel nor can they leverage the financial resources that policymakers and other powerful members of society can to fight back against more alcohol in communities. The only avenue community has is ABC’s limited capacity to advocate on their behalf, backed or triggered by the few opportunities individuals have to protest an alcohol license. And access to these opportunities assumes they can manage to overcome the bureaucracy of the process.

At the end of the day, denying alcohol licenses on the basis of proximity to schools, churches and youth-oriented locations is very rare. Applying for an alcohol license but at what cost? Do we have any data to show alcohol licenses secured via so-called "modernized" approaches like SB 980 is an effective strategy that will benefit communities, especially low-income communities of color?

No. We don't.

On the contrary, according to the the California Department of Health's Office of Health Equity Healthy Communities Data and Indicators Project in 2021, “Limiting alcohol outlet density through the use of regulatory authority (e.g., licensing and zoning) is a strategy to prevent deaths and harms associated with excessive alcohol consumption.”

“Multiple studies provide evidence that higher alcohol outlet density and closer proximity to alcohol outlets is positively associated with outcomes like excessive alcohol consumption and alcohol related harms like injuries and violence,” the Project authors state.

SB 980 does not modernize alcohol licensing process, it seeks to expedite proliferation of alcohol dependency under the guise of supporting “small business” and “redevelopment”.

Supporting this bill enables a toxic culture of depending on alcohol consumption at the expense of community, heedless of research that clearly shows proximity and excess of alcohol outlets to be a risk factor for California residents.

To clarify there is not a lack of new licenses in California. ABC denies fewer than ten each year and continues to grant them in areas already overconcentrated.

We ask allies, colleagues, and supporters to reach out to their legislators and urge a no vote on SB 980.

READ MORE about the California Alcohol Policy Alliance.