Philly bars open till 4 a.m.? Some say later last call doesn't mean more drinks sold

Over the last two decades, Avram Hornik has had a hand in opening or reviving some of the best-known establishments for music and boozing in Philadelphia.

But despite the potential for more revenue, he has serious concerns about the city following the lead of other major metros and allowing bars to stay open past the current 2 a.m. closing time. Hornik — who owns Morgan’s Pier, William Street Common, the Dolphin Tavern, and Concourse Dance Bar — said bar patrons really only have a tolerance for a “three-hour window” of drinking, so a later closing merely would slide outings to a later time.

“It’s not just, ‘Oh great, we’ll make more revenue,’ ” he said. “The whole way people go out at night would shift as well.”

Hornik’s concern is one of many that Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown has heard since she introduced a bill in 2012 that would allow for Philadelphia establishments in certain designated zones to serve alcohol for an additional two hours. She reintroduced the bill last week, branding it as a measure that would generate more revenue with the city’s liquor-by-the-drink tax for the School District of Philadelphia, which is staring down a $1 billion budget deficit over the next five years.

Stakeholders in the hospitality industry appear split on the measure. Melissa Bova, vice president of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, said the group — which often takes a stance on issues related to modernizing the state’s liquor system — likely won’t lobby on this after hearing mixed reviews from members.

“If there is any increase in revenue,” she said, “I’m not sure that would outweigh any of the social issues that come out of two extra hours of drinking.”

Meanwhile, the bill’s future is far from certain. Not only would it have to clear hurdles in the city — including likely pushback from community members — but the state General Assembly would have to pass enabling legislation granting the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board authority to designate new operating hours for certain liquor licensees.

Nine states and Washington, D.C., allow for the sale of alcohol past 2 a.m., and measures to extend those hours were defeated last year in California and Colorado.

Philadelphia has tried this out before. During the Democratic National Convention in 2016, a handful of establishments — many of them hotels — were permitted to stay open until 4 a.m. following approval from Harrisburg. The city also allowed some bars to remain open late during the Republican National Convention in 2000.

Camera icon KAIT MOORE / Staff Photographer
Avram Hornik at the Morgan’s Pier bar on Columbus Boulevard.

Reynolds Brown admitted the idea “fell flat on its face” in 2012, but she’s banking on opposition to Mayor Kenney’s latest budget proposal, which includes raising the property-tax rate by 6 percent. His proposal would also raise the real estate transfer tax and slow the planned annual reductions of the city’s wage tax.

Rep. Jordan Harris (D, Phila.), who introduced the enabling legislation in the state House, said allowing bars in certain “entertainment zones” to stay open later could drive more revenue with the city’s liquor tax, which is currently 10 percent. In fiscal year 2017, the tax generated $73 million for the School District.

He said the move would solidify Philadelphia as a “world-class city with a world-class nightlife” and added that he’s spoken with “tons” of bar owners who would welcome the opportunity to stay open later.

In Washington, D.C., bars are permitted to stay open until 3 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, plus the nights before federal holidays. Other special occasions — like presidential inaugurations — have presented opportunities for some bars to remain open until 4 a.m., so long as they register for a special permit.

Andrew Kline, general counsel for the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, said that in his experience, people don’t adjust their schedules to party until daybreak.

“The notion that people go out and are going to party all night?” he said. “Well, this is not Barcelona. People have to go to work.”

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Patrons dance during Holy Trinity night, comprising music from Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé and Rihanna, at the Dolphin Tavern in South Philadelphia on Feb. 24, 2018.

In St. Petersburg, Fla., bar owners for years watched their business bleed as bar patrons left there early and trekked to nearby Tampa, where establishments were open until 3 a.m. That changed nearly a decade ago, when lawmakers in St. Pete allowed bars to remain open until 3 a.m. as well. Sam Martin, who owns Courigan’s Irish Pub in St. Petersburg, said it “definitely helped business in the long run.”

But he cautioned: “Along with that extra hour of drinking, you have that extra hour of nonsense.”

Those quality-of-life concerns about drunken debauchery into the wee hours of the morning are top of mind for critics, and Reynolds Brown said those concerns were “legitimate” and her office was keeping track of them.

Sam Toia, president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association, said officials in Philadelphia should make sure safety rules are in place before passing such a law. In Chicago, about 150 establishments (of about 5,000 liquor licenses) have special permits that allow them to stay open until 4 a.m.

Those places are required to have exterior safety plans, security cameras, and training for employees.

Kline said there’s another option the city could consider that would alleviate some concerns about thousands of bar-goers spilling into the streets at 4 a.m.: Go the way of New Orleans or Las Vegas and allow establishments to close any time they want.

“People would leave when they were ready to leave, rather than putting people out before they’re ready to leave,” Kline said. “Then people would just drift out over a period of time.”

Reynolds Brown said she expects Council to consider her legislation in May.