Council, community tackle rampant drinking
“Let’s hear it. Let’s talk it out,” said Second Warden Sven Risom at the beginning of a special meeting on Monday, July 25 with liquor license holders on the current problems facing Block Island.
The meeting was called after Interim Police Chief Peter Chabot conducted an undercover “compliance check” on the weekend of July 16 and 17. On July 16, six out of seven establishments served alcohol to an undercover, under-aged male. On July 17, two out of six served another undercover, under-aged male without obtaining proper identification or proof of age.
Other problems that have been observed are rampant violations of open container ordinances, including under-age drinking on beaches and adults walking around the streets with drinks in hand.
The idea was to get everybody in the room and see what ideas could be shared to tamp down the situation. “Look around the room,” said Town Councilor Keith Stover. “You are the bedrock of this community. This is not to give anybody a hard time.”
Nobody seemed to want to be the first to speak, but long-time member of the Rescue Squad, Gary Ryan stepped up to the microphone. Ryan said he had been on the island for 35 years, and on the rescue squad for 33. “I’m not here to accuse anybody,” he said. “There are some establishments that need more security...they need to put together a plan. And I’m not just worried about under-age drinking. I’m talking about inebriated people.”
“This problem is not new,” said Rescue Squad Captain Tracy Fredericks. “There’s so much alcohol. People are going to get hurt. People do get hurt.”
Andy Transue, a member of the Police Advisory Commission said: “I’ve been on-island since the 1960s. It was a hard-drinking island where you wouldn’t want to bring your kids.” He spoke of the subsequent effort to make the island more family-friendly, but that in the last few years there was an increase in advertising on the mainland aimed at young adults.
“Andy, what ads?” asked Chris Willi, manager of Captain Nick’s.
“You know,” answered Transue.
“Exactly,” said Willi. He then asked for a show of hands as to who in the room advertised on mainland media. Only Steve Filippi, owner of Ballard’s raised his hand. “Why are we all here too?” Willi asked the council. “Not all of us advertise on TV. Not all of us advertise 100-ounce daiquiris on TV. You’re the liquor wardens. Enforce it.”
Risom said he appreciated Willi’s comments, but “when the police did the compliance checks there were many issues. This is an opportunity for everybody to improve.”
Filippi got up to address the criticism, claiming that he only advertises on the nightly news, which he said has a demographic with an average age of 45, so it wouldn’t be reaching young people. But, he did say he had made some improvements and confiscated several fake identifications and had one arrest.
Risom asked if Filippi could help with the open container problem. “You have two major exit points.”
“We try to stop it,” said Filippi of people leaving the establishment with drinks, adding that some people “don’t listen,” and that some of the containers people leave with that look like beer cans may simply be canned water. He did admit though that Saturdays were problems. He noted that Ballard’s had been advertising on TV for 10 years and he was sorry “if it offends Mr. Willi.”
“In all fairness, those ads offend more people than Mr. Willi,” said Councilor Martha Ball.
“We need help with kids coming on the boat with backpacks, bringing their own alcohol,” said Filippi, and eventually the conversation morphed from one about advertising to the problem of “open containers.”
“I don’t know where they’re coming from,” said Julie Fuller of the National.
Several bar owners or managers commented on the problem of people just seeming to bring their own drinks into establishments, and that one major problem may be that people simply don’t know what “open container” actually means.
More than one person commented that it was not their job to enforce open containers on the street and they end up having to take drinks away from people coming into their venues.
“People come into my place with wine glasses,” said Willi. “Actual glass.” He then suggested that the town do some “messaging” around setting the tone for summer tourists, perhaps with a video to be shown on the ferries. “You’re a corporation yourself. Do it better.”
Kristen Kiley of Yellow Kittens said: “I agree with what Chris said about advertising.” She suggested getting out the message to people renting summer homes as well. “I can’t tell you how many parents come in to get [their kid’s] fake IDs,” adding that at times they cause enough of a problem when they’re told no, that the police need to be called.
It was a jaw-dropping revelation, but one maybe indicative of a trend. Transue had mentioned that at the last Police Advisory Commission meeting, a woman who was a teacher in Narragansett said, from the audience, that her 16-year-old students regularly go to Block Island by themselves and come back drunk. And there certainly is no shortage of teenagers bringing alcohol to the island in backpacks. The question remains: where are they getting it?