Panama City Beach ‘Alabama Invasion’: Liquor Rules Aim to Prevent Another ‘Spring Break Takeover’
After a weekend of unrest in the Panama City Beach area, officials held a special meeting Tuesday to open discussion about an ordinance to crack down on late-night liquor sales during spring break.
A vote won’t take place until at least April 12, and there was some difference of opinion over whether the proposed change required “adjustments” or was the wrong approach.
Several residents appeared at a special meeting of the Panama City Municipal Commission to say they thought it was too broad, would hurt local businesses or was otherwise misguided.
“We’re going to do the right thing, okay,” Mayor Greg Brudnicki said, warmly describing a situation he likened to a war.
“We just want to make sure no one gets hurt by jesters from out of town who can’t even hold a gun. Do you know how many of them we picked up? It was crazy!”
Panama City and Panama City Beach are separate municipalities.
Their police force and the Bay County Sheriff’s Office worked together over the weekend, along with other agencies, to stem an influx of visitors that Panama City Beach Mayor Mark Sheldon described as ” criminals who have come to visit the city to be anarchic and to sow chaos”.
More than 160 people were arrested over the weekend, and nearly half were from Alabama.
Some 75 weapons were confiscated, including hunting rifles and semi-automatic rifles. At least one shooting incident has taken place, with an Alabama man shot in the foot.
City Attorney Nevin Zimmerman said the proposed order would adjust the current 4 a.m. cutoff for on-site liquor sales to 2 a.m. in March and April, while remaining at 4 a.m. morning the rest of the year.
The order would also impose additional standards on sites that wanted to continue serving until 4 a.m. the rest of the year. They should meet requirements for parking, additional security personnel, and criminal background checks for owners and managers.
A third article of the ordinance would prohibit the consumption of alcohol in parking lots. Zimmerman said that clause was “entirely removed” from the existing code in Panama City Beach.
Some commission members questioned whether the order addressed the real root problem.
“It’s a lot of government abuse of me,” commissioner Jenny Flint Aligas said. She suggested instead giving the chief of police and the city manager the power to shut down specific venues or events.
Zimmerman said the police chief currently has the authority to declare a citywide state of emergency, which could include things like a curfew or halting alcohol sales.
“It’s more of a hurricane situation,” he said.
Zimmerman said he was told Panama City Beach officials would soon consider an order giving “targeted emergency powers” to the city manager. Panama City leaders would review their neighbor’s proposed rule, he said.
No one from the public spoke out in favor of the ordinance; several people have come out against it.
One was Judd Manuel, the owner of Mosey’s, a downtown pizzeria.
Manuel said he was working to reopen his venue, damaged by Hurricane Michael, and would hate to lose profitable hours to the new order.
“We don’t advertise or cater to spring break,” he said, but Mosey’s serves people who want a place to relax after late shifts, including workers in the service industry and the police.
The charges imposed by the order “clearly demonstrate an intent to get rid of 4 a.m. bars completely, year-round,” he said.
Manuel added that the order would require him “to voluntarily give Bay County law enforcement access to live security cameras outside my building. It’s exaggerated. …I just can’t believe that in freedom-loving, red-vote, making America great again, Bay County, I have to stand up here and oppose more laws being put in place. which reduce the freedom of private companies and expand surveillance powers for law enforcement.
Another speaker, Tony Bostick, praised the police for “extreme restraint” in the face of “unruly individuals who pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable”.
However, Bostick warned against a “reactive approach”. Requiring developers to get city approval for large events and better enforcing occupancy limits could be elements of a more proactive approach, he said.
Brudnicki said he was angry to see Panama City and Panama City Beach in danger of suffering through another round of bad publicity.
“It’s a shame that we, you guys go back and think about the ‘Girls Gone Wild’ stuff and all the things we’ve had to deal with, and all we were worried about was seeing someone take his shirt off or have a T-shirt,” he said.
“This weekend in particular, the beach did all kinds of things that he put in place two years ago to really stop Hannity from getting on TV and talking about the rotten place we had there- down and all the bad stuff that was going on, and they did a great job of making it family friendly.
“We had this situation over the weekend and it’s hard for me to understand or believe that the people who put on this concert at this particular venue didn’t know exactly what was going on. Go on! $150, $200, $1,000 for a ticket? Go on! Who pays for this? … You invite this problem here, and it came, and thank God no one was killed.
“I don’t want that anymore,” Brudnicki said. “I don’t want to invite people here who they know are going to be a problem. It’s not their problem, because they make a lot of money. I don’t want my fellow citizens to be hurt. I don’t want my officers to have to run into gunfire…like they’re at war!
“We have to be tough,” Brudnicki said. “I don’t care where anyone else wants to go and do things, but it won’t be here.”
Brudnicki seemed to have limited sympathy for companies facing additional demands.
“If you have to keep your business safe, if it’s profitable enough to stay open from 2 to 4 p.m., part of that expense is going to take care of that,” he said. “If you make enough money to do it, to keep it open, then keep it open. Otherwise, don’t.
But at the same time, he seemed to say that a one-size-fits-all approach might not make sense. “It’s hard for me to believe that the pizzeria there, you must have so many security personnel,” he said. “We have to look at that. It does not mean anything. It needs to be tweaked.
Various officials said part of the problem was that out-of-town promoters were using social media to gather crowds for “Panamanian” or “takeover” events.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Panama City Police Chief Mark Smith showed flyers for a few of the events, one a “Spring Break Takeover” at a club in Panama City called Vibez on March 26, the other an “invasion of Alabama” at an unspecified location in March. 12.
“Over the past two months we have started to receive information and intelligence regarding what you see here as companies start to advertise for large groups of people to come and join their nightclubs,” said said Smith.
“One of the clubs in particular has room for 296 customers,” Smith said.
“From their own staff, they sold 700 pre-tickets at $150 a ticket, they sold tickets at the door for $200 a ticket, and they sold VIPs for $1,000.”
Smith showed a photo of Vibez with people standing outside and said police estimated they were dealing with around 600 people waiting to enter.
“When the fire marshal arrived, his estimate inside the club was 900. In a club designed to accommodate 296 people,” he said.
“The fire marshal got them out of the club so he could count the people inside. The crowd was disruptive, unruly, uncooperative. The business made the decision to close, it also made this decision stating that it had made enough money for the night.
“We as the Panama City Police Department ended up with the dispersal of that crowd,” Smith said.
“We were able to do this without arresting anyone in the crowd, without using force against anyone in the crowd, and without using any type of chemical agent on the crowd.”
Related traffic issues included general congestion and people parking on private property, Smith said, but the situation worsened when traffic on Highway 98 came to a standstill with people trying to dance and twerking on the pavement.
Smith also said a gas station next to the club was “overrun” with around 100 people unable to enter the club.
Smith showed a photo of confiscated guns, drugs and money outside one of the nightclubs that evening.