After a Disastrous Halloween, D.C. Bar Crawls Face New Regulations

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Trash poured out of cans and into the streets. Piles of vomit, plastic cups, napkins, pizza boxes, and takeout containers speckled the sidewalks.

A Halloween bar crawl prophetically named Nightmare on M Street had taken place the night before. Crowds had flooded the bars south of Dupont Circle, waiting in lines for drink specials. Two other bar crawls also took place in the neighborhood the same night.

Mark Lee, executive director of the D.C. Nightlife Hospitality Association, says the number of revelers likely reached around 10,000, and the area was so crowded that people were walking in the streets.

“It turned out to be a clusterfuck,” he says.

The morning after was just as disastrous: Crews from the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District, a nonprofit that helps organize events and upkeep efforts in the area, was stuck with most of the cleanup. They had initially scheduled leaf removal plus bike rack and lamp post painting before the cold of November rolled in, but instead found themselves picking up Solo cups and pizza crusts.

It took two days for the crews to clean up the mess. BID Executive Director Leona Agouridis says her board sent the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration a complaint letter right away.

“We are a nonprofit. We were not created to clean trash,” Agouridis says.

The night became a catalyst for emergency rules by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board that led to the rejection of several major bar crawls proposed this year. The liquor board called the event “the perfect storm” of chaos: Halloween was a Saturday, the weather was particularly balmy for a late October evening, and there were three crawls happening in the same area.

In December, the ABC board held a hearing to review the events of the night. Among its findings: Vendors oversold their approved ticket max and crowds got so wild that officers on horseback had to be called in to break them up.

So, on Jan. 13, the board issued temporary regulations for bar crawl applications. Now, if an event hosts more than 200 people, organizers have to pay a $500 annual fee to get a pub crawl license and hire their own third-party security and trash cleanup crew. They also can’t host bar crawls on holidays. That means, for example, a St. Patrick’s Day pub crawl can’t actually take place on St. Patrick’s Day.

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The emergency rules will expire on May 13 unless the liquor board and D.C. Council approve permanent changes. At a public hearing in early March, the board heard testimony from event promoters, restaurant owners, the D.C. Fire and EMS Department, Metropolitan Police Department, and the Department of Public Works.

Those who spoke on behalf of the District expressed concern at the scale of the Halloween events, citing violence, theft, destruction of property, and debris. Plus, the large crowds made it nearly impossible for emergency vehicles to get through the area, a fire department captain said.

“In my 31 years of law enforcement experience, I’ve never seen anything comparable to the aftermath of a pub crawl,” MPD Second District Commander Melvin Gresham said at the hearing.

Arlington County also tightened its pub crawl rules in 2014. Instead of Halloween, it was a St. Patrick’s Day crawl and the resulting 25 arrests that inspired change. Later, during another crawl, a man stripped down naked and drunkenly attempted to make his getaway from police via car, but wound up hitting a bunch of parked vehicles instead.

The issue there, says Arlington Board Chair Libby Garvey, was that off-duty police had to be called in for overtime, and taxpayers wound up footing the bill instead of promoters. To address this, the county created a new “special events” permit for crawls exceeding 500 people that would require them to be licensed by the county and cover the costs of security and cleanup.

“We’re not going to have taxpayers funding their business,” Garvey says.

To her knowledge, none of the regular crawls have been turned down under the new regulations. But D.C. promoters haven’t been as lucky: At least four events, two scheduled for Valentine’s Day and two for St. Patrick’s Day, have been rejected since the new rules were enacted in January.

The main reason cited in all four cases was the lack of comprehensive security plans that matched the scale of the intended crowds. In the case of the All You Need is Love bar crawl, the board argued that the applicant’s security plan—just a little longer than one paragraph—was “woefully insufficient for a possible crowd of 7,500 people.”

The organizers who submitted the four rejected applications—Charity Events, Project D.C. Events, and Lindy Promotions—did not respond to request for comment.

Jonathan Gabel, CEO of Joonbug Promotions, said at the hearing his company hosts 400 bar crawls across 40 cities every year. In some cities, there is no permit required, while others make him go to meetings and obtain permits.

Gabel said he prefers the cities that have some outline for an application, since that means he knows the most effective way to plan. As for the new D.C. regulations, though, he took issue with the ban on hosting bar crawls on the actual holiday, since he considered it an integral draw for events.

“You can’t do a New Year’s Eve bar crawl before or after New Year’s Eve, because New Year’s Eve is all about the countdown,” he said. “That’s what New Year’s Eve is.”

The crawls also allow bars to draw in extra revenue and, in some cases, stay open, Gabel argued. “I have had owners tell me, ‘Oh, you saved my month,’” he said.

Chain BlackFinn Ameripub’s D.C. location is one bar that benefits from pub crawls. Regional manager Steve Ryan says he had been preparing for a boon of 300 to 400 people as part of the Shamrock pub crawl that was initially planned to take place on March 12. But the liquor board rejected the crawl’s application. Instead, he expected a regular Saturday crowd of 50 to 60 people. And rather than the nearly dozen servers Ryan intended to bring in, he scheduled just three.

“It’s definitely going to impact a lot of business if this continues,” Ryan says.

Meanwhile, D.C. Nightlife Hospitality Association’s Lee sees the 200-person limit (before the $500 fee) being considered by the liquor board as prohibitive to smaller community events. He’d prefer that events under 500 people not have to be approved before the board.

These smaller events, he argues, would have their profits eaten up having to pay the $500 fee, hire contractors for security and cleanup, and potentially pay for legal aid to go before the board.

“Bar crawls are different sizes and types, and that’s something we hope the board will keep in mind,” Lee says.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery