COVID comeback: Are Designated Outdoor Drinking Areas right for your community?

While DORAs promise to revitalize local business districts hit hard by COVID-19, they also come with unique guidelines for set-up, regulation and local law enforcement


By David Moser, Esq.

As both temperatures and COVID-19 vaccinations rise, municipal corporations and townships may be shining a spotlight on innovative economic development tools to safely bring people together. Enter the DORA, an increasingly emerging legal trend that allows communities to establish outdoor areas where residents and business patrons can mingle and stroll with their favorite alcoholic beverages.

DORAs are popping up all over Ohio. With them come unique guidelines for set-up, regulation and local law enforcement.

Establishing a Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area could help downtown Akron bars and restaurants like Barley House rebound from the decline in business caused by the Main Street construction and the coronavirus. The recently enacted proposal allows patrons to spread out on sidewalks and other designated areas to practice social distancing while enjoying a drink with friends.
Establishing a Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area could help downtown Akron bars and restaurants like Barley House rebound from the decline in business caused by the Main Street construction and the coronavirus. The recently enacted proposal allows patrons to spread out on sidewalks and other designated areas to practice social distancing while enjoying a drink with friends. (Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal)

What is a DORA?

DORA stands for Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area. Effective since 2015, Ohio Revised Code 4301.82 legalized the creation of DORAs in qualifying municipalities and townships. The DORA essentially draws a mapped-out district, typically within a downtown or mixed-use area, in which patrons 21 and over may purchase alcoholic beverages from approved restaurants and carry their drinks outside and within the DORA boundaries. Any person in a DORA carrying an open container of beer, wine or liquor is generally exempt from prosecution under the “Open Container Law” if the drink was purchased from a participating DORA vendor.

Why establish a DORA?

DORAs are seen as providing untapped potential to stir economic development and exposure for communities and businesses alike. These outdoor drinking zones are used to draw patrons, revitalize downtown areas, ease outdoor dining restrictions, and increase retail and restaurant development. Participation by local vendors in the DORA is voluntary. Once the DORA is created, the Ohio Division of Liquor Control maintains oversight for specific DORA permits issued to qualifying businesses.

How is a DORA created?

Creation of a DORA starts with local leaders acting off of community input. First, the executive officer of a municipal corporation or fiscal officer of a township must submit an application for review by the local council or trustees. Among other items, the application must specify a map of the proposed DORA with explicitly defined boundaries, an area that is limited in size relative to the local population. The application should identify the types of participating businesses and include at least four qualifying liquor permit holders. The DORA application must further include evidence that the proposal is in harmony with the community’s master zoning plan. Detailed health and safety requirements must also be provided.

After the application is filed, the local legislative authority must issue public notice within 45 days and may hold a public hearing to consider adoption of the DORA. No more than 60 days later, the legislative authority must approve or deny the application. If approved, the DORA is immediately created and notice must be sent to the Division of Liquor Control, which will then issue DORA designations to qualified, participating vendors. This same process is repeated if the community wishes to expand the DORA. A DORA may be dissolved by the legislative authority at any time but must be officially reviewed at least every 5 years.

What are the DORA health and safety guidelines?

The DORA law also requires health and safety guidelines to be adopted whenever a DORA is created. At minimum, the local guidelines must address the following:

  • The defined boundaries of the DORA, including streets, intersections, addresses, etc.;
  • The number, spacing and type of signage that will be used to designate the area;
  • The hours of operation for the DORA;
  • The number of personnel, including local government officials, staff and law enforcement, that will be needed to ensure public safety in the DORA;
  • A sanitation plan that will help maintain the appearance and public health in the DORA;
  • The number of personnel needed to execute the sanitation plan; and
  • A requirement that alcoholic beverages be served only in plastic bottles or plastic containers in the DORA.

State law only sets the floor for these health and safety measures, leaving them largely up to the local government to decide.

Other DORA rules?

Local governments are also given wide authority to modify and specify other rules within the DORA. Generally, open containers of alcohol purchased from DORA establishments may legally be carried outside within the DORA, but beverages may not be brought into the DORA from outside the DORA limits. And, the law does not authorize DORA patrons to enter businesses with a DORA container of alcohol purchased elsewhere – this issue depends on the participating businesses and should ideally be specified in the community’s DORA plan.

Businesses are free to participate or not, and signs on each establishment should indicate whether they serve, welcome or are not participating in the DORA. Some communities further regulate the DORA – for instance, by using a wrist-band system for DORA patrons, or limiting the DORA to certain days and times determined by the legislative authority. Another community consideration is how to address and include outdoor festivals, which often already have outdoor liquor permits used to attract festival goers. As well, if the DORA includes any public park, rules and guidelines should be clear and enforceable as to how DORA beverages may/may not be carried in the park.

What role does law enforcement play with the DORA?

It goes without saying that any community considering a DORA for the first time should consult local law enforcement from the start of planning. Policing the DORA carries with it a need to understand the various rules and regulations in place for the community. As shown above, the guidelines include statewide minimum requirements while also offering up wide latitude for rules that are unique to the village, city or township. In order to best enact a plan for enforcement and safety, the more specific the local DORA rules are, the better.

DORAs now and into the future

DORAs are not disappearing anytime soon. In Central Ohio alone, Delaware, Grove City, Hilliard, Lancaster, Marysville, Powell and Worthington have all adopted DORAs. Dublin is currently considering a proposal. With a concrete plan, health and safety guidelines, and enforcement measures in place, these mechanisms will allow communities to safely sip, drink and be merry well into the future.

David Moser is an attorney with Isaac Wiles & Burkholder, LLC in Columbus, Ohio. Moser practices in the Public Law Group and can be contacted for further questions at dmoser@isaacwiles.com.

Sources

DORA would establish public-drinking areas in Canal Winchester

Lima committee studies outdoor drinking area

How Middletown led Ohio’s boom in outdoor drinking areas

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