At 10 p.m. on a recent Friday night on Caroline Street, a pair of officers walking the bar-filled street was the only visible police presence.
Less than two hours later, Saratoga Springs Police Chief Shane Crooks and a slew of officers fanned out across the busy bar district.
“We just want to be seen,” Crooks said, standing at the intersection of Caroline Street and Broadway shortly before midnight.
The police were hard to miss. At least two dozen officers – primarily a mix of Saratoga Springs city police officers and Saratoga County sheriff’s deputies – patrolled Caroline Street and adjacent streets. A city police SUV blocked traffic from entering Caroline as officers and deputies stood at the top of Caroline’s sloping hill; other officers in small groups could be seen patrolling the downtown bar district. (City police have also said that officers in plain clothes supplemented the uniformed officers.)
Still early for a street where some bars stay open until 4 a.m., the officers fielded questions from intoxicated people looking for still-open pizza joints and their Uber rides.
“We are here to keep everyone safe,” Crooks said. “We don’t want to ruin nights, we want people to have a good time.”
With pandemic restrictions lifted, crowds have returned to Saratoga Springs, filling restaurants and bars. The crowds have also brought back a perennial policy debate over how to manage public drunkenness, busy streets and the late-night fights that sometimes break out in and around the Caroline Street bar district.
It’s not clear if the problems are worse than in the past: fights and drunken accidents on Caroline Street, sometimes ending tragically, have occurred for years. Law enforcement officials, though, insist that things are different this time, citing increased gun-related arrests and a shooting incident in June as evidence of a new public safety risk.
The city council on Tuesday approved a resolution asking the county board of supervisors to request the state Liquor Authority restrict the sale of alcohol for on-site consumption to 2 a.m. in the county. The change, if approved, would effectively snuff out the latest hours of Saratoga’s storied late-night bar scene, which on most summer weekends stretches until the early-morning hours.
No bar owners or residents showed up at the meeting to support or oppose the proposal, and city commissioners only discussed the topic for a few minutes before adopting the resolution. But Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton said the most serious problems occurred in the 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. window and said the public safety risks outweighed any economic benefits that come with a 4 a.m. closing time.
“The hours of 2-to-4 a.m. are unquestionably posing a public safety risk to the community at large,” Dalton said at Tuesday’s council meeting.
The proposal now goes to the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors, which will consider the city’s request in a process that could take months. Supervisors Tara Gaston and Matt Veitch, who represent Saratoga Springs on the county board of supervisors, wouldn’t say whether they backed the city’s proposal but did caution anyone from expecting a resolution soon.
“While I understand the concerns of the commissioner and mayor, this is not going to be a solution to an immediate safety concern. This isn’t something that is going to solve a problem in the next week,” Gaston said after the council meeting. “The process is extremely important to get all the sides. It will take a while, but I think that’s a good process for such a major change.”
Closed by 2 a.m., but not at the government’s suggestion
Alex Straus, owner of Night Owl Saratoga on Maple Avenue, one of the busier bars last weekend, said he and his business partner already limit their hours to around 2 a.m.
“We are industry veterans and we understand the uselessness and dangerousness of what goes on that late,” he said. “In my experience, anyone drinking and out trying to get more drinks at 2:30, 3:30, 3:45 in the morning is not someone that should be served.”
He called people wandering Caroline Street in search of the next bar to drink at after 2 a.m. “hard times.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean Straus would support an earlier closing time.
“That’s our stance,” he said of closing around 2 a.m. “I’m not sure I agree with the government telling us to do that.”
Straus said he didn’t want a new closing time to disrupt the city’s broader reputation at a place with a hopping nightlife.
“We are very blessed, we have a lively entertainment district,” Straus said. “My fear with this regulation is that we will lose the positive side of being seen as the nightlife and entertainment destination in New York.”
He also speculated that the surge in downtown revelers could be a release of pent-up demand to go out and socialize after bars were closed for over a year due to the pandemic.
“I think this is definitely a response by the general public that has not been out,” he said. “Everyone is learning to drink and get bumped into at bars again, it’s only been three months.
What’s old is new again
It was an early Sunday morning and hundreds of bargoers spilled onto Putnam and Phila streets after a fight broke out at the Golden Grill tavern. Police called in reinforcements to get control of the melee, and one officer suffered an ankle injury. Two people were charged with felony assault.
Weeks later the Saratoga city council was debating whether to rein in late-hours drinking by limiting alcohol service hours to 2 a.m. The year was 1997, and the city’s closing time ultimately never changed.
In 2010, a Glens Falls man died after a car struck him around 4:30 a.m., in the hours after closing time on St. Patrick’s Day in downtown Saratoga Springs. City officials proposed restricting bar hours to 2 a.m., the man’s family urged city officials to limit how late people could drink in the city, but the city ultimately split 2-2 in rejecting a proposal to pursue an earlier closing time for bars.
Again and again, over the decades in Saratoga Springs, a similar pattern has unfolded: a hectic bar scene explodes into headline-capturing fights, other bursts of violence or tragic accidents. City officials propose an earlier closing time – arguing that especially late hours of bars that stay open until 4 a.m. foster safety problems – nearby residents offer examples of drunken behavior and bar owners resist a new government-imposed closing time. In some cases, earlier closing time proposals have stalled in the city, while other proposals have hit a brick wall with Saratoga County supervisors.
Concerns raised by local residents echo through the years. At a 2010 public hearing on an earlier closing time proposal, several longtime residents said the city had changed for the worse.
“It used to be kids walking by and laughing,” the owner of a local bed and breakfast said at the meeting. “Now versus 13 years ago, it’s violent.”
Former Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen – who pursued an earlier end to alcohol service after a stabbing on New Year’s Day in 2012, as well as in 2014 – at least got a direct answer from the state Liquor Authority about what agency can request restricted hours for serving alcohol for on-site consumption.
In a May 2012, ruling in response to Mathiesen’s direct inquiry, the state Liquor Authority made clear that “there is no authority in the law for a city to regulate the hours of sale of alcoholic beverages.” The city could bar the sale of alcohol altogether, an unlikely choice in Saratoga Springs, but the state’s alcohol and beverage control law “provides that a county legislative body may seek a restriction on the hours of sale ‘within such county.’”
Warren County in 2013 did just that. After Glens Falls city leaders initially proposed restricting alcohol sales to 2 a.m., Warren County leaders landed on a request to the state Liquor Authority to cap alcohol sales for on-site consumption in the county to 3 a.m., which the Liquor Authority unanimously approved.
Increased police presence
After the June 26 shooting on Caroline Street – a 23-year-old Albany man was arrested this week in connection with the shooting – Crooks, the Saratoga police chief, asked Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo to provide deputies to help staff large patrols around Caroline Street on Friday and Saturday nights. While county deputies have offered assistance for special events in the past, they have not regularly staffed weekend patrols in the city as they have for recent weekends.
(Crooks and Zurlo both said that there was not a formal agreement outlining the recently-expanded partnership.)
“It is new,” Zurlo said of the more frequent presence of sheriff’s deputies outside the city’s late-night bars. “I don’t how long it’s going to go, hopefully as summer progresses the crowds get a little smaller.”
Zurlo said his deputies have reported that the late-night crowds have returned to at least the levels seen prior to the pandemic, if not larger.
“I can tell you the crowds have been really large,” Zurlo said.
Zurlo did not answer whether he supported limiting alcohol sales to 2 a.m., a policy that if approved would be implemented throughout the entire county, but he suggested gathering input from other tavern owners in the county and weighing a potential change could be a lengthy process.
“My job is to look at all the restaurants throughout the county, not just the City of Saratoga Springs,” Zurlo said. “There’s a lot of work to do with that… it’s a process that is probably going to take a while.”
How to manage the late-night scene is likely to continue as a campaign issue this fall as a trio of candidates run for mayor and the bulk of the city commissioner positions could see new faces by next year.
Robin Dalton is running for mayor as an independent. In a recent interview, she highlighted other proposals for managing the city’s bar scene, noting an app the city is working to develop that would allow bar managers and police to share information about problem customers. She also said she was working on identifying a part of town where Uber, Lyft and taxis could be directed to pick up people leaving the city after a night out.
Heidi Owen-West, a longtime business owner in the city running for mayor as a Republican, said it was important to balance safety concerns with the importance of drawing visitors to patronize the city’s bars and restaurants – which were hit especially hard during the pandemic.
“It’s a tightrope walk attracting visitors to our city while keeping citizens safe, and balancing the needs of an industry devastated by Covid,” West said.
She also suggested that she could support further restricting the hours that alcohol is allowed to be served in bars.
“If the city is being deemed unsafe after 2 a.m., then I believe it may be a reasonable resolution to issue,” she said in a statement. “The uptick in crime in our city needs to be meaningfully addressed and the police department needs to be fully supported and empowered to do their jobs.”
Ron Kim, a Democrat running for mayor and a former public safety commissioner in the city who remembered hearing from residents who complained about drunks passed out on their property more than a decade ago, said city officials need to do a better job engaging the community in discussing the issue. He also suggested he could support restricting the hours alcohol can be served.
“I’m not against reducing the hours,” he said in an interview. “I think the city council should be talking to the stakeholders, both the neighbors, the people who live down there and the people who run a business. That’s part of the issue here, we are a community that ought to be interacting and talking to people.”
Kim said if city officials were able to demonstrate they had engaged the broader community before requesting an earlier last call time, they would have a better case to present to county officials.
“We should be able to say to the county we have sort of done this (engagement) and as a community, we have arrived at something,” Kim said.