Alaska town waives Sunday alcohol ban for big game

AP Handout Photo/Sarah Evans

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Tammy Barnett and other Super Bowl fans in a small Alaska town are joining millions of people packing into bars across the country on Sunday to watch the New England Patriots and New York Giants battle it out in Indianapolis.

More than 3,000 miles from the game action, the isolated Alaska community of Dillingham recently decided to officially waive its Sunday ban on alcohol sales at bars and restaurants each Super Bowl Sunday. The exemption follows a temporary waiver for last year's game that proved trouble-free at the Willow Tree bar, the only establishment to take advantage of the reprieve.

"There was no drama," said Barnett, an avid Patriots fan. "It wasn't a big drunk fest. It was just a bunch of people getting together."

The community of 2,400 people appears to stand alone in the U.S. with its exemption for one of the biggest party events of the year. Observers in several states with so-called blue laws don't know of any other Super Bowl exemptions.

"They could be on the cutting edge up there in Alaska," said Todd McGee with the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners.

Alaska is not a blue-law state, but local communities can choose to ban Sunday sales. Neither is Pennsylvania, but that state allows bars and restaurants that choose not to have a Sunday sales license to serve alcoholic beverages on Super Bowl Sundays, and New Year's Eve and St. Patrick's Day — if they fall on a Sunday. Increasingly, former blue-law states are choosing to allow stores to sell spirits on Sunday. But Indiana, which remains a blue-law state, isn't budging from its Sunday ban on package store sales even for the first Super Bowl ever held in the state. Indiana and a shrinking list of blue-law places, however, do give residents the option of imbibing at bars and restaurants.

Since 2002, 15 states have repealed their Sunday alcohol sales bans, most recently in Georgia, which now allows local communities to choose whether Sunday sales should be allowed. That leaves 13 states with some kind of restrictions on Sunday sales, including Indiana and Connecticut, which prohibit the Sunday package store sales of beer, wine and spirits. The other 11 states just ban Sunday store sales of spirits.

"The trend is definitely to open on Sunday," said Ben Jenkins with the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade association of liquor producers.

In most cities and counties that still prohibit Sunday sales, people can just drive over to the next place where they can get a drink. Dillingham residents don't have that option.

There are no roads out of the commercial fishing town, which sits at the edge of Bristol Bay about 325 miles southwest of Anchorage. Without the waiver, Super Bowl fans would have fly to the community of King Salmon 75 miles away if they wanted to catch the game at a bar.

There have been other requests in the past for lifting the Sunday ban in Dillingham for the Super Bowl and on any New Year's Eve that occurs on a Sunday, said Mayor Alice Ruby. Last year Kim Parker was among the Willow Tree's new owners who petitioned the City Council for the temporary waiver. Her request was granted.

"It came to work fine," Ruby said. "We didn't have major issues or major abuse, so the council chose to go ahead and implement it permanently."

The new bar exemption also applies to any Sunday New Year's Eve. However, the town's two liquor stores will remain closed on all Sundays.

The rest of the week, Dillingham is among the "wet" towns in rural Alaska where alcohol sales are legal. Other communities in rural parts of the state have chosen to outlaw even the possession of alcohol altogether or restrict it as residents try to cope with alcohol-related crimes and accidents.

The idea for opening up the Willow Tree for Super Bowl Sunday was based on a desire to create a celebration for locals in a controlled setting, Parker said. If it had turned into a brawling event, she wouldn't have wanted to do it again, she said.

At last year's inaugural, the bar provided a big screen view of the game, free shrimp and lots of door prizes. Patrons brought food for a potluck. For this year's event, Parker is serving up 40 pounds of shrimp and customers are again bringing dishes of goodies. Parker, who is also rooting for the Patriots, flew up seven kegs of beer from an Anchorage microbrewery.

To her, it's how the Super Bowl should be watched, with a big crowd in a bar.

"It's been the best way, especially in bush Alaska," she said. "Not every town, but this town."

02/06/2012 - 5:57am