PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) ─ After hearing testimony from dozens of bar, restaurant and club owners Wednesday evening, city leaders in Providence said they will go back to the drawing board to incorporate their feedback on a series of proposed nightlife safety ordinances.
The proposed changes follow years of violent incidents inside or nearby Providence nightclubs, including the recent murder of a man inside of a hookah lounge and the stabbing death of another man near a Federal Hill nightclub.
The ordinances, introduced by City Council President Sabina Matos, are part of an ongoing effort to keep people safe while enjoying Providence nightlife.
The council’s Public Safety Committee took public testimony on the proposals Wednesday night, and business owners showed up in droves. They primarily took issue with a proposal to require video surveillance inside businesses that serve liquor until 2 a.m., which includes nightclubs but would also apply to restaurants and bars that stay open late.
“We’re basically spying on our customers,” said Michael Sears.
An amended version of the bill handed out before the hearing did address some of the privacy concerns, clarifying that the cameras only need to cover the establishment’s entrances, exits and point of sale areas. The prior version of the ordinance could have been interpreted to require video surveillance in virtually every part of the business except for the bathrooms.
Even with the amendment, the Rhode Island ACLU called it a violation of the 4th Amendment.
“Restaurants, cafes, bars and nightclubs in the city should not be coerced into participating in a widespread scheme of surveillance in order to serve customers a beer,” the civil liberties group wrote in prepared testimony.
Multiple restaurant and bar owners said they don’t currently have surveillance systems, so the ordinance would be a financial burden. That was also the stance of the Federal Hill Commerce Association, which called the ordinance an “undue financial burden” on businesses.
Anthony Santurri, the owner of Colosseum nightclub and Free Play Arcade and Bar, pointed out that cameras can be a huge asset to businesses.
“It not only makes you able to capture what’s really happening, it actually gives you the ability to defend yourself if you’re brought before the Board of Licenses,” Santurri said. (Santurri is currently running for City Council in Providence’s Ward 1, and was a member of the working group that came up with the ordinances.)
After hearing the concerns, Matos said council leaders plan to further amend the ordinances.
“Our intention was always to prioritize public safety while celebrating and promoting our nightlife establishments that play by the rules,” Matos said. “For far too long, our city has enabled a nightlife culture where some owners find it profitable to operate a business model that skirts local and state laws. These sweeping measures help shift this paradigm.”
The second proposed ordinance sets a series of fines and punishments for nightclubs that skirt the rules for entertainment, bottle service, hours of operation and underage drinking. The ordinance got a key amendment Wednesday, with the addition of a three-year lookback period for repeat offenses.
The third ordinance is focused on zoning, and would prohibit new businesses in C-1, C-2, and C-3 zones in the city from serving alcohol past 1 a.m.
It also provides a definition for a nightclub, and gives the city zoning officer broad discretion to determine whether a bar or restaurant is actually a nightclub.
The possible characteristics of a nightclub — which include live music, a DJ or dancing — raised the eyebrows of bar owners who felt they would suddenly be categorized as a nightclub because they bring in live music on the occasional Friday night.
Occasionally someone may get up and dance,” said Chris Simonelli, owner of the bar Troop. “I can’t have security telling people to stop dancing.”
“What is this, Footloose?” A local DJ scoffed at the definition.
Matos said the feedback will also be considered in new adjustments to the ordinances.
“We just want to make sure when anyone wants to come to a restaurant in Providence, there’s not a perception out there that it’s not safe to come to Providence,” Matos said.
Emily Crowell, a spokesperson for Mayor Jorge Elorza, said the mayor’s office would review the amended ordinances before decided whether to support any of the new language.
Steph Machado contributed to this report.