ATLANTA — The restless crowd milled outside Green’s liquor store on New Year’s Day, eager to be among the first to help end the long ban on Sunday alcohol sales in Atlanta. Some simply wanted to restock their supply after a long holiday weekend, but others cast the moment in more sweeping terms.
“I want to be a part of history,” said Casey Smith, 31, who was picking up some rum before a tailgate.
Atlanta residents went in droves to liquor stores Sunday to celebrate the end of a ban on alcohol sales on the Sabbath. A few dozen local governments cleared the way for Sunday sales late last year, but the watershed moment came Jan. 1 when Atlanta and a handful of other Georgia cities allowed the sales.
“I think it’s progressive. People are going to drink anyways,” said Smith, who joined about a dozen others who waited outside the store as the ban lifted Sunday afternoon.
Many Georgia lawmakers felt the same way, and there’s been a perennial battle at the statehouse for years over ending the ban. But each proposal was bottled up by religious groups such as the Georgia Christian Coalition and the Georgia Baptist Convention, who viewed lifting the restrictions as an attempt to sully the Sabbath.
Former Gov. Sonny Perdue, a teetotaler himself, also vowed to veto any bid to water down the ban during his eight-year tenure.
But the debate shifted in 2010 after voters elected Gov. Nathan Deal, who said he wasn’t opposed to giving residents a choice in the matter.
Under pressure from grocery and convenience stores that had long pushed for the change, the conversation at the statehouse transformed from one that focused on religious morality to one about the Republican ideals of local control.
With Perdue gone and advocates newly emboldened, the measure sailed through the state House and survived a vote in the state Senate, where it had been bottled up for five years. Deal quietly signed it into law at a private ceremony in April.
The law isn’t a complete culture shock, as restaurants and bars in Georgia can already sell alcohol on Sunday. But it lets voters approve the sales by grocery and convenience stores – as long as local governments agree to put it on the ballot. It also means that only two states, Connecticut and Indiana, still have statewide bans on Sunday alcohol sales.
Many cities and counties quickly added the question to their November ballots, and others are planning to do so next year.
In all, about 100 cities and counties have already cleared the way for Sunday sales. Atlanta voters were particularly eager to allow the change: The new rule here passed by a vote of more than 80 percent.
Although the new change was long sought by alcohol retailers, it was a mixed bag for many store owners and their employees. They were pleased with Sunday’s big crowds but uncertain how business will fare when the novelty wears off. Plus, the change means they’ll now have to work on what used to be their day of rest.
David Greenbaum, whose family has run liquor stores in Atlanta since 1938, said it’s a problem he doesn’t mind. He said he’ll end up taking off a day during the middle of the week instead. And though it costs an additional 14 percent to keep his Tower Beer store open on Sundays, he said he’s confident it’s worth it.
“We hope to make that money back – and more,” he said.
If Sunday’s scene at Green’s liquor store was any indication, Atlanta residents are happy to oblige.
Larry Mack, 64, of Atlanta, couldn’t help but shout “Happy New Year” at the cash register after picking up a bottle of vodka.
“People are going to get the stuff one way or another,” he said. “It’s best to allow the county or the city to get the money rather than a bootlegger. Believe me, there are plenty of them out there.”
Others seemed stunned by the novelty of buying alcohol on a Sunday. Gloria Thomas was beaming as she pushed a shopping cart loaded with a 24-pack of Heineken beer and a bottle of pricey vodka to her car in the crowded parking lot.
“I don’t know how to act. It just seems kind of strange being able to buy alcohol on Sunday,” said Thomas, 49, of Atlanta, who said she was long jealous of friends in other states who could shop at liquor stores on Sundays. “I have no idea why it took so long. But I’m just glad it happened.”
Phoenix Ashe, 41, dressed up for the occasion. He wore a top hat, a dark overcoat and wielded a candy-cane walking stick as he bought a bottle of raspberry liquor. After he emerged from the crowded shop, he declared himself liberated.
“I’m here to buy alcohol and claim a little of my freedom back,” he said. “I will only buy alcohol on Sundays from now on, just to make a point that restricting freedom is a mistake.”