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City officials, shelter see results from halt on Sunday alcohol sales

Snowy sidewalk and large sign reading "Nome Alaska" along a wood-paneled building on a winter's day in Nome.
Front Street, Nome, March 2017. Photo: David Dodman, KNOM.

For the past three months, the City of Nome and local businesses have agreed to a voluntary halt on alcohol sales on Sundays. That includes beer, wine and liquor.

Municipal officials are saying that a memorandum of understanding between the city and those businesses is contributing to reduced crime and emergency service calls.

Since the start of this year three retail outlets in Nome – two Alaska Commercial Company stores and Hanson’s – have voluntarily stopped selling alcoholic beverages on Sunday.

In addition to the voluntary stop on Sunday sales, each of the three retailers in Nome allows the purchase of just one bottle of liquor per person per day, Monday through Saturday. Store clerks keep records of all bottles purchased and, according to the city, have been sharing information on people who attempt to buy liquor while intoxicated or act as runners for others, which is against the law. Alcohol can still be purchased by-the-drink on Sundays at bars in Nome.

A summary of Alaska state laws regarding alcohol can be found here.

The move, according to Nome City Manager Glenn Steckman, came after consultation with the Alaska Alcohol & Marijuana Control Office on how best to implement a plan to legally curb sales. Steckman says this is a collaborative way to address a growing problem of alcohol abuse and crime in the city.

“We sat down with them and started exploring how we can reduce the amount of alcohol sales, especially to the homeless, which was creating additional problems for the community,” Steckman said.

Steckman says police have related to him a significant reduction in emergency first responder calls to fights, assaults, and other incidents at the homeless shelter in Nome – known as the NEST – on Sundays.

“We have seen a significant reduction in alcohol related calls, and we have seen a significant reduction in ambulance related calls so that has to be looked at as a positive,” Steckman said.

Darrell “Ali” Apassingok is an unsheltered individual in Nome and stays at the shelter on a nightly basis. He says Sundays are quieter lately, but that the shelter is generally a noisy place by bedtime.

“A little quieter somewhat, but other than that, practically every night there’s drama and you have to listen to everybody arguing (about) stuff every day,” Apassingok said. “It’s hard to sleep at night.”

According to Nome Community Center, which operates the NEST, it is a “wet” shelter – that means it serves individuals who are intoxicated. In general, wet shelters admit patrons in any condition, even if they are intoxicated, but they aren’t allowed to bring alcohol or drugs into the facility.

Shoni Evans is the Community Outreach Manager for Nome Community Center. She says there is a link between the stoppage of sales on Sunday and the quieter goings-on at the shelter that day.

“I totally believe that there’s a connection,” Evans said. “There’s a lot less inebriation and people are coming in quieter and calmer. We usually are able to turn off the lights and put everyone down to quiet well before 11 o’clock on Sunday nights because they’re ready to go to sleep.”

Steckman added that one of the city’s primary concerns is finding a way to close loopholes for people getting alcohol that should not be getting it. A major issue is when someone obtains alcohol and then acts out in a domestic setting, which leads to them not being able to stay in the household. That means they likely will stay at the NEST shelter.

Nome Police Chief Mike Heintzelman says a downward trend in calls to 911 on Sundays – since the implementation of the voluntary sales restriction – is something he and his officers have taken notice of at both the shelter and private residences.

“There’s a remarkable reduction in the response to intoxicated individuals, whether it be rescue or whether it be for officers to respond to,” Heintzelman said. “It also translates to other offenses that we might respond to that are alcohol-fueled.”

Chief Heintzelman says reducing the amount of alcohol on the streets has a direct effect on the calls received on the 911 emergency line.

Steckman also says the weather influences police calls and response. He’s taking a wait-and-see approach about what alcohol-related crime numbers will look like as spring and summer arrive.

“I think the Sunday sale reduction has helped, but we’re still trying to measure it, and we also have to remember that this has only been in effect for three months,” Steckman said. “We’re in our fourth month. It has been one of the coldest and snowiest winters we’ve had for a while. So, I think the real review will come as the city warms up and people get back into their normal, spring/summer lifestyle.

The National Weather Service maintains a website detailing current and historic conditions in Western Alaska.

Under state law, communities have the option to ban alcohol sales, importation, possession, or a mix of each of those three. Based on the most current information from the state, Nome, Safety Roadhouse, White Mountain and Council are the only places on the Seward Peninsula where alcohol is completely legal under local option laws.

According to the state, Brevig Mission, Gambell and Savoonga ban the sale, importation, and possession of alcohol, while Diomede, Wales, Shishmaref, Golovin, Elim and Koyuk ban sales and importation only. Teller bans the sale of alcohol.

A meeting between city officials and store management to assess how the agreement is working out is being planned tentatively for the end of April. At Monday night’s Nome Common Council meeting, Glenn Steckman said the full potential of the agreement will not be felt until early 2024.

Image at top: Front Street in Nome, March 2017. Photo by David Dodman/KNOM.

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