Why a Solar Eclipse Has the Heartland Rethinking Alcohol Laws
Changes in alcohol laws are the second thing Carbondale, Illinois and Hopkinsville, Kentucky have in common. The first? Each town is the tourism hotbed for an upcoming solar eclipse.
On August 21, a total solar eclipse will begin in Oregon and end in South Carolina. It’s the first since 1776 to only be visible in the U.S. At its point of greatest duration—where the eclipse will last the longest—you’ll find Carbondale. And the point of greatest eclipse—where more of the sun will be covered—centers on Hopkinsville.
Evidently, a total solar eclipse is something to travel for. Because 80 percent of Americans live within 600 miles of the eclipse path, Carbondale expects 100,000 visitors and Hopkinsville 50,000.
Some of those people may want a drink. In anticipation of the eclipse—and the tourism dollars it can bring—both areas have reassessed their liquor laws.
In January, Carbondale’s city council “passed a resolution that temporarily suspended the public possession of alcohol,” says City Manager Gary Williams, explaining people can buy alcohol in a plastic cup and carry it around downtown from 11:00 am to 11:00 pm. But before you grab your Tupperware stein and pack your bags, be aware that the new resolution only covers eclipse weekend—and you have to buy your beer from a downtown merchant.
In Christian County, Kentucky—of which Hopkinsville’s the seat—County Judge/Executive Steve Tribble also looked into an eclipse-weekend-only change. “The [Christian County] Chamber of Commerce is putting a full-court press on,” he says, explaining that local business leaders want souvenir bottle sales permitted at craft distilleries on Sundays. With the eclipse on a Monday, the chamber hopes Sunday sales will increase tourist spend.
So why alcohol? Carbondale and Hopkinsville aren’t in cahoots. In fact, neither Williams nor Tribble knew the other’s government was considering changes until contacted by your correspondent. When given the same opportunity, why did two similarly-sized towns in two different states independently reconsider their liquor laws? “I don’t know” is the initial answer of both.
The deeper answer is about identity: What do Hopkinsville and Carbondale want to be?
In the past, says Mayor Carter Hendricks, Hopkinsville’s nickname was “Little Chicago.” When asked what that means, he answers, “Not positive…That we were poor…that our diversity was an issue, not a strength.” The eclipse, though, is Hopkinsville’s chance to rebrand. “If I said ‘Little Chicago’ was the old brand, I’m saying we wanna be ‘Little Nashville’ as the new brand.”
Nashville, Tennessee, the home of country music, is slightly more than an hour’s drive from Hopkinsville and the smaller city hopes to emulate its neighbor by becoming an arts and music hub. Christian County Fiscal Court recently passed a transient room tax that benefits—among other things—The Alhambra, a performing arts theatre. And the city’s Little River Days festival has been reengineered as Summer Salute, which Carter hopes will become “a signature, regional music festival.”
Carbondale’s holding its own eclipse music festival as well, and music is the identity trait Williams focuses on. He hopes the city’s open container change will become a permanent one. “What we want to do is get back to where we are more of an entertainment destination for the region,” he says, sharing that decades ago Carbondale was known for drawing national acts. Elvis and Bob Dylan played there, “and a lot of people within the region talk about that and they wonder what happened and why doesn’t Carbondale have these types of events anymore, so the current council is focused on getting back to that.”
Beer and concerts are synonymous, Williams says, just as bourbon and Kentucky are, according to Tribble.
According to Williams, Carbondale’s change has been embraced by the community. When asked if any residents had religious or health objections, he answers no, explaining how loosening the open-carry law actually makes eclipse weekend easier for Carbondale police. Now officers “don’t have to worry about bar checks as much” and can focus on more important matters.
Carbondale used to have a Halloween festival where open container was the norm, so its change brings the city back to that. But Sunday distillery sales would be brand new for Christian County. Hopkinsville has Sunday liquor-by-the-drink, a loophole common in the South that allows restaurants to sell alcohol in proportion with the amount of food served and how many seats they have. Before this passed, Tribble says, “Those that were opposed to it said, ‘Oh, we’re gonna have so many wrecks and we’re gonna have so many DUIs’…Not one thing happened. There hasn’t been a single arrest because of it…All of that negative just didn’t happen.”
Despite prior success, passing the new law still isn’t easy. “We’re in the Bible Belt,” says Tribble, “That’s just the way it’s been,” highlighting how civic and individual identity can be at odds. Towns want progress, but people hate change.
With six months between now and the eclipse, the fiscal court’s voting window is open-ended. “[The Chamber] certainly would like to be able to do it by the time the eclipse gets here because we’ll have such a huge crowd and influx of people.”
Alcohol or no alcohol, neither music city expects tourists to get too crazy. “They’re scientists,” Williams says. Ask him if alcohol will make a difference in their decision to come to Carbondale or Hopkinsville, and he says no. And Tribble? “For some people it does.”
Terena Bell is a freelance journalist writing most often on tech, entertainment, public affairs, and the Great American Total Solar Eclipse. A Kentucky native, she is based in New York.