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Duluth to lighten up on unlicensed dancing with repeal of outdated local regulations

City staff have proposed that councilors repeal Prohibition-era dancing restrictions.

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Alan Sparhawk crowd surfed during the Black-eyed Snakes set during the 19th Annual Homegrown Music Festival in May 2017. Clint Austin/ File / News Tribune
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It turns out that many Duluth businesses unwittingly have been breaking the law for decades by allowing patrons to dance in public. But that could all change before the end of the year.

The Duluth City Council will take up an ordinance Monday that could repeal longstanding, though rarely enforced public dancing restrictions of yesteryear that still remain on the books today.

Councilor Roz Randorf has coined the proposed amendment “the ‘Footloose’ ordinance,” and she said it’s about time Duluth brought its city code into the modern age, with respect to dancing limitations.

“We’ve all been breaking the law a long time,” she said with a chuckle. “I feel guilty.”

Randorf credits Chelsea Helmer, Duluth’s director of administrative services for bringing forward the amendment.

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Meanwhile, Helmer deflected the praise, saying it should more appropriately be directed toward Code Compliance Officer Ian Johnson.

As a matter of practice, Helmer said the city clerk’s office periodically combs through the city code to identify parts of it that may need to be revised or updated.

But she said staff mounted a concentrated effort during the pandemic slowdown to ensure that struggling businesses would not be unduly impacted by unnecessary restrictions.

“We really wanted to ensure that our regulations met the needs of why they were originally implemented,” she said. “We do have a number of code provisions that are dated, and as times change and the way businesses operate changes, we just want to track those to the best of our abilities.”

Parts of Duluth’s code, that date back to 1925, require establishments that serve alcohol to obtain a special license to allow dancing in public.

“It really was derived out of Prohibition-era concerns around the consumption of alcohol and immorality,” Helmer said.

She noted the state of Minnesota had similar regulations on its books until 1989, when it cleaned up the law. Duluth is just a few steps behind in that process.

At large City Councilor Arik Forsman said, “I’m glad this wasn’t enforced in my younger days, going to Grandma’s Sports Garden. Those days are long past.”

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He asked if the city was continuing to dig through its code to flag old portions of it that might require revision.

“Do we have a bunch of these, or is this a one-off?” he asked.

Helmer responded: “Yes, we actually have several other potential ordinances that will be coming forward to council in the new year that are similar.

“There are a number of things in our code provisions that are potentially ripe for a revisit and/or a repeal,” she said.

Helmer said city staff consulted with local law enforcement authorities before recommending the proposed code revisions regarding dances. She pointed out that late-night activities are still regulated by other parts of the city code that control concerns such as noise, unsafe activity and traffic. No events are allowed to continue past 3 a.m., and any serving of alcohol is forbidden after 2 a.m.

But Helmer said, “It was very clear we didn’t need to be regulating the activity of dancing.”

“We always have a general concern about ensuring that events are happening safely and establishments are operating safely. That’s absolutely still a concern for the community. But we feel like we have other mechanisms in place to regulate that,” she said.

The proposed ordinance change in regards to dance restrictions will receive a first reading on Monday, but it will not go to a vote until two weeks later.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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