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Businesses, students still unsure what Picnic Day will bring

A changing message sign proclaims “No Alcohol," "Picnic Day" and “Zero Tolerance” at the edge of the UC Davis campus at First and A streets as the university prepares for Picnic Day, which takes place on Saturday. Organizers of UCD’s annual open house hope to recapture the event’s traditionally family-friendly atmosphere in light of last year’s spike in alcohol-related arrests and incidents in the community that day. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

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April 15, 2011 | Leave Comment

Only meteorologists seem sure about Picnic Day’s mostly cloudy forecast.

On the eve of Saturday’s 97th UC Davis open house, sure to draw tens of thousands of visitors, the feelings of business owners and students ranged from upbeat to downright pessimistic about what will happen next.

As of Thursday, 61 businesses with liquor licenses — about two-thirds of those in the city — had signed on to a Picnic Day covenant aimed at slowing problem drinking.

Meanwhile, more than 2,300 people have signed on to a three-day-old Facebook campaign, “Handle Your S—! Save Picnic Day!” urging students to “Have fun, do your thing, but don’t be that guy/girl.”

And more than 1,000 have signed a slightly more subtle pledge on the Picnic Day website to conduct themselves responsibly.

All of this in hopes of saving a family-friendly tradition on campus from a party atmosphere off of it that’s grown steadily harder to corral.

Last year’s alcohol-fueled mess resulted in 516 calls to police and 33 arrests. Campus and city leaders have stated they will consider ending the event for good if Saturday again turns ugly.

Adam Thongsavat, the president of the Associated Students of UC Davis, said many students are determined to control what they can: themselves.

“They’re not just being responsible, but really taking a leadership role,” he said. “They’re not only going to be taking care of themselves, they’re going to be calling others out. That just shows how much people love Picnic Day on this campus.”

Others remain wary.

Sinisa Novakovic, owner of Mishka’s Cafe, the Varsity Theatre and Icekrimski, plans to batten down the hatches. He’s hired two security guards at a rate of $30 per hour to protect his businesses.

“I hope it will be better,” he said, “but I have sincere doubts.”

Ready or not

Business owners, police, city government, campus officials and student groups have spent months planning to avoid a repeat of last year.

Steps include extensive student outreach, discussions with business owners and the creation of a “safety-enhancement zone.” Starting tonight at 6 p.m. and running until 6 a.m. Sunday, fines will double in downtown Davis and along Russell Boulevard for crimes like having an open container of alcohol and urinating in public.

Business owners who have signed the covenant have agreed, among other things, to not sell alcohol before 11 a.m., not peddle drink specials, hold off on changing their normal seating before 10 p.m., adding extra staff and halting advertising tying Picnic Day to drinking.

Joy Cohan, director of the Davis Downtown Business Association, said that while “there’s limits on what we can do, realistically,” she was proud of how owners were taking a stand.

“It’s business owners monitoring themselves,” she said. “That feels better than if the council or some other entity makes an ordinance. It’s a good feeling.”

Some are making dramatic changes.

Last year, Uncle Vito’s Slice of New York reportedly had to be cleared by the fire department at one point because it was overcrowded with drinkers.

Tomorrow, though, Vito’s will only sell pizza, “in the spirit of what Picnic Day originated as, to try to bring it back to what it was and not lose Picnic Day,” manager Travis Houston said.

Charlie Swanson, owner of The Davis Graduate, which draws big crowds of students and alumni alike, was an early proponent of the covenant. He said in an email message that he expected Picnic Day crowds to again provide his biggest food sales day of the year, but no trouble.

Ciocolat owner Kate Hutchinson, meanwhile, said that she longed for the days when downtown’s biggest nuisance was Silly String. Picnic Day was a good day for her business last year, but it took friends and relatives to keep drunks off her property.

“I’m optimistic by nature. I grew up in Davis and Picnic Day is one of my favorite days of the year. So I’m hopeful it will be more subdued,” Hutchinson said. “But I’m also realistic. I realize it’s hard to control that many visitors who come into town for the purpose of partying.”

In recent years, Mishka’s, in its former location next door to Vito’s, suffered $1,000 worth of window damage, saw chairs stolen, had staff accosted by lines of sloshed belligerents demanding to use the cafe’s bathroom, and cleaned up what its owner, Novakovic, described as “a liberal sprinkling of vomit.”

“A lot of people like me who live near downtown leave for the weekend because they hate the mayhem that ensues,” he said. “People start planning way in advance and buying up cheap alcohol. I live by some of the fraternity houses and, by 9 a.m., many of the students are unable to walk.”

Some major sources of alcohol on the city have not signed onto the covenant, however. They include most grocery stores, which bar owners feel are responsible for fueling house parties.

In the beer aisle of at least one local supermarket on a recent day, there stood a half-empty rack of ping pong balls, the better to play beer pong with. The store also had red plastic cups, a staple of any keg party, on sale.

Crepeville and Burgers and Brew are two other restaurants that didn’t sign the covenant. Co-owner Derar Zewaydeh said that he simply forgot to mail it back in, but that his restaurants’ standard procedures comply with its tenets.

Zewaydeh also owns restaurants in Sacramento. He said the Davis locations have not had trouble on Picnic Days past, and he wasn’t worried about it this week, either.

“I love Davis for what it is. It’s not like a larger city,” he said. “The kids are out to have a good time. The worst they might do is break something.

“In Sacramento, when you have people who are similarly drunk, they’re often looking for trouble and someone might get hurt. I will take Davis any day of the week.”

‘Crazy,’ but less so?

In fact, UCD students commonly blame troublemakers from outside of Davis for causing last year’s worst problems.

Davis Police Chief Landy Black has agreed, but only to a point: 67 percent of those arrested were not from Davis — but the department also received scores of calls about out-of-control neighborhood parties packed with UCD students, he has said.

Ethan Rader, the president of the Interfraternity Council, the governing body of 16 Greek houses at UCD, said in an email message that last year’s Picnic Day marked the first time he felt unsafe here.

“I saw herds of violent, intoxicated strangers,” he said.

Rader, a third-year political science major from Oak Park and a member of Alpha Epsilon Pi, said that some have unfairly been singled out Greek houses for blame. He said that he knew of no fraternity or sorority member arrested last year.

Thongsavat, the ASUCD president, noted that more than 900 Greeks attended a town hall-style meeting about Picnic Day, and dozens have volunteered to help clean up downtown after Saturday night.

Rader said that students are aware of the stepped-up police presence “will factor into the decisions of even the most adventurous students.”

“My best bet is that Picnic Day this year will be crazy but not out of control,” he said. “Students will be intoxicated and out-of-towners will make a large presence, but I have full faith the Davis PD are ready to prevent a repeat of last year.”

Other students said that, at first blush, police plans seem heavy-handed.

“What I saw during the day time was, yeah, it was out of control, but it didn’t seem like anybody was getting hurt,” said Gurprit Jhujj, a senior history major from Fresno, who was surprised when told of assault arrests last year. “I think once those barriers are crossed, that’s too much.

“But if someone’s passed out on someone’s lawn, that to me doesn’t seem like too big of a deal. It’s just like, let them sleep.”

Transfer student Elaine Lipowski will be attending her first Picnic Day and, having celebrated her 21st birthday, plans to have a drink or two. The linguistics and communication major from Folsom said she had seen similar events get out of hand when she lived in Santa Barbara.

UC Santa Barbara officials have tried put a halt to Floatopia, which in 2009 drew some 12,000 students who drank and rafted along the coast. Thirteen were arrested, more were hospitalized and beaches were trashed, according to news reports.

Santa Barbara County plans to close its beaches to try to stop students from reviving the event.

Santa Barbara’s efforts to crack down on another event, held at Halloween, didn’t seem to pay off, Lipowski said.

“When I was there, it was actually the biggest number of students there and the highest fines. No matter what the consequences were, people were still going to do it.”

— Enterprise staff writers Crystal Lee and Jeff Hudson contributed to this report.

Safe party tips
* Serve non-alcoholic beverages and food
* Don’t promote alcohol as the center of the party; don’t encourage drinking games
* If alcohol is served, use closed 
containers rather than open punch bowls
* Check everyone’s ID and create a 
designation for those over 21 at events where drinking may occur
* Limit the number of alcoholic drinks each person may have
* Avoid selling drink tickets, empty cups or charging for “all you can drink”
* Provide taxis or other transportation for guests who have been drinking
* Close access to your roof and swimming pool to avoid injuries
Source: http://safeparty.ucdavis.edu

Cory Golden

Cory Golden

The Enterprise's higher-education and congressional reporter. http://about.me/cory_golden
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