From Douglas north to Muskegon, eight communities — even tiny Fennville and Spring Lake — now allow adults 21 and older to purchase beer, wine and cocktails at bars and restaurants and enjoy them outdoors within the defined boundaries of their “social districts.”
The Michigan legislature legalized social districts in 2020 to boost business in downtown areas that were suddenly empty in the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. Seventy-nine communities statewide jumped on that bandwagon by the end of 2021. Here on the lakeshore, it looks like a keeper.
Early fall may be the social districts’ sweet spot. It passes the Goldilocks test: not too hot, not too cold, just right … in this case, just right for window-shopping, strolling and people-watching in the fresh air while enjoying adult beverages. And it’s not just for while you wait for a restaurant table to open up — in each of the towns, social district hours begin by noon and extend well past the dinner hour.
Some details differ town-to-town, but the basic outlines are the same. Here’s a rundown on what to keep in mind — and a bit about each social district in our stretch of the lakeshore region.
1. Respect boundaries
Social district boundaries are specific: certain blocks of a downtown area, and on some streets, just the sidewalk on one side. Before you start to stroll, be aware of the boundary lines. Watch for signs that mark the limits of the district you are in. To access a map online, google the name of the town you’re in and “social district” or follow the links below. The rules of the road: finish or discard your drink before you leave the social district.
2. No brown bagging
Drinks must be purchased from a participating business within the social district. Order your drink in a Social District cup, which will be dated by your server or bartender. Each cup is for one-time use. You cannot “BYO” (not from home, and not from a liquor store).
3. Don’t bar-hop till you’ve drained your cup
Don’t carry a drink into a bar or restaurant other than the one from which you purchased it.
4. Stick to designated areas
What’s public space differs by town. Check the social district’s webpage for its policy or ask your server. Muskegon’s downtown district, for example, includes a park, a splashpad, and “sandboxes” for lawn games and dancing — and in Zeeland, the city government has placed tables and chairs in several spots for the use of social district patrons. In some other towns where green spaces and “pocket parks” are privately owned and the tables on sidewalks all belong to particular businesses, people strolling with cocktails need to stick to sidewalks.
Lakeshore social districts, north to south
Muskegon boasts two social districts: a nine-block-long downtown district along Western Avenue near the water, plus a smaller one on the north side of Lakeshore Drive in the Lakeside commercial area. Between them, social district patrons can purchase adult beverages at roughly 20 establishments — including a barbecue joint, a pizzeria, the farmers market and the Culinary Institute of Michigan’s student-run restaurant.
Several common areas behind businesses are included in Spring Lake’s social district, which runs along West Savidge Street and West Exchange Street between South Buchanan and the midway point between South Park and South Division. As fall kicks off, four businesses are participating; one has announced it will close in December.
Lawn games and two dozen picnic tables are among the amenities in Grand Haven’s six-block social district, which runs east from Harbor Drive between Columbus and Franklin avenues. The 13 participating businesses run the gamut from a wine bar to the Elks lodge.
Tripelroot and Frank’s East are the places to go for drinks to enjoy in Zeeland’s downtown social district. Social district patrons can purchase food at a variety of downtown restaurants and gather at public tables provided by the city, a la food court. The boundaries of the district along Main Avenue and Elm (including Elm Street Park) are expanded during some downtown special events, including Sept. 10th’s Peddler’s Market and the Pumpkinfest on Oct. 7 and 8.
With 13 participating restaurants and bars, folks waiting for tables in downtown Holland restaurants are seizing the opportunity to stroll while they wait — and to enjoy a beverage outdoors during festivals and other events. (The only time social district service is suspended is when a parade is underway.) The district runs along four blocks of 8th Street and portions of three adjacent roads.
Sprawling along the Kalamazoo River on Water Street, four blocks of Butler Street, and rounding the bend along the harbor on Culver and Mason, the Saugatuck social district offers lovely strolls and ample window-shopping. About a dozen eateries and pubs participate.
You can walk the full length of downtown Douglas in its social district — from Blue Star Highway all the way to Kalamazoo Lake Harbor. In between, two restaurants serve adult beverages for consumption outdoors along West Center and its side streets. Retail stores displaying a Douglas social district sticker allow visitors to enter with their beverages.