But one South Carolina beach recently imposed a temporary ban on booze on its shores, and a nationally known beach expert says there are more shore towns that ban alcohol than permit it. He said the laws are generally passed to prevent rowdy gatherings and everything that goes with them, not to prevent folks from walking the sand with wine in a plastic cup.
"If you looked at it, most beaches have a prohibition on drinking, but I think if you looked at it closely, most beaches people are drinking on," said Dr. Stephen Leatherman, known as "Dr. Beach" for his ratings of the nation's best beaches.
This laid-back coastal town of weathered bungalows and surf shops banned drinking on the beach this month, with the city council imposing a 60-day ban after dozens of drunken revelers tangled with law officers in a Fourth of July melee deputies described as a riot. Five officers were hurt and seven people arrested.
Local real estate agent LaJuan Kennedy has spent the past couple of weeks collecting hundreds of signatures so residents can vote on making the ban permanent. Folly was the only beach in the Charleston area where it had been legal to drink on the shore.
"July Fourth was just the straw that broke the camel's back," Kennedy said. "This has been building for the last three or four years."
She said residents are sick of drunken young people causing problems and leaving trash behind.
"It's not that they are bad people, but after they go down and drink alcohol from 9 to 4 their brains are mush," she said. "When they come down they are perfect ladies and gentlemen and it's, 'Yes, ma'am' and 'No, ma'am.' When they leave, they have other words to say because of the alcohol."
Matt Kacenga, manning an outdoor booth for East Coast Surf Rentals on the town's main drag, called the ban "a knee-jerk reaction."
He said that both Folly Beach and the number of vacationers have grown in recent years, and that the city has to figure out how to handle the changes.
"I can't tell you I'm flat-out against the ban because I do believe things have gotten worse," he said. "But I think there should be some real adult, pragmatic, civilized discussion as opposed to a heat of the moment solution."
Things have been quieter in the past few weeks, but locals say it's unclear if that's because of the alcohol ban or simply because the beach season is winding down.
"I've never said that not drinking is a panacea," said Mayor Tim Goodwin. "But if there is no drinking on the beach, they're probably not going to be planning a fraternity party there."
Leatherman, a professor at Florida International University, said beach alcohol bans likely don't hurt the economies of shore towns too much. While the local convenience stores may sell fewer six packs, towns tend to reinvent themselves and, he said, there are only so many choices for people to go to the beach so visitors tend to keep coming.
He said beach towns generally ban alcohol for two reasons.
"If you have a large group of people, especially young people, and alcohol is freely available, then testosterone runs wild and you get fights going on," he said. "A second reason is litter and broken glass, which can be very dangerous on beaches."
He added that most beaches won't have problems 350 days out of the year, even on beaches that allow drinking. It's big weekends, like July Fourth and other holidays that bring extra people, that can cause issues.
"When you think of it, if you go to a bar and drink too much, they by law have to cut you off," said Folly Beach Councilman Eddie Ellis. "Out on the beach, there is nobody to cut anybody off."
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