Driving

Motorists drive around the Courthouse on the Square on Wednesday. As the pandemic appears to be winding down, the Denton Police Department is expecting a surge in outings this summer — and with that, more intoxicated drivers.

As we start to see a light at the end of the pandemic, the Denton Police Department is expecting a surge in outings this summer — and with that, more intoxicated drivers.

The Police Department made fewer driving while intoxicated arrests in 2020 — a year heavily impacted by a pandemic — compared with 2019. In April 2020 alone, the month the U.S. saw big changes due to the pandemic, Denton saw a drop in DWI arrests by about 42% from April 2019.

Asked whether the drop was surprising, Sgt. Daryn Briggs, one of two traffic sergeants for Denton police, said it was, in one way.

“On the ‘yes’ side of [being surprised], it really showed how serious I think the general public took the lockdowns, and we saw, just on the night shift on the highway, there would be stretches of 10 to 15 minutes where you wouldn’t see a vehicle moving. That’s just so abnormal, even at night,” he said. “It’s a freeway. On the ‘no’ side, we still had 37 DWIs. People were still drinking and getting behind the wheel. They were just drinking at different locations than they were prior.”

There were 711 DWI arrests in 2019 compared with 637 in 2020. Arrests in April, June and August of 2020 tracked significantly lower than the previous year. Briggs said by September, Denton was back to what he considered average numbers. He said they knew the numbers would rise again eventually.

Driving while intoxicated is always a risk. Briggs said miraculously, there weren’t any fatal crashes involving an intoxicated driver in Denton last year.

Now that summer is upon us and COVID-19 vaccines are rolling out quickly, Briggs said the traffic enforcement division is anticipating this summer will be busier than 2019.

“[The pandemic] is not over with, but we’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and people are coming back to normal routines,” Briggs said. “Bars are back to 100%. We have kind of a feeling the pendulum is going to swing in excess the other way. We could have a very busy summer.”

Despite the Police Department’s anticipation of a busy summer, Harvest House general manager Alexander Moon said he doesn’t want to look ahead too far.

“Last year, I worked incredibly hard to book out Harvest House for the best shows, international and national, that I have ever done in my entire life,” he said. “And then having to cancel an entire year’s worth of music crushed me. I don’t want to get ahead of myself.”

Harvest House reopened its doors last year after being closed for 191 days, Moon said. He said the management applied for a restaurant permit, opened a cafe inside with Java Rocket and began selling merchandise and gift cards to expand their business.

Moon said they’ve moved tables around to space out, and if there are two people sitting at an eight-person table, they consider that table to be full to comply with social distancing. The bar has been reopened for months now, and Moon said he still doesn’t consider the amount of people coming in to be back at pre-pandemic levels.

“A lot of it is us following CDC guidelines,” Moon said, noting they haven’t hosted any big events like they used to. “We just don’t feel comfortable doing that.”

Christine Gossett, the executive director of the Denton Main Street Association, said foot traffic has increased as downtown businesses expanded their capacities again.

“With businesses reopening, we’ve seen more foot traffic downtown of people visiting and going out to eat and shopping,” she said. “That’s been increasing as we see more people are getting out and about. … We just expect as people get vaccinated, they’ll get more comfortable being out in groups.”

Gossett said they’re not anticipating a return of pre-COVID crowds for a while, though.

The surge in outings could even start at the end of this week since some university students will be graduating and celebrating the end of their college days, Briggs said.

The University of North Texas has commencement ceremonies Friday and Saturday, while Texas Woman’s University’s ceremonies aren’t until May 7-8 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Briggs said the Police Department will have additional officers around strictly looking for impaired drivers.

“As far as the pendulum effect, it’s human nature,” he said. “So many people missed out on so many things last year. We’re just anticipating it’ll go back the other way this summer as long as there’s not another wave [of COVID-19 cases] and we continue to make progress.”

ZAIRA PEREZ can be reached at 940-566-6882 and via Twitter at @zairalperez.

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