(By Joao Ferreira, Standard-Times staff writer)
New Bedford, Massachusetts, USA â€” The organizers of the Madeiran Feast of the Blessed Sacrament are again stepping up efforts to shake the event’s reputation of being a beer and Madeira wine festival.
The popular Portuguese festival attracts huge crowds to its relatively compact North End grounds each year and has been riddled with alcohol-related incidents.
As part of their efforts to prevent underage drinking during the four-day festival held Aug. 2-5, feast organizers will use six age-verification machines to print unique wristbands for everyone under age 35.
The new measures come in addition to undercover police officers who roam festival grounds looking for underage drinkers and overindulging adults. Organizers also switched to smaller servings of Madeira wine last year.
“It’s something the club decided to do that we felt that should be done,” said Larry Abreu Jacques, president of the Clube Madeirense SS Sacramento, the club that organizes the 93-year-old feast.
“It’s just something we want to stop. We want to hit it; we want to stop it completely,” he said. “I think this new machine is going to do just that.”
The machines rented from a California company will print one wristband per person, per day, after the attendee’s driver’s license runs trough the system. Each color-coded band will include the person’s age, driver’s license number and day of issue.
No replacement bands will be available after the first one is issued.
“We’re going to do this for people 35 and under,” Mr. Jacques said. “The best point about this machine, you can’t get another one until the next day. The thing with this is that your name is on here. I think you will think twice before giving it to someone else.”
Those over 35 will be able to obtain regular wrist bands.
Feast organizers presented the new safety measures to the city’s Licensing Board during a hearing Monday night. At the request of the Police Department, every city festival is now required to present a safety plan to the board at least two months ahead of the event.
“These are some things they agreed to do to make the ’07 feast safer,” said Ronald E. Teachman, New Bedford police chief. “I absolutely think it’s a problem we need to address, and these are positive steps.”
More than 300,000 people attend the festival each year.
Last year, undercover and uniformed police caught 43 underage drinkers during a two-day sting at the festival.
Police also traced a number car accidents, assaults and other violent acts to the feast, because those involved were wearing feast wrist bands. Overall statistics on those arrests or calls to the feast grounds weren’t readily available.
“It’s a liability factor. They have a lot to lose,” police spokesman Capt. Richard Spirlet said about the problems organizers face with underage and excessive drinking at the feast.
Also this year, according to feast organizers, all workers serving alcohol will receive intervention training similar to that required of employees in bars and restaurants.
The training will help workers identify over-consumption. They will also be required to sell only two drinks at each time to each patron, with the second person getting the drink also required to be present with their wristband.
“We want to see the other person they’re giving their drink to,” Mr. Jacques said.
Chief Teachman said police officers will also be able to cut out wristbands from anyone who had one too many drinks.
The Police Department is currently reviewing the feast safety plan. Recommendations and additions may be made when organizers go before the Licensing Board for their license next month, Chief Teachman said.
As part of their efforts to curb excessive alcohol consumption, feast organizers last year decided to discontinue selling 20-ounce servings of the 38-proof, fortified wine. Instead, they began selling 3- and 7-ounce servings of the popular dessert-type beverage produced in the island of Madeira.
The feast committee also moved the Madeira wine stand to a centralized location on the festival grounds.