Several months into the pandemic, two things are clear: to-go alcohol is helping save some states’ favorite bars and restaurants, and New Yorkers absolutely love it.
It may seem like a lifetime ago, but in March, Gov. Cuomo first issued emergency orders allowing restaurants and bars to sell alcohol for takeout or delivery. Soon, Washington, D.C., and Texas followed suit, and to date, more than 30 states have enacted to-go alcohol measures during COVID-19.
While New York was an initial policy leader for takeout alcohol, in recent weeks other states have stolen the spotlight by making to-go booze permanent or extending its duration. Unless lawmakers in Albany act, New Yorkers may ultimately lose one of the only good things to come out of the current pandemic.
Realistically, allowing restaurants and bars to include a pre-mixed cocktail or a beer in a takeout order is not a radical concept — after all, takeout food has been popular and legal for decades. But it nonetheless represents a significant change for a corner of the legal world that has barely evolved since the end of Prohibition.
When Prohibition was repealed over 85 years ago, states adopted complex licensing systems for the alcohol industry, which broke the market up into a bunch of different players. To this day, it largely prevents restaurants from selling alcohol in an off-premise capacity like traditional retail stores.
Then COVID-19 changed things overnight. Suddenly, people-oriented small businesses like bars and restaurants were forced to close as public health officials encouraged social distancing and self-quarantining. Dire warnings about the hospitality industry being on the verge of complete collapse abounded.
Permitting restaurants to sell alcohol in a to-go and delivery capacity was meant to be a life raft to an industry on the brink. While to-go drinks alone were far from enough to save the local neighborhood bar, these new privileges have unquestionably helped many New York restaurants stay afloat.
To-go alcohol also made sense from a public health standpoint. Allowing city residents to readily purchase booze from restaurants, and even have it delivered to their door, allowed people to stay home and limit contact with others. And, needless to say, it brought a little cheer to an otherwise dreary time.
The governor’s office has continued to extend to-go alcohol privileges during the pandemic, but other states have recognized that to-go alcohol should not be a pandemic-only affair. States like Michigan have passed legislation extending to-go alcohol for another five years, while Iowa recently became the first state in the country to make the rule changes permanent.
Currently, efforts are afoot in Albany to enact a more durable extension, although the bill only extends to-go booze by two years. At a time when the governor’s office is now requiring food to be consumed along with a beverage for on-premise dining — which will likely hurt the state’s cocktail bars even further — passing this bill is more important than ever.
Even so, New York lawmakers should use this opportunity to take a bolder stand. At a time when Americans seem unable to agree on anything politically, a stunning 86% of New Yorkers want to-go alcohol to be permanent, according to a restaurant industry survey. Legislators should listen to their constituents and let takeout and delivery alcohol last beyond the pandemic.
But there are other steps worth taking in this “new normal.” For instance, the state retains a rule forbidding restaurants from purchasing alcohol on credit, which is almost tailor-made to hurt cash-strapped restaurants during the pandemic and thus should be revisited.
New York could also pursue reforms to state laws around alcohol shipping. The state permits both in-state and out-of-state wineries to ship bottles to New Yorkers, but breweries and distilleries are left out. State emergency orders have allowed in-state shipments temporarily, but states like Kentucky have passed permanent shipping reform during COVID that applies to all alcohol types. Right on cue, lawmakers in Albany have introduced a shipment bill for distilleries that would put them on par with wineries and should receive more attention.
As the country braces for what looks to be more long months of rising COVID cases, policymakers have a unique opportunity to raise New Yorkers’ spirits. Like diamonds, to-go cocktails should be forever.
Image credit: lesiaboiko 
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