As the weather warms up, many South Carolinians are eagerly looking at their calendars and planning any number of events where they might want to sip on a cocktail or down a cold brew. But while making that liquor store list, take a second to consider how nice it would be if someone could deliver that booze right to your door. If you lived in North Carolina, that could happen. But not in the Palmetto state.

South Carolina is currently the only state in the American south that does not allow grocery stores to deliver alcohol — which means it is at risk of being left behind by its neighbors. But there is hope.

In the coming weeks, South Carolina lawmakers are facing a “time for choosing” when it comes to alcohol. State lawmakers will need to determine if they are in favor of a modern, robust delivery economy, or if they are determined to remain mired in the stasis of Prohibition-era sentiments.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, states across America woke up to the need to overhaul their laws surrounding alcohol delivery. While the rest of the economy seamlessly transitioned to a delivery-based marketplace — with Americans having everything from cars to pharmaceuticals delivered to their doors — alcohol remained largely sidelined.

Because many states had not substantially updated their laws governing alcohol since Prohibition, businesses like restaurants, liquor stores and groceries ran into roadblocks in their quest to deliver alcohol to consumers’ doorsteps. As a result, in the past two years, the vast majority of American states have updated their laws to allow more types of alcohol delivery.

Importantly, alcohol has become one of the most important growth sectors in America. As recently as 2017, the alcohol industry produced the second-most manufacturing jobs of any sector, and many restaurants and alcohol retail stores were able to stay in business during the pandemic shutdowns as a result of alcohol delivery. Given its role as a growing economic hub in the country, the American south was particularly active in embracing alcohol delivery reforms.

Despite this reform wave, South Carolina has been a lonely holdout. Today, every single state in the American south allows grocery stores to deliver alcohol to their customers’ homes — except South Carolina. Beyond the south, over 40 states — including ones as politically divergent as California and Texas — allow grocery store alcohol delivery, further underscoring the Palmetto State’s outlier status.

Since last year, the state legislature has been considering a bill that would permit alcohol delivery from grocery stores. Under the legislation, stores would be able to deliver beer and wine using third-party delivery services.

The fate of the legislation is important given the current ambiguity in state law over whether alcohol delivery is truly impermissible after all. In 2019, the South Carolina Office of the Attorney General, in response to a query, opined that state law did not actively prohibit stores from delivering alcohol. Given this opinion, retailers in the state could potentially attempt to begin delivering alcohol without any legislative guidance in place.

Rather than letting alcohol delivery persist in legal limbo—and in a potentially unregulated status quo — lawmakers would be wise to get in front of the issue by passing legislation to put in place rules governing alcohol delivery. In fact, the Office of the Attorney General explicitly implored the state legislature to take up the issue to provide clarity in response to this uncertainty.

So far, the main pushback to alcohol delivery in the few places that it does not already exist is centered on concerns about delivery leading to more underage drinking. In reality, proper ID verification protocols can help unsure underage sales are not occurring.

This is little different than ID checks at brick-and-mortar stores or restaurants. Just this year, sting operations in South Carolina uncovered underage alcohol sales violations at numerous restaurants in the state, underscoring that verifying the age of alcohol purchasers is an issue that is not unique to the delivery context.

In the coming weeks, it will be time for state politicians to choose whether South Carolina will join the 21st century delivery economy — and catch up to its neighbors — or if it is destined to remain mired in the past.

Image: f11photo