In the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, California made news by conducting undercover “decoy operations” of alcohol deliveries. At that time, California—like many other states—had recently greenlighted to-go cocktails and alcohol delivery from restaurants and bars under emergency COVID-19 orders.

Spurred on by a Washington Post exposé, the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (California ABC) launched an investigation of alcohol delivery in the Golden State. According to California ABC, it ordered around 200 alcoholic beverages in April 2020 and had them delivered to individuals, including “decoys” under the age of 21.

At the time, a spokesperson for the department told the Washington Post that “significant violations of the law” were found. Specifically, it was reported that 25 percent of these deliveries ended up in the hands of minors. ABC asserted that third-party delivery companies fared even worse when it came to underage sales, with minors successfully obtaining alcohol in 4 out of 5 deliveries made by these companies.

These headlines created significant buzz and concern, leading many to claim that alcohol delivery was “letting minors order alcohol.” Lost in the shuffle was the fact that alcohol delivery options like to-go cocktails had just been authorized in many states, meaning that delivery companies were literally attempting to onboard alcohol delivery services on the fly. The additional protocols that many delivery companies put into place in the following weeks and months of the pandemic to ensure proper ID verification also attracted little attention.

Although this data is now approaching two years old, neither California ABC nor any media outlets have published updated compliance statistics on alcohol delivery and underage access. The R Street Institute recently reached out to California ABC (via [email protected]) to inquire if these statistics were still valid or if updated information on alcohol delivery compliance was available.

A spokesperson for California ABC confirmed via email to R Street that the department has conducted more recent operations around underage drinking and alcohol delivery. This spokesperson also confirmed that the current violation rate for sales to minors from alcohol deliveries has dropped to 14 percent in the state, rather than the prior 80 percent. Importantly, a 14 percent violation rate is well in line with average expectations for undercover decoy operations for alcohol sales. California ABC stated that it was “satisfied” with the updated results.

The R Street Institute has long been supportive of ensuring that all points-of-access for alcohol sales include proper and effective procedures for ID verification to ensure that minors do not have access to alcohol. As policymakers consider more forms of alcohol delivery in the coming months and years, the focus should be on using up-to-date data and modern technological innovations to ensure alcohol is delivered safely.

R Street has also filed a public records request with California ABC regarding any further documentation the department might have on violation rates from recent decoy operations for alcohol deliveries. We will update this article accordingly if we hear back.

Image: Diana Vyshniakova

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