Connecticut joins the looming alcohol fight
While the COVID-19 pandemic has roiled many industries across the economy, food and drink businesses like breweries, wineries and restaurants have been particularly hurt. One of Americans’ favorite pastimes—sipping a brew at the local brewery or drinking a margarita at the neighborhood bar—has become difficult or non-existent since the advent of the virus. As a result, gathering-oriented businesses have been forced to lay off employees and downsize—or sometimes even shutter their doors permanently.
But at the same time, consumers across America started to grow accustomed to having everything they needed delivered to their doors. When it became clear that it was illegal to deliver alcohol in many states, governors around the country started issuing executive orders to allow to-go and delivery alcohol temporarily.
These two forces—the demise of on-premise drinking and eating, and the growth of the delivery economy—have opened up long-neglected debates about how and when consumers can access alcoholic beverages. How these debates get decided could determine whether America’s much-ballyhooed craft alcohol boom survives the pandemic.
The current bill under consideration in Hartford would extend the ability of restaurants to sell to-go and delivery alcohol for three years. Currently, to-go drinks from on-premise dining establishments are only authorized on a temporary basis in Connecticut, but over a dozen states are also considering legislation to extend or even make permanent to-go alcohol.
The reform also would extend the sale of beer and wine into grocery stores and so-called big box stores. Currently, Connecticut residents are familiar with purchasing alcohol from package stores, but permitting grocery stores to sell alcohol is common across the vast majority of American states.
Allowing grocery store alcohol sales would also likely ramp up alcohol delivery in the state, as these larger stores already have delivery systems in place for groceries, which would allow them to deliver alcohol with relative ease.
Unsurprisingly, these reforms have met fierce resistance so far from package store owners in the state who fear that they will lose business to larger grocery stores if those stores can also sell alcohol. Package store owners have pointed out that they are only allowed to sell alcohol in their stores, while grocery stores and box stores are permitted to sell a wide variety of items, making the addition of alcohol even more unfair.
The reality is that consumers want more streamlined access to alcohol, including the ability to reduce an extra stop in their daily routine by not having to go to two different stores to get their weekly groceries and a bottle of wine. While package store owners have a point that their stores are severely restricted in what items they can sell, this is readily fixable by allowing them to sell other non-alcohol products, rather than continuing to forbid other stores from selling booze.
It’s also important to keep in mind that the package store owners’ portrayal of the current fight as a David vs. Goliath scenario overlooks the other small businesses at play. In fact, Connecticut wineries are one of the biggest proponents of allowing grocery store sales given that doing so would vastly expand their sales footprint. The chance for increased market access—and increased sales—would help these local small businesses grow and create jobs. Such opportunities have been few and far between for these businesses over the last year.
As noted, this debate is hardly unique to Connecticut, as numerous states are currently contemplating legislation that does everything from allowing grocery store sales to greenlighting more alcohol delivery to expanding to-go cocktails from restaurants. We are witnessing America re-think its long-outdated alcohol laws in real time, and for now, Connecticut is at the forefront of the debate.
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