Let them drink cocktails: New York yanks away to-go alcohol, a popular pandemic innovation
As government officials try to encourage more New Yorkers to get vaccinated — using every trick in the book, including free subway rides and tickets to museums and zoos — Gov. Cuomo is simultaneously kicking restaurants and bars right in their wallets just as they’re opening again.
On Wednesday, the governor announced in a press conference that the “emergency is over,” which spells an abrupt end for to-go cocktails in the state. Bars have been left reeling in the wake of the unexpected announcement.
“This is a huge hit for us,” said Sother Teague, beverage director for the acclaimed cocktail bar Amor y Amargo. “I certainly had no expectation it would end on one-day notice.”Restauranteurs across the nation continue to voice concerns about how long it will take for the industry to bounce back, and New York establishments have reported difficulties finding enough workers and dealing with supply shortages for ingredients. In this environment, to-go cocktails have been a much-needed lifeline, and more than 20 states so far have extended or made permanent to-go drinks laws.
While it is tempting to declare that COVID-19 is “over” as more of the populace gets vaccinated, it is worth noting that barely 50% of New Yorkers are fully vaccinated. And that’s with a laundry list of incentives to get shots. To be sure, the number of positive COVID-19 tests in the state has declined in recent months, but for many restaurants, the impact of the pandemic remains as real as ever.
Compounding the pain is the cruel reality that New York bars and restaurants had no warning at all that to-go cocktails were going to be taken away. Providing only one-day notice means that the overhead and inventory many establishments built up throughout the pandemic to create a to-go cocktail service will suddenly become wasted costs overnight.
Teague notes that his bar is currently sitting on “thousands of bottles” he has purchased for to-go cocktails, as well as customized labels that have now been rendered irrelevant. Not all bars are created the same, either. Amor y Amargo only has 240 square feet of interior space and is not yet open for full capacity, which has made their to-go cocktail program even more vital right now.
It’s difficult enough to stay afloat in an industry where 80% of businesses fail within five years, but it can become overwhelming when trying to tackle a pandemic, declining tourism and spontaneously changing government regulations all at the same time.
“We’re going to see, I think, a pretty substantial spike in [bar] closures because of this one move,” Teague predicts.
New York government officials acted admirably to help restaurants and bars early on in the pandemic — ironically, New York was one of the first states to allow to-go cocktails when COVID-19 hit — which makes it all the more confusing why they are now creating needless uncertainty with such an abrupt about-face.
Some skeptics voiced concerns that drunk driving rates might accelerate with to-go cocktails, but the Governors’ Highway Safety Association has not noted any upticks, and if anything, allowing patrons to consume cocktails at home could reduce the incentive for them to continue imbibing on-premise before getting behind the wheel.
Others worried that allowing to-go cocktails around the nation would turn every city into a rollicking, New Orleans-style party town. New Orleans, however, has a unique tourism industry as well as an open container allowance, which permits customers to roam the city at large with a beverage in hand. Simply allowing to-go or delivery cocktails does not mean that drinking in the streets will suddenly become widespread and legal across America.
Lost in this debate is the fact that to-go cocktails are also extremely popular. More than 80% of New Yorkers want to-go cocktails to be made permanent. While doing so would require an act of the Legislature — a bill was introduced in Albany last session but never made it into law — officials could at least extend the policy for the foreseeable future. The overwhelming popularity of to-go cocktails speaks to the fact that New Yorkers view them as both desirable and safe.
In short, we had a pandemic innovation that worked. Why can’t we keep it?