Shaken, not stirred — and in a double bag: N.Y. should allow to-go alcohol again
More than any state during COVID-19, New York’s government has had a hard time deciding how it feels about to-go cocktails. It proudly greenlighted to-go drinks at the onset of the pandemic — helping to save its restaurant industry in the process — only to yank to-go privileges without warning in the summer of 2021. Now, in 2022, the state Legislature has a chance to settle the debate once and for all.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, New York became the first state to announce that its restaurants and bars could temporarily sell to-go alcohol alongside takeout food orders. The action was lauded across the hospitality industry, and over 30 states followed suit via emergency orders.
New York restauranteurs hailed the move as a “lifeline” for their struggling businesses. It also had positive employment effects, as bars in states with to-go sales reported being able to hire back more furloughed employees during the pandemic.
Despite these benefits, New York has so far failed to enshrine to-go drinks into state law. After a failed effort to legislatively extend to-go drinks last year, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared that the “emergency is over” and abruptly ended the temporary privileges in June 2021. Bars and restaurants were given a one-day notice of the change and many were left with thousands of leftover to-go bottles and labels at a time when they were already barely surviving.
This month, state lawmakers are again considering the future of to-go drinks. Gov. Hochul came out in support of making to-go drinks permanent and included plans to do so in her budget proposal, but the Senate’s and Assembly’s budget proposals do not include to-go drinks. While some lawmakers claim that to-go alcohol is a “policy item” with no budgetary impact, the reality is that more beverage sales from restaurants generate sales tax revenue, regardless of whether they are consumed in the restaurant or at home.
What really seems to be going on is a rise in opposition from entrenched lobbying interests in Albany. Namely, some liquor stores are pushing back against the proposal, arguing that allowing restaurants to sell to-go and delivery alcohol will sap sales away from their stores. These arguments seem to be gaining at least some traction with certain assemblymembers and senators.
But liquor stores are not really competing for the young professional couple that wants two margaritas with their weeknight to-go order from the Mexican restaurant down the street. Those same consumers will still shop at a liquor store when they want a bottle of bourbon to enjoy on the weekend, which shows that the drinks sector is not a zero-sum game but rather a dynamic marketplace that supports all types of businesses.
Evidence of this is seen by the fact that New York liquor store sales soared during the early part of the pandemic, right at the same time that to-go cocktails were temporarily authorized in the state. In fact, some of the very same liquor stores that reported those increased pandemic sales are now claiming to-go drinks could hurt them.
Liquor store interests have also tried to gin up concerns about underage alcohol sales. In truth, any point-of-sale for alcohol requires protocols being in place for proper ID verification. There is nothing inherently safer about sales or delivery from liquor stores than restaurants, and this is borne out by the fact that State Liquor Authority sting operations in recent years have been as likely, if not more, to find underage sales violations at New York liquor stores as at restaurants.
Importantly, New Yorkers themselves are wildly enthusiastic about to-go and delivery alcohol. Polling has shown that anywhere from 78% to 86% support permanent to-go alcohol from restaurants, making it among the most popular political causes in America today.
So far, a majority of states around the country have passed laws extending or making permanent to-go and delivery drinks from restaurants, proving that it can be done safely and effectively. New York, once a leader in the to-go drink movement, is now lagging behind. In the next few weeks, we’ll see if state lawmakers are wise enough to catch up.