COVID-19 has liquor laws loosening to accommodate a mass switch to take-out. New Yorkers are now walking the streets, drink in hand, as take-out cocktails become legal. Wine bars have converted to bottle shops. Canadians are receiving cocktails in coffee cups.
A year ago, take-out cocktails were confined to brown-bagged or subtle spirits in public locales—illegal and frowned-upon. Across the country, it is against the law to drink alcohol in a public space or to take a drink to-go from an on-premise establishment, save, perhaps, for recorking a bottle of wine, or in cities like New Orleans and Savannah that allow patrons to stroll with beer and cocktails.
Now that governments have allowed public consumption and relaxed purchasing restrictions to support the industry, how are they going to take it back?
In the time of Covid-19, local legislations across the continent are embracing relaxed liquor laws in some way or form. In Philadelphia, legislation temporarily relaxed the state’s liquor law. Now, any bar or restaurant may sell mixed drinks for pick-up (though no cocktails made with wine) if they meet the requirements: they must hold an R or H-class liquor license, sell take-out food, and have lost over 25 percent of average monthly sales from Covid-19.
New Yorkers, Californians and Torontonians, can take cocktails to go, as long as it’s purchased with food. Chicago residents can buy packaged drinks (think beers and wines) but not pre-mixed cocktails. Washington and Texas residents can buy cocktail kits with pre-made juices and syrups.
These new drinking laws make sense: If the dining world is shifting to your home, your drinks should as well.
Restaurants generally make 30% of revenue from alcohol sales. They need all the cash they can get now, and take-out, pick-up, and delivery cocktails give restaurants and bars the option to offset the enormous losses.
But can, and will, these laws stay in place?
North America has been under strict liquor laws for decades. The minimum age to drink is 21 (19 in Canada), set into place after a string of underage drunk driving incidents in 1984. Most liquor laws date back over a century to Prohibition, a relic of the temperance era.
Some of the laws are downright inane. In New Jersey, only two chain stores may have liquor licenses—they are so in demand one license reportedly sold for $1.6 million. Restaurants in South Carolina still can’t sell alcohol on Sundays. In Pennsylvania and Ontario, liquor must be purchased through the government.
Not to say, open container laws will stop people. Haven’t you ever sipped a subtle beer in a park or at a street festival? Where I live in Toronto, drinking to-go cocktails in public isn’t yet legal, but police turn a blind eye to what’s in your can—they have bigger fish to fry enforcing social distancing.
The red tape of North American liquor laws is evident, even with the loosening of regulations. Alcohol delivery is complicated—many states require ID on delivery, and delivering between states is headache-inducing. In New York, cars delivering alcohol must have a version of the liquor license. Liquor laws vary wildly from county to county.
With this loosening, North America is starting to realize how sensible relaxed laws are. Allowing patrons to carry out beer isn’t instigating waves of public drunkenness, it’s just letting people enjoy a cold one while they read in parks or catch up with friends from a distance outside the confines of their own home. Restaurants are letting local patrons take home a bottle of wine with their take-out—a low-effort way to support your local businesses. But it’s temporary, lawmakers stress.
Will it be easy to reform liquor laws? The simple answer is no. Restrictions vary from state to state—the Covid-19 loosening was a direct result of lobbying by the restaurant industry who needed additional income.
While most people can be trusted with more laissez-faire liquor laws, it may only take one case of over-serving intoxicated park-goers or a group of high schoolers ordering booze on UberEats to spark a pull-back of these loosened laws.
There’s the hurdle of the liability of restaurants. Having delivery means putting the onus on third-party delivery apps to deliver drinks correctly.
But restaurants will need help in the long term. Restaurants are starting to open, but at limited capacity. It’s an industry that already has incredibly slim margins, and reduced capabilities won’t keep businesses thriving. Restaurants are still struggling to recover from three months of closures, and many patrons are still too afraid to dine out.