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Liquor Laws Loosen Up in the Face of Delivery-Only Dining

Some states are letting restaurants turn to takeout booze to make up for lost profits

takeout alcohol at a bar
Takeout cocktails at Dante in New York
Gary He

After mandatory closures imposed by 25 states to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, bars and restaurants might never be the same — and the liquor laws that govern them, loosened on an ad hoc, temporary basis during this crisis, could be forever changed, too. In New York, where operators have been forced to close entirely or pivot to delivery and takeout business, the State Liquor Authority announced this week it would allow bars and restaurants to sell liquor with to-go and delivery orders for the first time (though only with food). That move could help businesses stem their losses: Alcohol, after all, is responsible for 20 to 30 percent of restaurant sales across the country; without it, a restaurant that shifts from dine-in to delivery-only is unlikely to make ends meet.

New Hampshire, Maryland, Illinois, California, and Texas have made similar temporary changes to allow alcohol delivery, as have jurisdictions like Washington D.C. and Atlanta. “They’ve relaxed a lot of laws, and quickly, in light of the potential economic harm to thousands of businesses and millions of employees,” says Art Decelle, senior counsel at Lehrman Beverage Law, whose focus is federal and state regulations in the beer, wine, distilled spirits, and industrial alcohol industries. “And it’s appropriate that they help people stay afloat in a very uncertain period.” Before the new temporary changes took effect, 12 states allowed alcohol delivery, and 31 allowed beer and wine to be shipped directly to customers at home.

Temporary waivers — Atlanta’s is for just 60 days, for example — offer some limited relief in a dire moment for restaurant owners. “Like on what planet did NYC actually agree to let us sell wines like this?” Ariel Arce, who owns Niche Niche, Tokyo Record Bar, and Air’s Champagne Parlor in Greenwich Village, told Eater NY. “Let’s rock and roll.” Now, Arce has begun serving $20 omakase bento boxes, plus bottles of sparkling wine and Champagne for delivery.

Liquor laws vary widely from state to state, and often serve as a living reminder of the prohibition era — which is to say that they’re complicated and even occasionally quaint or silly. Five years ago, it was illegal to serve happy hour drink specials in Illinois. Suddenly, with its dining rooms dark at the behest of the governor, the state is actively “encouraging” restaurants and bars to serve alcohol via delivery, and happy hour pricing on delivery drinks orders is already an option at places like Roots Pizza in Chicago. “I need as much cash in my bank and not on the shelves,” Roots’ owner Scott Weiner told Eater Chicago. “And that’s what [alcohol] delivery allows me to do.”

When making alcohol deliveries, couriers are still required to follow existing laws, such as I.D. age verification. “People have to be cautious when they’re exercising these privileges to make sure they’re still fulfilling their obligations,” warns Decelle of Lehrman Beverage Law. “If there’s a bunch of serving to intoxicated people, or examples of high school kids who are home from school in quarantine ordering a couple of cases of beer, and that becomes a story in the New York Post, that’ll be it.”

Some startups, such as Drizly, already perform alcohol delivery in certain markets, but they’re still limited in their reach. Disruption and sudden change in the alcohol business is difficult, says Decelle, because of entrenched, moneyed interests — not to mention civil and criminal penalties for violations.

Even with new laxity, lots of red tap remains: In Texas, for instance, bars selling drinks for delivery and takeout can’t mix and seal their own cocktails; The alcohol needs to remain in its manufacturer-sealed containers. And in New York, any car delivering alcohol — whether a third-party service or the business’s own employee — must have a copy of the liquor license.

But if all goes well with temporarily relaxed liquor laws, waivers could very well be extended, and conceivably made permanent. “The best case is people figure out how to do this well, and realize they could have done it lawfully this whole time... A lot of [restaurants] who might just never have thought of it might find that the condo across the street will buy $20 or $30 bottles of wine with carryout.”