The Cellar Peanut Pub in Iowa is known for its Bloody Marys. But, when the state closed indoor restaurants in March 2020 to curb the spread of COVID-19, pub owner Marty Duffy feared his tomato juice cocktails were the only thing in the red. .
The bar got a reprieve days later when emergency rules allowed licensed businesses to temporarily sell cocktails for takeout or delivery.
So Duffy started packaging these drinks using a manual machine that makes aluminum cans.
“I would do it for 14 hours a day just to save my business,” Duffy says. “I wasn’t going to let it fail.”
Across the country, looser liquor laws could be a long-term side effect of the COVID-19 outbreak.
At the height of the pandemic, 39 states allowed take-out cocktails — at least in the short term, according to the National Restaurant Association. Iowa became the first state to make the change permanent with a law passed in the summer of 2020. Now, at least 17 other states have followed suit with their own laws to permanently allow takeout cocktails.
Allowing take-out cocktails is one of the biggest changes to liquor laws since Prohibition ended a century ago
The change could be one of the most significant changes to U.S. liquor laws since states ended prohibition nearly a century ago by reversing a nationwide ban on making or selling liquor. the alcohol., says Mike Whatley, a lobbyist for the National Restaurant Association.
“Honestly, without the pandemic, it would have taken five to ten years or more for so many states to pass laws that so significantly change alcohol policy,” Whatley says.
Even though take-out drinks are popular with customers, the highly regulated liquor industry can be difficult to reform, says Jarrett Dieterle, a researcher at the R Street Institute, a think tank that supports free markets.
Most states regulate alcohol using a three-tier system, Dieterle notes. Often, producers who distill or brew alcohol must go through an intermediate level of distributors who then sell to retailers who then resell to customers.
“It creates this patchwork and a lot of vested interest and it’s made change really, really difficult in the industry,” Dieterle says. “So things like allowing a brewer to sell or deliver direct to the consumer which removes, for example, the liquor store. It removes, potentially, the wholesaling level. And so it scares those entities because that they want to protect the economic interests that they have.”
In some states, wholesalers and liquor stores oppose more permissive laws because they fear losing business as restaurants get more leeway, Dieterle says.
Relaxed alcohol rules ‘make it harder to police underage drinking’
Robert Mellion lobbies on behalf of liquor stores as executive director of the Massachusetts Package Stores Association. Massachusetts is extending policies allowing restaurants and bars to sell alcohol for takeout and delivery through early 2023, but Mellion says the relaxed rules make it harder to monitor underage drinking . He says the extension has gone too far.
“During the first year and a half of the pandemic, it was understood that we had to make restaurants whole.” Mellion said. “Restaurants are whole now. Now it’s about extra profitability. It’s not about making ends meet anymore. And it’s extra profitability at the expense of someone else and someone else is under attack from all directions – mom and pop liquor store across this country.”
In Michigan, a pandemic relief measure allows bars and restaurants to offer mixed drinks on the go until the end of 2025. And state lawmakers recently voted to permanently enact another policy of the COVID era.
Now, local governments can designate outdoor social quarters where people can chat and drink alcohol on public streets, as long as the drinks are purchased from nearby businesses.
Lansing Councilman Peter Spadafore said open container areas allow people to socialize more safely from a distance while the coronavirus rages.
But, as he sips lemon-lime vodka in Michigan’s capital on a cold April evening, Spadafore argues that the benefits of social neighborhoods will survive the pandemic.
“I think the pandemic has really caused us to reevaluate our beliefs and mores around alcohol consumption,” he says. “You can see people hanging out, with a drink in hand, or just window shopping and really a different group of people coming to this destination.”
If you love being able to make a margarita or stroll downtown with a drink in hand, you might have the pandemic to thank.