States explore keeping alcohol on-demand delivery permanent after COVID

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svetikd/iStockBy IVAN PEREIRA, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- For more than half the country, restaurants and bars have been allowed to deliver beer, wine and cocktails to customers stuck at home as part of various states' emergency orders.

As the country looks to bounce back from the pandemic, some state leaders say more permanent alcohol-on-demand laws could be the fuel that the restaurant and service industry needs to restart their economies.

Illinois' state legislature passed a bill last week that would keep its emergency alcohol to-go measure in place for an extra year. New Jersey lawmakers also codified its order for six months after the pandemic ends.

Illinois State Rep. Lindsay LaPointe, who sponsored the bill, told ABC News restaurants and bars will have the toughest time recovering from their COVID-related issues and the new law is the best life preserver they can get.

"In my district (alcohol-on-demand) has allowed certain businesses to be flexible and innovative and survive," she told ABC News.

Thirty-four states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia have instituted alcohol on-demand laws since the pandemic began, according to the National Restaurant Association, which represents over 500,000 restaurants around the country. Pennslyvania is the only state to have enacted the temporary measure through its state legislature and not a governor's emergency order.

In most of the state laws, the eatery or bar can only deliver alcohol if it comes with a food order; drinks must be placed in a sealed container and the delivery person must ensure that the customer is over 21.

Currently, New Jersey is the only state where the new alcohol rule has been extended beyond the emergency order timeline.

New Jersey state assemblyman John Burzichelli, who sponsored New Jersey's law, said he has heard positive feedback from both restaurant owners and customers. While customers can still get alcohol from their local liquor store, they are still interested in their favorite specialty drink that was prepared at their old hangouts, Burzichelli said.

"Some people like the idea of having it mixed and prepared for them, just like they like their favorite piece of steak prepared for them," the assemblyman told ABC News.

Mike Whatley, the vice president of state and local affairs for National Restaurant Association, said it polled consumers in Missouri and found that 77% favored ordering off-premise drinks from their restaurants and bars. He said people feel there is no substitute for in-home drinks compared to ones made by experienced mixers.

"People want cocktails that are unique. People stuck at home are looking for that creativity," he told ABC News.

Whatley added that alcohol sales tend to have a higher markup than food sales for restaurants and the extra dollars are going a long way for restaurants. LaPointe agreed and said that elected leaders, business owners and regulators in her state came together to extend and improve on the emergency rule.

"This concept landed in our laps," she said.

And leaders of all political backgrounds across the country share that sentiment.

Washington D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser said she is looking into changing the city's laws to make alcohol deliveries more permanent and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said he was interested in extending his state's law.

New York State Sen. Brad Hoylman, who represents parts of Manhattan, said he will introduce a bill that would extend his state's alcohol on-demand law for two years after the COVID emergency orders are lifted. He said the hundreds of thousands of restaurant workers are losing jobs in his district and the state needed to examine its "archaic" alcohol regulation laws.

"Our restaurants are facing a small business apocalypse in the wake of COVID-19," he told ABC News. "Necessity is the mother of invention and this is something that may make us rethink our sometimes narrow understanding of what is allowable."

Holyman said that the bill would mandate constant supervision and dialogue with community players and business owners. He also stressed that the law would still ensure that drinks are delivered to the appropriate customers.

The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control released a statement last month that several establishments were violating the alcohol delivery law by failing to confirm the customer was over 21.

"The Department notes that many third-party delivery companies have specific guidelines designed to avoid sales to minors, but those guidelines are largely being ignored by the delivery personnel," it said in its statement.

Holyman said that his bill would allow local community boards to send complaints about restaurants that violate alcohol sales rules through deliveries and the state liquor authority could fine them.

"We would need to see how it works, and whether the administration of it is smooth," he said.

Some bar and restaurant owners have called for the current alcohol on-demand orders tweaked to fit their current situation.

Brenna Beato, the co-owner of Community Tavern in Chicago, said Illinois's current emergency order only allows for the sale of bottles and cocktail kits to their customers.

“Selling in that form means we have to compete with all retail. If our customers see a bottle of their go-to bourbon, they’ll get it there in the store,” she told ABC News.

LaPointe’s bill allows for the delivery of single containers of already mixed drinks to the customers.

“That’s the main thing, we can manipulate a product and sell it as an item at a cheaper price than the kits,” Beato said.

The restaurant owner said she hopes other states take Illinois’ lead and commit to keeping on-demand alcohol service. Aside from the extra cash, she noted that serving drinks to customers who are ordering take out lifts some of the stress from the kitchen staff.

“To make up for sales, our kitchen team is extremely busy to make up for sales,” Beato said. “Being able to sell alcohol takes much less labor.”

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