A trade group for the state’s liquor stores made a last-minute push on Monday to lobby against including an extension of the pandemic-era “cocktails to go” law in the state budget.
The law, which allows restaurants to sell alcohol with takeout orders, is set to expire June 15 at the end of Governor Charlie Baker’s state of emergency. Restaurant owners and their advocates are asking legislative leaders to extend the law, to give the industry more time to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. The latest effort involves three budget amendments to be considered by the Senate as part of its annual budget debate, which starts on Tuesday.
Robert Mellion, executive director of the Massachusetts Package Stores Association, fired off a lengthy e-mail on Monday morning to all state senators, urging them to reject the amendments. Mellion wrote that the Legislature shouldn’t make such an important policy decision through the budget process without allowing all sides to testify and debate the issue.
He pointed to the public-safety reasons, including preventing overconsumption, behind the longtime system of limiting restaurants and bars to on-premise sales and restricting package stores to sales for off-premise consumption. The three amendments, he wrote, could allow thousands of restaurants to sell all types of alcohol off premise. He also pointed to inadequate policing of third-party delivery services, potentially allowing more minors access to alcohol.
The law in question was passed by the Legislature last July, to help restaurants through a tough time by providing another revenue source. Last year, at least 35 other states allowed restaurants or bars to sell cocktails to go through temporary COVID-19 relief measures, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. The trade group reports that 13 states have made the switch permanent, and another six have extended the relief through at least sometime in 2022.
In an interview, Mellion expressed concern that momentum has grown in recent weeks for supporting such an extension in Massachusetts. He said he worries about major restaurant chains using the law, which allows up to 64 ounces of spirits per takeout order, to compete with his members, and that the privilege for restaurants could eventually be made permanent.
“In Massachusetts, everything is opening up now,” Mellion said, referring to the lifting of remaining pandemic-related business restrictions scheduled for May 29. “You could make an argument for the relief six months ago but not today. ... It’s really expanding their retailer capability at the expense of somebody else.”
Senator Diana DiZoglio filed a budget amendment to extend cocktails-to-go for two years, while senators Nick Collins and Julian Cyr proposed one-year extensions. DiZoglio also tried unsuccessfully to add her measure to an unrelated unemployment insurance bill last week.
Legislative leaders are expected to produce a broader bill that addresses a number of pandemic relief measures slated to expire alongside the state of emergency or 60 days after the state of emergency ends. However, DiZoglio said she has not yet received a commitment from her leadership team that cocktails-to-go will be among those issues addressed in any omnibus bill.
“Our restaurants are on the path to recovery,” she said. “They are not fully recovered. We need to recognize that. ... Adding a couple of specialty cocktails to the bottom line of a restaurant’s sales is not causing devastation in the package store industry.”
For Nancy Caswell, owner of Oak + Rowan in Fort Point and the Brine Oyster Bar in Newburyport, every little bit helps. She is still not sure how much bar business will return now that the pandemic limits are being lifted.
“There are still a lot of unknowns,” she said. “We all have a local dive bar we feel comfortable going to, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be right away.”