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‘Drinks to go’ debate is back at the State House, and as contentious as ever

As restaurants push to sell booze to go for another year, the liquor store lobby is pushing back

Bartenders at the Tasty restaurant on Court Street in Plymouth prepare cocktails to go in 2021. The state eased alcohol rules during COVID to allow restaurants to sell to-go drinks with takeout orders. A measure extending the policy is up for debate on Beacon Hill.DebeeTlumacki

Lobbyists for restaurants and package stores are facing off against each other at the State House over the future of “cocktails-to-go.”

So are, apparently, the leaderships of the House and Senate.

Last week, the House of Representatives passed a supplemental budget bill that would, among other things, continue a number of measures taken to help the state weather the pandemic. Among them: cocktails-to-go — a rule originally intended to be temporary that allows Massachusetts restaurants to sell limited amounts of booze with takeout meals. That measure is scheduled to expire on April 1, unless the Legislature acts quickly. The House bill would extend cocktails-to-go for another year.

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Then on Monday, the Senate’s ways and means committee released its version of the supplemental budget, with cocktails-to-go nowhere to be found, although the Senate did include another restaurant industry priority: extending streamlined outdoor dining for another year. The Massachusetts Restaurant Association is pushing for an amendment that would add cocktails-to-go, also known as drinks-to-go, to the budget during the floor debate on the bill on Thursday. If it is left out of the Senate bill after that, there won’t be much time for the House and Senate to work out their differences on the issue, with the expiration date just weeks away.

The state Legislature initially allowed cocktails-to-go in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to help shuttered restaurants get more takeout revenue and empty their unused inventories of alcohol. Orders were capped at 64 ounces of spirits, 192 ounces of beer, or two bottles of wine (1.5 liters). Once then-governor Charlie Baker rescinded his state-of-emergency declaration in 2021, the policy was still considered valuable because many restaurants were struggling to recover from the pandemic at the time. Lawmakers extended it in 2021, and again in 2022, along with outdoor dining and several other pandemic-era provisions.

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Restaurant association president Steve Clark said cocktails-to-go has proven to be a service that customers appreciate. And it can be helpful to augment revenue at a number of restaurants. If the Legislature eventually makes it permanent, Clark said, that might encourage more restaurants to invest in to-go options.

“Admittedly, it’s a small amount of money,” Clark said. “[But] this is such a low-margin industry. Any type of revenue is still good.”

Liquor store owners see it differently. The Massachusetts Package Stores Association has fought fiercely against the drinks-to-go extensions, to no avail so far. But the third time might be the charm for MassPack, if the Senate ways and means language wins out. Executive director Rob Mellion has been trying to make the case that “drinks to go” translates to “drinks for kids,” saying meal delivery services are ripe for abuse by underage drinkers.

Mellion concedes that the high markups for restaurant cocktails probably won’t keep too many customers from the lower prices offered at liquor stores. But he also worries that cocktails-to-go is part of a broader push to deregulate alcohol sales on the part of multistate retailers and liquor industry lobbyists. Alcohol delivery needs more regulation in Massachusetts, he said, but a simple extension won’t accomplish that. Mellion sent an e-mail on Wednesday morning to senators saying the current hard-to-police nature of alcohol delivery is a good reason to put an end to cocktails-to-go.

“This was done very hastily three years ago because the intent was we were going to do this and extinguish it fairly quickly,” Mellion said in an interview. “The real concern always has been that this was going to be a tool for direct-to-consumer shipping of alcohol, which is exactly what Big Alcohol is intending to do.”

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Mellion has an important ally in this fight, the Massachusetts Addiction Prevention Alliance. The nonprofit blanketed the Senate with e-mails last week opposing the cocktails-to-go extension, echoing several of Mellion’s concerns. “It’s softening alcohol regulation that we’ve had in place to prevent underage drinking for years, for decades,” said Heidi Heilman, the group’s president.

And like Mellion, Heilman argues that this drinks-to-go push in Massachusetts is part of a broader national strategy by alcohol suppliers and multistate sellers to break down the industry’s strict regulations. “If you want to protect small businesses, you have to pay attention to this type of regulation and how it impacts the whole market,” she said.

But Representative Tackey Chan, the House’s point person on alcohol regulation, said he simply doesn’t have enough data yet to decide whether the practice should be stopped for good. That’s why Chan said he supports allowing cocktails-to-go for another year, to gather more information.

“It was a great tool in the middle of the lockdown to address a whole litany of issues,” Chan said. “There has been a recovery of the business sector slowly in many places, but not all places. Another extension of the current process will give us more time to do more evaluation about what the next steps should be as we continue to move through the new economy we’re all living in.”

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Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him @jonchesto.