The worst of the pandemic has been declared over now, and emergency regulations have been lifted. But the sorting out of which of those pandemic-era innovations are worth keeping is still going on.
Hybrid work and remote access to public meetings? Absolutely. Seasonal outdoor dining? You betcha.
Cocktails to-go with that takeout meal? Well, why not?
The pandemic-era exception allowing license-holding restaurants to offer takeout adult beverages — cocktails, beer, and wine — with takeout food orders provided something of a lifeline during those toughest of times. The high-profit-margin beverages added to restaurants’ bottom lines, helped clear out wine cellars, and provided consumers with the convenience of a one-stop takeout experience.
At the height of the pandemic to-go drinks became law at least temporarily in 39 states plus the District of Columbia. Today at least 18 jurisdictions have made those to-go laws permanent. And somehow civilization as we know it has not come to a screeching halt — at least not for the good people in such wild and crazy places as Iowa, Ohio, and Kansas.
But here in Massachusetts, a one-year extension of the law that would at least give the state time to study the economic impacts of to-go drinks and whether the law deserves to be made permanent is causing the usual kerfuffle on Beacon Hill.
The latest extension to the original COVID-era law that permitted cocktails to-go is set to expire April 1. The Massachusetts House used the vehicle of a crucial supplementary budget bill to provide a one-year extension to the law, along with extensions to other pandemic-era policies such as outdoor dining and remote meeting access. The Senate went along with most of those policy extensions but when it came time to decide whether someone can pick up a margarita with their takeout, well, it gave that one a good leaving alone.
And that sets up the latest turf war over a budget bill that contains some critical funding ($353 million in spending in the House version, $366 million in the Senate version) for items such as continuing SNAP food benefits, extending free school lunches, emergency shelter assistance, and housing for immigrants and refugees.
So, yes, to-go drinks are a small thing, but if allowed to expire, the likelihood of the idea ever being resurrected becomes remote. And that’s what the Massachusetts Package Stores Association, which has lobbied fiercely against the law, wants most. Even back in 2020 when restaurants were struggling to survive, MassPack’s executive director Rob Mellion insisted the lockdown-era exemption would be, “opening Pandora’s box to making the privilege permanent.”
Now why package store owners with shelves full of canned cocktails and six-packs of beer feel threatened by restaurants offering $15 Negronis to-go is economically bewildering. But fear is a powerful thing and the package store owners are often worried about the next war — like expanded alcohol sales in supermarkets and convenience stores.
Mostly Mellion has been focusing on delivery services, insisting in a recent op-ed in CommonWealth magazine that “Drinks to Go” is resulting in “Drinks for Kids.” However, the violations investigated by the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission cited in his column actually referenced deliveries by DoorDash and Uber Eats made to college students from a Boston package store.
“Takeout and delivery aren’t going away,” Massachusetts Restaurant Association President Steve Clark told the Globe editorial board. “People have gotten used to it and to the convenience factor” of being able to get a cocktail with that takeout order.
And, he added, “The ABCC [Alcohol Beverage and Control Commission] has reported zero complaints or violations” attributable to the to-go law. “You certainly can’t say the same about package stores.”
So, yes, the battle lines are clearly drawn.
Clark offers one more potent statistic: “Less than 6 percent of restaurants report being more profitable today than in 2019.” He might have added — among those that actually survived the pandemic.
His point was that even the smallest increase to the bottom line matters in a business where “even if you’re doing everything right the profit margin is usually 6 [percent] to 10 percent.”
For consumers, it would simply be a shame to roll back the clock on a pandemic perk that has now become a nice part of the Massachusetts dining landscape — simply because time and the political will to push for change has run out.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.