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Are To-Go Cocktails Legally Here to Stay?

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 19: A sign in a restaurant window advertises beer and margaritas for takeout during the coronavirus pandemic on May 19, 2020 in New York City. COVID-19 has spread to most countries around the world, claiming over 324,000 lives with over 4.9 million infections reported. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images)
By Richard Dahl on June 11, 2021 | Last updated on September 21, 2021

When we look back at the COVID-19 pandemic in a few years, a few images will no doubt come to mind: Face masks. CDC vaccination cards. Zoom meetings.

But let's not forget this one: Cocktails-to-go.

Before the pandemic struck the U.S. and began to spread in March 2020, a grand total of two states – Florida and Iowa – allowed take-out cocktails, and only on a limited basis. Within six months, though, at least 33 states OK'd them for the duration of the pandemic. Meanwhile, according to the National Restaurant Association, that number has since risen to 39.

Now, with normalcy looming on the not-too-distant horizon, does that mean the end for cocktails-to-go? Not by a long shot. According to the New York Times, nearly 20 states have approved measures to make it permanent, with another 15 considering it.

An Idea With Strong Support

Initially a state-approved lifeline to aid bars and restaurants dealing with lost revenue from shutdowns, cocktails-to-go have clearly hit the spot with consumers.

Then again, booze per se has been hitting the spot with lockdown-antsy consumers – maybe too much so – and maybe take-out cocktails are but one facet of the nation's growing thirst for alcohol.

In any event, the state actions loosening the cocktail-sales restrictions probably represent the biggest collective change in alcohol laws since the 1933 repeal of Prohibition.

How the Laws Differ

The to-go cocktail laws vary from state to state. Some require that mixed-drink purchases be made with food, and some place a limit on the percentage of the bill that is for booze. Some require that the drinks be contained in tamper-proof containers, and some prohibit transport of the drinks in the passenger area of vehicles. Some allow bars and restaurants to deliver the cocktails or provide curbside pickup service. And some include sunset provisions to end the law after various lengths of time.

Apart from a few touristy cities that allow people to walk around some areas with alcoholic drinks – New Orleans, Law Vegas, Memphis, and several others – ambling about in public with a drink in your hand is against the law pretty much everywhere else. The new drinks-to-go laws do not change that.

Even though these laws have passed with strong bipartisan support in most places, they do have their opponents. Some public health groups say it could lead to more underage drinking. In Connecticut, that's what the state's Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DHMAS) says has already been happening with alcohol delivery services. And in a recent report about the effects of the pandemic, the American Psychological Association found that alcohol consumption increased significantly during lockdowns, raising questions about whether cocktails-to-go might make that problem worse.

Squabbles Within the Industry

The loudest voices of objection, though, seem to be those within the liquor-related businesses themselves, who complain that a state law favors one side and not another. In New York, where lawmakers have been considering a bill to make cocktails-to-go legal, a rivalry has emerged between the New York State Liquor Store Association and the restaurant industry. The liquor retailers want to make sure the law doesn't allow restaurants to sell bottles of liquor and bite into the retailers' business.

In Arizona, a rivalry developed between bars and restaurants. Bars pay much more for their liquor licenses and objected to the ease with which restaurants were allowed to poach some of their business. The bars won a court order in November saying that Governor Doug Ducey had gone too far in allowing the measure. But cocktails-to-go had traction and so the Legislature worked for several months to develop a bill, signed by Ducey on May 21, that apparently pleases all sides.

Questions? Call a Local Purveyor

Meanwhile, if your state is one that has OK'd continuation of cocktails-to-go, you may have questions. Do I need to buy food? Is there a limit on how many I can get? How do I transport them?

In order to get the information, the best bet is simply to contact a bar or restaurant near you and ask. They should have the answers.


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