To-go no more? States weigh fate of pandemic-era cocktails and outdoor dining

Robert C. Williams

With parts of the country lifting coronavirus restrictions and reopening in time for summer, states and cities have been debating one pandemic-era change in this new normal: expanded outdoor dining and to-go cocktails.

Many state governments put in place special provisions during the height of the pandemic to help a decimated restaurant industry, including expanded outdoor seating and the sale of to-go alcoholic drinks. The changes have been largely welcomed not only by the restaurant industry but also by patrons, some of whom have been under mandatory lockdowns and others fearful of returning to indoor dining.

But as more people get vaccinated and states reopen with fewer restrictions, the question now becomes whether these changes in restaurant and bar culture will be long-lasting.

In some places, the answer has already come: No.

Pennsylvania, earlier this month, brought an unexpected end to the expanded outdoor dining and to-go cocktails that had been allowed since last summer. New York also said goodbye to its takeout alcohol last week when a pandemic-induced state of emergency expired.

But some places are working to extend the relaxed rules. Lawmakers in 15 states have approved of the permanent sale of to-go cocktails.

California will allow restaurants to keep expanded outdoor dining and sell to-go drinks through the end of the year.

“As the state turns to post-pandemic life, we’ll continue to adapt best practices that have helped businesses transform customer experience for the better,” Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom said this month in a statement on the decision.

The announcement came as the state prepared to lift the majority of its business restrictions and allow full-capacity indoor restaurant service on June 15. Meanwhile, proposed legislation could also more permanently extend to-go drinks.

California Restaurant Association CEO and President Jot Condie said in a statement that the actions “will be incredibly valuable for so many neighborhood restaurants throughout the state.”

In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law allowing the sale of to-go cocktails until next May, while extending expanded outdoor seating until next April.

Steve Clark, the vice president of government affairs for the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said the measures had been quite popular in the state and were welcome news for the industry.

Clark said there was “collective relief” that public health data was trending in the right direction and businesses could still have the opportunity for expanded outdoor dining. Restaurants and bars had also shared how valuable to-go drinks had been during the pandemic, he said.

“I think it’s all good news with extending these,” he said.

Still, not all states intend to keep the relaxed rules around.

As New York’s state of emergency came to an end Thursday, so too did the popular executive order that allowed restaurants and bars to sell alcoholic drinks to-go. The New York State Liquor Authority said in a post Wednesday afternoon that with the end of the state of emergency, “the temporary pandemic-related privileges for to-go and delivery of alcoholic beverages will end.”

The state was weighing legislation to temporarily extend to-go drinks but failed to act on it before the of its session.

“We know the sudden elimination of alcohol to-go will hurt many restaurants and bars that have come to rely on this new revenue stream, and it will be a disappointment for customers who have come to love the popular policy,” the New York City Hospitality Alliance said in a statement in response to the liquor authority’s post. The group said it will continue to “advocate for the return of this popular and important policy next legislative session.”

Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, pandemic-era rules that allowed the sale of to-go cocktails and expanded outdoor dining expired this month along with the state’s emergency declaration. A bill to make the to-go cocktails permanent has been caught between the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf over opposition to recently added provisions.

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board sent a letter to licensees stating that “pre-pandemic food, seating, square footage and health permit requirements for licensees now apply.”

Operators who want to continue their business in expanded outdoor areas “will need to immediately file an application to extend their licensed premises to include those areas” with a decision made on a case-by-case basis, according to the letter.

The press secretary of the board added that it had spent a weekend working through applications to permanently extend licensed premises “because we understand these additional areas provide business opportunities for licensees that have struggled through the pandemic.”

John Longstreet, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, said the changes come at a time when restaurants still “need everything they can to turn the corner.”

“It’s like salt in the wound at a time where they’re just starting to pick up the pieces and get back to business,” he said.

Qamara Edwards, director of events at Sojourn Philly, a restaurant group with several establishments in Philadelphia, said to-go cocktails had been a “vital part of our sustainability during an obviously unpredictable and crazy time.”

To see that disappear and that businesses have to apply to keep their expanded outdoor spaces, which were also critical to keeping operators open, without another solution from lawmakers was “hurtful.”

“To feel like they really don’t have a grasp on what our livelihood is, it’s disappointing,” she said.

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