To go alcohol sales made permanent for restaurants, bars
DOVER — Finalizing a popular pandemic offering that helped many bars and restaurants weather the financial storm, Gov. John Carney signed a bill earlier this week that permanently allows establishments to sell to-go alcoholic drinks.
House Bill 290, sponsored by House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, removed the sunset provision of a law passed by the General Assembly last year that continued to-go alcohol sales. Carney had allowed restaurants and bars to sell to-go drinks in spring 2020 through an emergency order as many venues were quickly pushed to carry-out sales.
The law was expected to expire at the end of March. To-go sales are now made permanent, immediately.
“While the pandemic has been extremely challenging for families and businesses across the state and country, it has also forced us to get creative at times. Restaurants and bars were among the hardest-hit industries these past two years, and we had to use some ingenuity to provide assistance,” Schwartzkopf said in a prepared statement.
“The outdoor dining and to-go cocktail options have been extremely popular and have allowed restaurants and bars to serve patrons safely,” he added. “These innovations are about to expire, but even as this health crisis continues, it’s clear that there is a market and a desire for these practices to continue for good.”
HB 290 was passed unanimously in the Senate and by 38 votes in the House. One representative did not vote for the bill and two representatives were absent for the roll call.
The bill that Carney signed allows people to buy alcohol for takeout, curbside or drive-thru from restaurants, brewpubs, taverns, taprooms or other businesses with a liquor license.
However, a key amendment requires the drink to be in a sealed container, with a cap or a seal in order to prevent people from drinking and driving. Straws or sipping holes are not allowed.
Another amendment limits sales to a 750 ml bottle of wine, six servings of beer or a mixed cocktail made in a restaurant or a bar. Restaurants must also sell a minimum of $10 of food as part of the transaction.
The Delaware Alcoholic Beverage Control Commissioner also has the authority to temporarily suspend any license if they have any reasonable grounds to believe the public’s safety is at risk and if the license holder has violated state law.
“We have learned key lessons from the pandemic, and one of them is that cocktails to-go were incredibly important to keeping our restaurants open,” President and CEO Carrie Leishman said. “This has been one of the one bright spots of the pandemic, and it has been incredible to see the legislature come together to support this.”
Since the start of the pandemic, the DRA has been advocating to keep restaurants open in any way possible, and to-go cocktails have played a small role in that effort. A survey of 90% of customers supported making to-go cocktails permanent, Leishman said.
“It was a tremendous lifeline that many restaurants had, especially in an industry where no one made a profit in 2020 and we’re still struggling,” she said.
Delaware restaurants lost more than $1 billion in sales in 2020, according to the Delaware Restaurant Association. Between February and April 2020, Delaware lost 66% of its food or drink establishment jobs, one of the highest rates in the nation.
The Distilled Spirits Council, a national trade association representing distillers, applauded Carney for signing the measure, echoing that it served as a potentially stable revenue source for many distillers that were struggling without in-person patrons.
“Cocktails to-go provided a much-needed lifeline for struggling hospitality businesses and prevented the permanent closure of many,” Distilled Spirits Council Senior Vice President of State Government Relations Jay Hibbard said. “Now that this measure is permanent, Delaware businesses will have increased stability as they continue their long path to economic recovery. We applaud the legislature and the governor for supporting local businesses and providing increased convenience to consumers.”
During the pandemic, more than 35 states loosened regulations to allow restaurants and bars to sell drinks to go. Delaware now is the 17th state to pass legislation to make the measure permanent. However, Delaware does not allow direct shipping of alcohol to consumers.
The spirits industry supports 9,200 people and generates $724 million in economic activity in the First State, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. In 2019, Delaware’s craft beer industry generated $430 million in economic impact, according to the Brewers Association.