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Legislation would extend restaurant alcohol-to-go sales for a year

Restaurants are trying to extend the lucrative service

Restaurants are trying to extend the lucrative service that has allowed New Yorkers to pick up straight alcohol, mixed drinks and wine with their meals. Credit: Bruce Gilbert

ALBANY — A temporary executive order that has allowed restaurants to offer "alcohol to go" service during the COVID-19 pandemic may soon become law for a year, depending on the outcome of negotiations this week in the waning days of the state legislative session.

Restaurants are trying to extend the lucrative service that has allowed New Yorkers to pick up straight alcohol, mixed drinks and wine with their meals. That has been allowed under a temporary executive order by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, which ends Saturday.

But legislation to do so faces stiff opposition by liquor stores, another powerful lobbying force.

Negotiations to gain enough support to bring the measure to the Senate and Assembly floors continued Monday, but its prospects are still uncertain. The legislative session is scheduled to end June 10.

What to know

  • Legislation in Albany would extend for one year the executive order allowing restaurants to offer “alcohol to go” during the pandemic.
  • The restaurant industry supports the move as a way for restaurants to recover from the economic shutdown caused by the pandemic.
  • But the liquor industry is opposed, saying it would upset the balance of safely selling alcohol in the state.

"This sensible and popular solution wouldn’t pit restaurant owners against liquor stores and this helps support local restaurants and bars responsibly, while health precautions and concerns about a second potential spike (in the virus) remain in place," said Assemb. Steven Cymbrowitz (D-Brooklyn), a co-sponsor of the bill.

The Senate co-sponsor, Sen. Brian Benjamin (D-Manhattan), said helping restaurants survive is critical to communities. "We all look forward to the time when things return to normal, but meanwhile it’s just good sense to remove unnecessary obstacles and uncertainties."

The bill, which is identical in the Senate and Assembly versions, would be effective for one year, then automatically repealed. Supporters see this as a strength to allow restaurants to recover from the economic shutdown caused by the pandemic. But opponents are wary. They know that bills once passed are more easily extended.

The bill would allow about two servings of wine, liquor or mixed drinks to be sold with takeout orders of food for pickup or delivery — the same as it is now under the executive order. The drinks are usually in small plastic bottles or containers used for soup takeout orders.

The orders can be placed until closing time. That means a customer could order food and alcohol as late as 4 a.m. in some counties. Most liquor stores close at 9 p.m. under local laws.

Under the bill, restaurants no longer would be allowed to sell full bottles of wine or liquor in to-go orders. The liquor store lobby had called the selling of bottles direct competition to their stores.

Restaurants support the extension. "It was a lifesaver a year ago," said Michael McElwee, co-owner of Local Burger Co. restaurants in Bay Shore, Patchogue and South Hampton; and T.J. Finley’s and The Penny Pub, both in Bay Shore.

"We are selling cocktails for $10 or $11," he said in an interview. "I don’t think we are cutting into the liquor stores. They can’t mix drinks and we can’t sell bottles."

"If we lost it, it’s not going to kill us," McElwee said. "But it was something that was put in during the pandemic and it works."

"Continuing to allow restaurants and taverns to sell cocktails and wine for delivery and to-go is incredibly popular on Long Island," said Scott Wexler, executive director of the Empire State Restaurant & Tavern Association. "Restaurants will continue to deal with a slow recovery and need this legislation to provide certainty that this revenue stream will continue to be viable. Of all things that have changed during the pandemic, this one is overwhelmingly positive and should stay."

But liquor stores say the bill would upset the whole balance of safely selling alcohol in the state under the Alcohol Beverage Control Laws in effect since Prohibition was repealed nationally in 1933.

The bill "would require an entire review and rewrite of the ABC laws," according to the New York State Liquor Store Association. The group is in the midst of an online campaign to have liquor stores directly contact their state representatives to try to derail the proposal.

"Liquor stores have been sympathetic to the plight of bars and restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic," the association said. "We did not oppose the governor’s Executive Order allowing bars and restaurants to sell cocktails "to-go" as a temporary solution for them."

The group also notes restaurants will receive federal pandemic aid along with many businesses to offset their pandemic losses.

The restaurant association reported that more than half of restaurant and hospitality businesses, which can be major employers in a community, face an uncertain return from the economic shutdowns and restrictions forced by the pandemic.

Editor's note -- An earlier version of this story had incorrectly stated that the sale of bottles of wine and alcohol by restaurants already had been stopped.

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